Good-natured legend Fats Domino (89) invited people off the street to eat with him
Good-natured New Orleans-based giant of rock ’n’ roll who amassed more hits than any artist except Elvis Presley
Fats Domino, who died last Wednesday aged 89, was one of the great pioneers of rock ’n’ roll; a regular chart-topper during the 1950s and 1960s, he sold more than 110 million records, including the singles Blueberry Hill and Ain’t That a Shame, inspiring generations of performers.
Domino began recording for Imperial Records in the late 1940s, and by the early 1960s had amassed more worldwide hits and sales than any other artist except for Elvis Presley. Imbued with the joyful jazz, Latin, Creole, blues and boogie-woogie music of postwar New Orleans, his beguiling gravel-voiced patois, pounding roadhouse piano, rolling backbeat and soulful saxophone solos made each of his releases an event. Many of his tunes, including I’m Walkin’, I Hear You Knockin’ and Blue Monday, became staples of the R&B repertoire.
He was born Antoine Domino on February 26, 1928 in New Orleans, the son of a labourer who worked at the Fair Grounds Race Track. His interest in music was inspired by the Dixieland musician Harrison Verrett (who would become Fats’s brother-in-law), and developed as he learnt to play the piano which his family had inherited.
By the age of 10, Antoine was playing in public, as well as earning money from such jobs as delivering ice, cutting lawns and baking bread. By 1946 he had been hired to play at the Hideaway Club with a band led by Billy Diamond, the first person to dub him “Fats” — of medium height, he now weighed nearly 16 stone. Two years later he married Rose Mary Hall, and within a decade had eight children (all given first names beginning with “A”).
Perhaps with an eye to having to provide for his growing family, Domino was adapting the boogie-woogie style to suit a larger, white, audience. In this, he owed much to the bandleader Dave Bartholomew, and to Lew Chudd, the founder of Imperial Records, one of the many labels which emerged after the war when the major companies were slow to recognise the emerging rhythm-and-blues scene.
Having heard Bartholomew in Houston, Chudd met him again in New Orleans, where they later went to see Domino play. Bartholomew was put in charge of finding artists for the label, and the first of them was Fats Domino, who was recorded in December 1949. His first single, made directly on to an acetate disc in Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio in Rampart Street, was The Fat Man, a sanitised version of a traditional song about drugs called Junker Blues. Subsequent sales were to prove the wisdom of his having signed a contract which got him royalties rather than a straight fee — within a year the record had sold almost a million copies.
Its immediate successors, all of which had been made at the same session, did not do as well, and it was not until the release of Every Night About This Time that he again had a sizeable hit outside New Orleans. Its popularity can be attributed, in part, to the 6/8, triplet style of piano playing which Domino had developed and which was to characterise many of his records, most of them written in collaboration with Dave Bartholomew.
(A B-side, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, was by Professor Longhair, whose influence on the city’s music would not be widely appreciated for several decades.)
Several fine numbers, such as Please Don’t Leave Me, Rose Mary (for his wife, who died in 2008) and You Can Pack Your Suitcase, were recorded at this time, but during the early 1950s Domino enjoyed only intermittent success in the hit parades. His tours, however, were always a popular success, and it was on these that — weary of hotel food — he developed the habit of cooking for himself.
Before long, rock ’n’ roll emerged as a distinct genre, and Domino was to be its most unlikely star. His Ain’t That a Shame, which took him two months to write, was a No 1 hit in the R&B chart, and would doubtless have sold even better had there not been a cover version by Pat Boone (a situation which was to be the bane of many a black artist’s life, even though it is invariably the original version that is remembered years later).
Even when singing of lost love, there was an irrepressible cheer to Domino’s performances, his sunny smile becoming something of a trademark.
This is apparent on one of his very best, if less well-known performances, Don’t Blame It On Me. His first pop hit was I’m in Love Again.
The song with which he was to become indelibly associated, Blueberry Hill, was one which Bartholomew had not been keen to record at all. Bartholomew was still not satisfied after a full day’s work on the song in which various takes had been were spliced together. Chudd, however, decided to release the song anyway, there being nothing else in the can. In due course he was able to report that three million copies had been sold.
Blueberry Hill was followed by Blue Monday and I’m Walkin’. On all of these Domino’s piano is to the fore, and it was only years later that the reason for this became apparent: not only was it tuned so that the treble keys were higher than usual, but the recording was speeded up. As the background to Blueberry Hill showed, the apparent spontaneity of these recordings was an illusion: many of the songs took longer than might have been necessary to record, not least because Domino was in the habit of stopping during a good take to ask whether he was sounding all right.
In the early 1960s, Domino began to use strings on his records, first on Walking to New Orleans, written by his friend Bobby Charles; Charles had earlier written See You Later Alligator, which Domino had decided was not for him — only to see Bill Haley have a huge hit with it.
Domino’s hits continued with a fine, honking version of Hank Williams’s Jambalaya, but he was not selling as successfully as he had in the past.
Meanwhile, he and other R&B artists were about to be dealt a blow by the arrival in America of a group much influenced by them, The Beatles.
Chudd, with a premonition of what was to come, had sold his label to Liberty, Domino already having moved to ABC, the first of several labels on which he was never able to repeat his earlier success, although he remained in demand for his live performances. There were, however, some further hits, notably I’m in Love Again; I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday (both covered by Paul McCartney in 1989) and Be My Guest.
Fats Domino also appeared in several films, the best of which was The Girl Can’t Help It, with Jayne Mansfield.
Good-natured and uxorious, Domino was a popular figure in New Orleans where he lived in a large house in a predominantly working-class neighbourhood and became renowned for spontaneously cooking up vast pots of red-bean stew and inviting people in off the street to eat with him. He sold 40 million singles and three million albums within a decade of beginning to record and, in the 1980s — comfortably off thanks to royalties — he decided to retire.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, he refused to leave, and there were rumours that he had died in the floods. He and his family were eventually rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.
In 2007, he performed to a full house at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, and was subsequently inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
Asked whether he might consider making a grand comeback, he was typically evasive: “I just drink my little beers, do some cookin’, anything I feel like.”