Fats Domino: A Look at His Career

Antoine Fats Domino Jr. aka Fats Domino was an American pianist and singer-copywriter born on February 26, 1928, in New Orleans, Louisiana, which has been known as a music haven (and particularly the birthplace of jazz). He belonged to a musical family and was the youngest of his eight siblings. Before learning English, he spoke Creole French. Being one of the pioneers of rock and roll music, Fats sold over 65 million records. He was a genuine Rhythm-and-Blues star who helped in defining the New Orleans sound.

Being surrounded by a family of music enthusiasts, he was always motivated and persuaded to learn music when he was just a kid. His brother-in-law, Harrison Verret, a jazz guitarist, started training him when he was only 7. And by the age of 10, this talented young folk was already performing as a pianist and a singer.

It is no surprise that he was interested to learn music at an early age. Due to Domino’s passion for music, he dropped out of high school at 14 to peruse his career in music. In the beginning, he took odd jobs like working in a factory and hauling ice to make both ends meet. He was inspired by both boogie-woogie pianists and singers of his era like Meade Lux and Louis Jordan.

Although he was a shy person, his musical talents began to emerge and to take notice. In 1946, Domino entered the music industry by playing piano for a renowned New Orleans Bass player and bandleader Billy Diamond. He was the one who gave Domino the nickname “Fats”. Later in 1949 after getting more trained, he began performing in clubs. There, Fats was lucky enough to be discovered by the bandleader, songwriter, and the record producer Dave Bartholomew. He was the person who brought New Orleans J&M studio to fame and became Fats’ exclusive manager.

He went on to the next professional foray of his music career by signing up with the Imperial Records in 1949. Fortunately, Domino’s first ever recording “The Fat Man” became first of the series of R&Bs hits in 1950 that successfully sold over one million copies and peaked at #2 on the R&B Charts. The song was co-written with Bartholomew and the title of the song was based on his nickname. His “wah-wah” vocalization is the most distinctive characteristic of the song, which would become his trademark.

His piano playing style was quite unique; it consisted of only modest rhythmic figures, basically only triad chords over a boogie pattern that was his favorite from the beginning. This pattern was complimented with simple saxophone riffs and afterbeats.

All of this accompanied with Fats’ sweet and gentle singing voice, delivered in a little baritone range with the addition of a slight New Orleans accent, made him one of the most unique and distinctive rock-and-roll artists.

In 1955, his breakthrough single, “Ain’t That A Shame”, transformed Fats as a mainstream pop star. The same song was covered by Pat Boone as “Ain’t it A Shame” and it peaked at #1 on the pop charts while Fats’ original reached #10. This track didn’t just increase Domino’s visibility but also boosted the record sales. Later, he re-recorded the song with the revised name, which still remains a popular version today. Eventually, this song also happened to be the first song that John Lennon learned to play on his guitar.

Fats Domino also appeared in the film “The Girl Can’t Help It” in 1956. He continued recording hits like “I’m Walkin’”, “It’s You I Love”, and “Whole Lotta Loving”. His notably up-tempo cover of “Blueberry Hill” that ranked #2 in the Top 40 in 1956 became one of Fats’ multi-million bestsellers.

Fats eventually raked in 37 Top 40 singles, and to date has sold a hundred-odd million records. He was one of the very prolific recording artists of the 50s, aside from Elvis Presley. But unfortunately, his string of hits dried up by the early 60s. This didn’t let him down, he continued to tour and record.

According to Domino, he was the guy who took songwriting’s inspiration from everyday events. He said: “Something that happened to someone, that’s how I write all my songs”. Wherever he’d go, his mind was on music, and whatever he would hear, he would simply write it down or remember it well.

After gaining a lot of success through Imperial Records; doing 37 different top 40 hits, Fats Domino left it in 1963. He claimed that he was stuck with them until they were sold out. Later, he joined ABC-Paramount Records, and this time without his longtime assistant, Dave Bartholomew. After the 1960s, Domino realized that his music was less commercially popular than before because of the change in music taste or sound.

By the time American pop music was revolutionized by the 1964 British invasion, Domino’s reign at the top of the charts started to diminish.

Despite that, compared to the lifestyle of his other peers – which was dynamic, flamboyant and controversial — Fats’ offstage and personal life was comparatively mild and often went across his true impact on the music industry. Still, his contribution and influence shouldn’t and cannot be sneezed at. Otherwise, Ain’t that a shame?

Fats Domino felt something missing, so he left ABC-Paramount in 1965 and returned to his hometown in New Orleans to collaborate with his sidekick Dave Bartholomew once again. They both recorded steadily until 1970, but only charted with one single “Lady Madonna”, a cover of a song by Beatles that, ironically, was written by Paul McCartney as a homage to Fats’ musical and vocal style.

The Beatles, Gene Taylor, Harry Connick Jr., and Neil Young are just some of the artists who followed Fats’ music style.

Domino continued touring for the next two decades until he experienced health problems during his tour in Europe in 1995. He then rarely left his hometown, preferring to spend his life comfortably at home with his family off the royalties from his earlier recordings.

In 2005, Fats was urged to leave New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina striking, but he preferred to stay with his wife, Rosemary, who was ill at that time. When the hurricane hit New Orleans, his Ninth Ward home was badly flooded that virtually caused him all of his possessions. Everyone thought that Domino was dead but luckily the Coast Guard rescued him and his family on September 1.

Rumors of his death spread like fire in the jungle until he put them to rest by releasing a new album “Alive and Kickin” in 2006. Domino decided to donate a portion of the record sales to New Orleans’ Tipitina’s Foundation that helps local musicians in need.

Katrina didn’t just destroy Domino’s property but also devastated him personally. Domino’s friends and some rock stars recorded a charity tribute album “Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino” – it was recorded to raise money for repairs to Domino’s home.

Fats, a private and quiet man, shunned publicity of all kinds. But he occasionally performed at local concerts and New Orleans festivals from time to time.

Domino’s contribution to the music industry was endowed with his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, among many other recognitions he has received – however, he refused to attend the ceremony and likewise turned down an invitation to perform at the White House. President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 1998 due to his impressive music style. He was also presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.

Top 4 songs by Domino have been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame because of their significance in music history. They are as follows:

  • “Blueberry Hill” in 1987
  • “Ain’t It A Shame” in 2002
  • “Walking to New Orleans” in 2011
  • “The Fat Man” in 2016

In the later years, Fats preferred to stay out of the spotlight.

His beloved wife, Rosemary, died in 2008 that broke him from deep inside. The Rock and Roll star, Fats Domino died of natural causes on October 24, 2017. He was indeed the force of the jukebox who helped in breaking down the color barriers in the music industry – and he is still considered one of the “roots” of Rock ‘n’ Roll and popular music.