Giant of American music who helped create rock ’n’ roll

Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino, musician, born February 26th, 1928; died October 24th, 2017

Fats Domino performing in Paris in October 1962. When he toured he took 200 pairs of shoes and 30 suits on the road. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Fats Domino performing in Paris in October 1962. When he toured he took 200 pairs of shoes and 30 suits on the road. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

Out in his own uncategorisable stratosphere, the vocalist and pianist Fats Domino, who has died aged 89, sold astonishing quantities of records from the start of the 1950s until the early 1960s. Domino was an original, one of the creators of rock’n’roll, and by far the biggest-selling rhythm and blues artist of that time.

He was crucial in breaking down the musical colour barrier, but too mainstream and popular to retain credibility as a blues singer. He brought a new, heavy backbeat to white ears, yet trailed old-fashioned, jazz-band habits behind him.

His famous records were many, stretching across a decade from the early 1950s: Valley of Tears, I’m Walkin’, The Big Beat, I’m in Love Again, I Want to Walk You Home, Be My Guest, Country Boy, Walking to New Orleans, Three Nights a Week, My Girl Josephine, It Keeps Rainin’, What a Party and, in 1963, when he finally left Imperial Records for ABC-Paramount, Red Sails in the Sunset.

His chart placings were oddly modest. His only British Top 10 success was Blueberry Hill in 1956. In the US he never topped the mainstream charts, and by 1962 had no Top 20 entries. Yet in the mid-1970s it was still true that, with record sales of 60 or 70 million, no one had outsold him except Elvis and The Beatles.

Big diamond rings

He behaved like a star. When he toured he took 200 pairs of shoes and 30 suits on the road, and wore big diamond rings. Thus he asserted himself on the era’s extraordinary multiple bills. On the first, in 1956, Fats was with BB King, Hank Ballard, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown and Duane Eddy.

His performing style was simple, like his songs: he’d sit at the piano sideways on to the crowd, showing his solid right profile and turning his splendid head to grin and beam as he sang and played, but he would add a touch of flamboyance at the end by pushing the piano offstage with his stomach. (That head of his was a perfect cube, thanks to his flat-top haircut. This, unique to Domino, would became fashionable 30 years after he pioneered it.)

Born Antoine Domino in New Orleans, to Donatile (nee Gros) and Antoine Domino Sr, he began playing the piano in public at the age of 10. He was dubbed “Fats” by the bassist at his first professional engagements, at the Hideaway Club on Desire Street.

Domino was offered a record deal by the Imperial boss Lew Chudd and cut his first sides on December 10th, 1949, with the trumpeter/arranger Dave Bartholomew’s band. This line-up would remain essentially the same on Fats’s huge hits of a decade later, and the band would tour behind him for more decades still. The tenor saxist Herb Hardesty would support Domino for half a century.

The second number recorded was The Fat Man (named after a radio detective), which sold 800,000 in the black market and gave the 22-year-old the first of many gold discs.

White audience

Fats’s early singles had mixed success, but he re-signed to Imperial and packed out live shows, clinching his stardom at Alan Freed’s Cleveland Arena show in 1953 and thrilling the new white audience for black music at Freed’s New York rock’n’roll Jubilee Ball in January 1955.

He was at home when his house was one of those ruined by Hurricane Katrina in 2005

Creatively, the 1960s and beyond was one long period of decline. There was one fine later album, the self-produced Sleeping on the Job, cut in New Orleans in 1978. Authentic and fresh, it surprised everyone. He never managed that again.

Fats was reduced to nightclubs and Las Vegas. It demonstrates his limitations and artistry that he could play his hour’s worth with such enthusiasm so many hundreds of times. But his vice was gambling, and trying to work off his debts by touring only kept him in the Vegas trap.

Worry thinned him. Even yellow crimplene suits couldn’t disguise his being disappointingly less than massive, yet he still pushed the piano off stage with his stomach at the end of his high-energy show.

Fats Domino performing at Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1993. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images
Fats Domino performing at Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1993. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

Illness overtook him in 1995, on a UK tour with Little Richard and Chuck Berry. His performance ended when he tried the piano stomach-push in Sheffield, and was taken to hospital with breathing problems. He recovered, but would not tour again, restricting his live appearances to his home city of New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina

He was at home when his house was one of those ruined by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Fats had always lived in the badly hit Lower Ninth Ward – he’d built his mansion there – and though he and his wife, Rosemary, whom he had married in 1948, were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter from their roof, he was thought to be missing for several days afterwards. His daughter Karen, living in New Jersey, recognised him in a newspaper photograph of survivors at a shelter in Baton Rouge. It was months before Fats could revisit his home.

Moved by the widespread concern for his welfare, Fats responded with a new album, Alive and Kickin’, donating proceeds to Tipitina’s Foundation, dedicated to preserving and restoring New Orleans’s musical culture. The album’s title track opens with as simple a lyric as any of Fats’s classics: “All over the country, people wanna know / Whatever happened to Fats Domino? / I’m alive and kickin’”.

Alive and kickin’ maybe, and living back in New Orleans, but in poor health. Domino was to have been the closing act at the city’s first post-Katrina jazz festival in May 2006, but he was admitted to hospital shortly beforehand. A year later, at the 2007 festival, he gave what would be his last performance, of just five songs. Other artists continued to record and perform Fats’s repertoire, and always will. One of the few true giants of postwar American popular music, no one sounded like him, yet when you ask who he influenced, the answer is everyone.

He and Rosemary had 13 children. She died in 2008.

– (Guardian service)