Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr., the pianist, singer and lifelong New Orleanian who was among the most successful but also the most modest of rock ’n' roll's founding fathers, died Tuesday at his home in Harvey. He was 89.
Domino’s rollicking piano, paired with a perpetually sunny voice colored by his native Creole patois, enlivened a remarkable string of million-selling singles in the 1950s, powering the transition of rhythm and blues into rock ’n' roll.
His enduring hits include “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Walking to New Orleans,” “Blueberry Hill," "I'm Walkin' " and "Blue Monday." He ranked among the top-selling artists of the 1950s and became an international star, touring the world tirelessly but always returning home to the Lower 9th Ward.
In 1986 Domino joined Elvis Presley, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers and Little Richard as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's inaugural inductees.
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Antoine “Fats” Domino, a lifelong New Orleanian and music legend, died Tuesday. He was 89.
The likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John, John Lennon, Bob Marley, John Fogerty and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson have cited him as a major influence and inspiration. Fellow piano man Billy Joel gave the speech inducting him into the Hall of Fame, saying Domino "proved that the piano is a rock ’n' roll instrument."
As the news of his death circulated Wednesday, admirers ranging from New Orleans music legends Aaron Neville and Dr. John to author Stephen King and actor Samuel L. Jackson offered their condolences and praise on social media.
"You helped pave the way for New Orleans piano players," Harry Connick Jr. wrote via Twitter. "See you on top of that blueberry hill in the sky."
Domino was born in New Orleans on Feb. 26, 1928, to a family of modest means. As a boy, he became obsessed with the piano, teaching himself to play along with songs on the radio with encouragement from his brother-in-law, a trumpeter named Harrison Verrett.
He took cues from rhythm and blues stars Louis Jordan and Charles Brown and blues singer Amos Milburn, even as he developed his own highly rhythmic style. He started out performing on the side while doing odd jobs and delivering ice to make money.
Word of his exuberant approach to boogie-woogie piano spread, and he started attracting crowds to the Hideaway Club on Desire Street, in the Upper 9th Ward. Visionary New Orleans bandleader, producer, songwriter, trumpeter and Imperial Records talent scout Dave Bartholomew “discovered” Domino there.
Their first collaboration, “The Fat Man,” recorded in December 1949 at Cosimo Matassa's J&M studio on North Rampart Street, is arguably one of the first true rock ’n’ roll records. It launched one of the most successful collaborations in rock history, as Domino and Bartholomew created a body of work for Imperial Records that moved New Orleans to the vanguard of popular music.
Domino sold in excess of 60 million records in the 1950s, more than anyone except Presley, according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's official biography.
The dozens of Domino/Bartholomew singles included "I'm Ready," "My Girl Josephine," "I'm in Love Again," "Shake Rattle and Roll," "Valley of Tears," "Going to the River," "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Some Day," "Whole Lotta Loving," "I Want to Walk You Home" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."
They consisted of simple but undeniable melodies, straightforward lyrics, and the personality of Domino's playing and singing, favorably showcased by Bartholomew's production and a crack studio band of New Orleans musicians.
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Domino supported those singles by touring relentlessly. His concerts often featured racially integrated audiences, a rarity for the time. Despite his low-key demeanor offstage, he could whip audiences into a frenzy. He liked flashy clothes, shoes and jewelry, and reportedly traveled with his own supply of red beans and a hot plate on which to cook them.
At the height of his fame, he appeared in music-themed movies and on national TV shows, even as he avoided the scandals that dogged many of his contemporaries.
By the mid-1960s, after the Beatles — who were avowed Domino fans — and other British Invasion bands changed the face of popular music, the hits stopped coming. He logged residencies at trumpeter Al Hirt's club and elsewhere on Bourbon Street, and continued to tour.
But he eventually grew weary of the road. His last tour was a rocky 1995 European jaunt plagued by illness. For the next decade, he rarely strayed outside Orleans Parish, save for the occasional gig at a Mississippi Gulf Coast casino. He limited his hometown appearances to private functions or periodic sets at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which often concluded with Domino bumping a grand piano across the stage with his belly.
In 1998, he declined an invitation to the White House to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton. He explained that his "spirit" had told him not to travel.
His spirit apparently preferred that he spend his days cooking and hanging out with his “podnas” at his longtime home at Caffin Avenue and Marais Street.
He built the spacious split-level in 1960 as a sleek, modern mansion of blond brick. His wife, Rosemary, and various relatives occupied the two-story main house, with its pink and yellow trim and fence of wrought-iron roses. A smaller adjacent house served as Domino’s hideaway. The compound became a New Orleans music landmark.
With his old recordings still generating a small fortune in royalties annually, he could afford to live anywhere in the city, or the world. But he remained in the neighborhood he grew up in, even as it deteriorated around him.
He elected to stay at his house as Hurricane Katrina approached in August 2005. His home was not far from where a section of the floodwall along the Industrial Canal ruptured and flooded the neighborhood. He was eventually rescued by a Harbor Police boat, even as some media outlets reported erroneously that he had perished in the storm.
Domino joined other evacuees at the Superdome before making his way to Baton Rouge, where he stayed briefly with a granddaughter’s boyfriend, LSU quarterback Jamarcus Russell. He then moved temporarily to Fort Worth, Texas.
He eventually bought a handsome stucco house in a gated community in Harvey, where he lived quietly for the rest of his life. Shy by nature, he was often anxious before performances. That anxiety only grew more acute in his later years.
He was scheduled to close out the main Acura Stage on the final Sunday of the 2006 Jazz Fest, the first following Katrina; he was featured on the festival's commemorative poster by artist James Michalopoulos. But on the morning of the show, he complained of chest pains. He was transported to a hospital, where doctors found nothing wrong.
WWL-TV anchor Eric Paulsen, a longtime friend of the family, drove Domino from the hospital to the Fair Grounds. Domino, wearing his signature captain's cap, waved to fans from the Acura Stage but declined to perform.
His final hometown concert was a May 19, 2007, appearance at Tipitina's, a benefit for the club's affiliated nonprofit. The show consisted of 11 songs squeezed into 32 minutes. Despite his misgivings, he sounded very much as he did in his heyday.
In November 2007, Domino made a rare trip to New York City to promote "Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino," a double-disc Tipitina's Foundation benefit CD on which the likes of Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, B.B. King, Norah Jones and Elton John sang his songs. In New York, Domino and an all-star band of New Orleans musicians performed "Blueberry Hill" live on NBC's "Today" show.
Domino was not as flamboyant as Little Richard or as controversial as Jerry Lee Lewis. As a result, his vast contributions to popular music were sometimes overlooked. It wasn't until 2006 that Da Capo Press published "Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll," south Louisiana author Rick Coleman's definitive biography.
In recent years, Domino's health steadily deteriorated, friends and fellow musicians who visited him reported. He appeared in public only rarely. He joined Bartholomew and Dr. John at the Carver Theater in October 2014 for the New Orleans Film Festival premiere of "The Big Beat," a documentary about the sound he pioneered.
His wife of many decades, Rosemary, died in 2008, which did not become public knowledge for several months.
Word of Domino's own death was not confirmed until more than 24 hours after the fact, when one of his children informed Paulsen, and the news quickly spread around the globe.