Whenever anyone talks about the giants of rock ‘n’ roll, they always mention Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and, of course, Elvis Presley, but blasphemously, Fats Domino doesn’t get mentioned anywhere near as much. He was a pioneer and there before all of the aforementioned.
Domino was one of the first artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, he was reportedly only second to Presley in record sales in the fifties thanks due to a string of 11 top 10 hits between 1955 and 1960. He became a massive influence on many rock acts including John Lennon, Cheap Trick and Led Zeppelin.
He was born Antoine Domino in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1928 and learned piano from an early age. By the time he got to his teens he was already performing in a number of New Orleans bars. He dropped out of school but, like many budding musicians of that time, needed some extra money, so he got a job in a bed-spring factory. In 1947, at the age of
19, he was spotted by a local bandleader called Billy Diamond who invited Antoine to join his band. It was Diamond who nicknamed him ‘Fats’ as a homage to the 20s and 30s jazz pianist Fats Waller. Diamond also announced to a crown one night, “I call him ‘Fats,’ ‘cause if he keeps eating, he’s going to be just as big!”
In 1949, he signed to Imperial records and his first recording was a song called The Fat Man, a happy celebration of his size, which eventually sold over a million copies. He recorded a number of songs, very much in a piano-based rock ‘n’ roll style and then, in early fifties he teamed up with producer and songwriter Dave Bartholomew and the pair formed a long-term partnership. In 1955, he crossed over into mainstream pop with his first US hit being Ain’t That a Shame which reached number 10. In the UK it was his third hit but stalled at number 23. We clearly weren’t ready for him yet. His first UK hit was I’m In Love Again. He will probably always be best remember for his second UK hit, Blueberry Hill which originally peaked at number 26 here, then on re-entry made number six, however, it made number two in the States and was originally recorded by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra in 1940. Numerous people have recorded it including Glenn Miller, Gene Autry, Louis Armstrong, Little Richard, Pat Boone, The Beach Boys and Elton John.
In 1959 a singer called Ernest Evans came on the scene and one night was performing a Fats Domino impression, when he finished Dick Clark’s wife asked him what his name was and he replied, “My friends call me ‘Chubby'” to which she asked, “As in Checker?” Their thinking was that chubby meant fat, and checkers was like dominoes and so from then on he was known as Chubby Checker.
Fats scored a staggering 77 hits on Billboard top 100 singles chart between 1955 and 1968, his last being a cover of Lady Madonna which peaked at number 100. In the UK he managed 22 hits.
After the hits he continued to tour and made cameo appearance in various films but by 1980 he’d had enough touring and moving around the world and decided to stay in his birth State explaining he couldn’t get the food he liked most anywhere other than at home. He occasionally ventured out for a few live shows his last being a three-week tour of Europe in 1995. In 1987 he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1998, he received the National Medal of Arts which was presented to him by President Bill Clinton.
In August 2005 in was announced in the US press that Fats had died because his home was flooded and damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Fats refused to move because of his wife’s failing health. No one had heard from him for a while and someone decided to spray ‘RIP Fats. You will be missed’ on the wall of his house which the press believed. The truth only came out after CNN announced that a coast guard had rescued the Domino family and taken them to a shelter in Baton Rouge. The disaster gave Fats a new lease of life and he recorded a new album called Alive and Kickin’. He lost most of his possessions but a number were replaced. His record company replaced all his gold records and President George W. Bush personally presented his with another National Medal of Arts.
His wanted his house to be rebuilt as he loved his home, but in the meantime, returned to performing in 2007, the same year he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and also the year a 30-track all-star Domino tribute album called Goin’ Home was released and featured Blueberry Hill (Elton John), I’m Walkin’ (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Ain’t That A Shame (John Lennon) and I Hear you Knocking (Willie Nelson). Virtually every song on there was written by Fats and Dave Bartholomew.
Fats died of natural causes on 24th October aged 89, Dave Bartholomew said of him, “He is just like the cornerstone — you build a new church and you lay the cornerstone, and if the church burns down the cornerstone is still there.” Dave Bartholomew was born 10 years before Fats and will be (hopefully) celebrating his 99th birthday on Christmas Eve.