Fats Domino, the genial, good-natured symbol of the dawn of rock and roll and the voice and piano behind enduring hits like “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t That a Shame,” died Tuesday at the age of 89. Mark Bone, chief investigator with the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office in Louisiana, confirmed his death to the Associated Press.
A contemporary of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Domino was among the first acts inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was reportedly only second to Presley in record sales thanks to a titanic string of 11 top 10 hits between 1955 and 1960.
Those hits, which also included “I’m Walkin’,” “Blue Monday” and “Walking to New Orleans,” sounded like nothing that came before. Thanks to his New Orleans upbringing, Domino’s signature songs fused Dixieland rhythms, his charming, Creole-flecked voice, and his rolling-river piano style. His hits, most co-written with his longtime producer and partner Dave Bartholomew, became rock standards, covered by Led Zeppelin, Cheap Trick, Randy Newman, Ricky Nelson, and John Lennon, among many others. Lennon, who remade “Ain’t That a Shame” (first called “Ain’t It a Shame” on Domino’s recording) on his 1975 Rock & Roll album, said the song had special meaning for him: It was the first tune he ever learned to play, on a guitar bought for him by his late mother. “It was the first song I could accompany myself on,” he said in 1975. “It has a lot of memories for me.”
“After John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Fats Domino and his partner, Dave Bartholomew, were probably the greatest team of songwriters ever,” Dr. John told Rolling Stone in 2004. “They always had a simple melody, a hip set of chord changes, and a cool groove. And their songs all had simple lyrics; that’s the key.” Domino himself, who preferred to let his music rather than image do the talking, was typically modest about his accomplishments: “Everybody started callin’ my music rock and roll,” he once said, “but it wasn’t anything but the same rhythm and blues I’d been playin’ down in New Orleans.”
Born in 1928, Antoine Domino was playing piano and performing in New Orleans honky tonks and bars by the time he was a teenager. At 14, he dropped out of high school, taking jobs like hauling ice and working at a bedspring factory as a way to supplement his music. Domino’s career was effectively kicked off at New Orleans Hideaway Club. While playing piano in local bandleader Billy Diamond’s band, Diamond nicknamed Antoine “Fats” — partly in homage to keyboard-playing predecessors like Fats Waller and partly because, as Diamond told one crowd, “I call him ‘Fats,’ ‘cause if he keeps eating, he’s going to be just as big!” Domino was initially hesitant about the nickname, but it stuck.