Born Antoine Domino, Jr., 26 February 1928, New Orleans, Louisiana
Fats Domino was the best-selling Afro-American rock and roll star of the 1950s (total world sales estimated at 65 million) and the most popular singer of the classic New Orleans rhythm and blues style. His relaxed approach to his music, along with his boogie woogie piano style and easygoing, warm vocals delivered a long series of national and international hits from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.
Born into a large musical family of French Creole descent, Antoine Domino loved music from his earliest years. He learned to play piano from his brother-in-law Harrison Verrett. It was Billy Diamond, a New Orleans bandleader, who discovered Domino in 1947, asked him to play piano in his band at the Hideaway Club and gave him the nickname Fats. Pretty soon Domino was the main attraction of the band and the news about him reached Lew Chudd, the owner of Imperial Records in L.A., who had come to New Orleans looking for R&B talent to record. Together with Dave Bartholomew, Chudd visited the Hideaway Club and signed Domino on the spot as a solo artist. The first Imperial session was held on December 10, 1949, and resulted in the single “The Fat Man” (an adaptation of a 1941 number by Champion Jack Dupree, “Junker Blues”), which peaked at # 2 on the R&B charts in March 1950. “The Fat Man" has been frequently cited as the first rock and roll record. By 1953 it had become the first of his 21 million sellers. It launched his unique partnership with Dave Bartholomew, who co-wrote, arranged and produced dozens of Domino tracks over the next 13 years. According to Earl Palmer, Fats had never been out of New Orleans when he recorded “The Fat Man”, but following the success of his debut disc he started touring all over the USA with his own band, which included Buddy Hagans (tenor sax), Wendell Duconge (alto sax), Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson (guitar), Billy Diamond (bass, now in a subordinate role) and drummer Cornelius Coleman. Some of these players would also accompany him in the studio, especially Coleman, but usually he was backed by members of Cosimo Matassa’s studio band (including saxophonist Herb Hardesty who would become his band leader in 1956).
Domino’s playing was derived from the rich mixture of musical styles to be found in New Orleans. These included traditional jazz, Latin rhythms, boogie woogie, Cajun and blues. During the early 1950s, Fats gradually became one of the most successful R&B artists in the USA. His first R&B number one was “Goin’ Home” in 1952. The year 1953 was a good one with four Top 10 hits (“Goin’ To the River”, “Please Don’t Leave Me”, “Rose Mary” and “Something’s Wrong”). Chart success was modest in 1954 (only one Top 10 hit), but in 1955 he would cross over to the pop charts for the first time, with “Ain’t That A Shame” (# 10 pop, also his second R&B number one). Though Fats was outsold by a bland cover by Pat Boone (# 1 pop), this white version must have contributed to Domino’s discovery by a white audience. Fats’s next pop success, “Bo Weevil” (# 35, 1956), also fell victim to a white cover (by Teresa Brewer, # 17), but then came “I’m In Love Again” (with infectious sax phrases by Lee Allen), which took him to # 3 on the pop charts. The other side, “My Blue Heaven”, also made the pop Top 20 and from that point on, almost all of Domino’s records were double-sided hits, both pop and R&B. His music was now called rock and roll, though Fats had not changed his style to meet his increased popularity. He was still a rhythm and blues singer whose music just happened to be the roots of rock & roll.
His biggest hit was “Blueberry Hill” in the autumn of 1956 (# 2 pop and his sixth R&B # 1), which confirmed his status as a leader in his field. Domino’s performances were included in four films : “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Shake, Rattle and Rock”, “Jamboree” and “The Big Beat” (1956-58). Altogether, Fats had 66 chart entries in the Billboard Top 100 between 1955 1968. His track record in the Billboard R&B lists is equally impressive, with 63 records reaching the charts, nine of which topped the lists. He continued to record for Imperial until April 1962, maintaining a consistently high level of performance. Classic hits from the 1959- 1961 period include “I’m Ready”, “I Want To Walk You Home”, “Be My Guest”, “Walking To New Orleans”, “My Girl Josephine” and “Let the Four Winds Blow”. In 1962 Domino undertook his first European tour.
From April 1963 until late 1964 Fats recorded prolifically for ABC-Paramount, in Nashville. The collaboration with Dave Bartholomew had come to an end. His new producer, Felton Jarvis, along with arranger Bill Justis, updated his sound, notably by adding a countrypolitan-style vocal chorus to his backing. Commercial succes was limited though, with only one Top 40 hit, “Red Sails in the Sunset” (# 35, 1963). Domino’s continuing importance lay in his tours of North America and Europe, which recreated the sound of the 1950s for new generations of listeners. He remained an active performer in the 1970s and 1980s (I saw him at least six times during that period) and his band was always great, but his career as an important recording artist was essentially over in the mid-1960s, although he made a good album for Reprise in 1968. In 1986 Domino was among the first inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The next year he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Fed up with travelling, he stopped touring in 1995 and confined his performances to New Orleans and its direct surroundings.
Despite being urged to leave his home in the Ninth Ward, prior to Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans in 2005, Domino chose to stay home with his wife Rosemary, who was in poor health at the time. When the hurricane hit, Domino’s house was badly flooded and Fats lost virtually all of his possessions. There were rumours that he was dead, but a few days later he was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. The Domino family resided in Harvey, Louisiana, until his house was repaired. After Katrina, Domino made some public appearances around his home city of New Orleans, but in recent years he has mainly stayed out of the spotlight.
Along with Little Richard, Fats was the main hero of my teenage years. Every Dutch jukebox always contained a number of his records and you simply couldn’t have a party without any Fats Domino records.
More info :
Biography : Rick Coleman, Blue Monday. Fats Domino and the lost dawn of rock ’n’ roll. New York : Da Capo Press, 2006. 364 pages. Recommended.
CD recommendation : “Out Of New Orleans” is a massive 8-CD box-set from Bear Family (BCD 15541, 1993) that contains every Imperial recording that Domino made between 1949 and 1962. Definitely the anthology to get if you can afford it. You can also try the less comprehensive four CD box-set “They Call Me the Fat Man” (1991, 100 tracks), released as part of EMI’s Legends of the 20th Century series.
Acknowledgements : Rick Coleman, Jeff Hannusch, Steve Kolanjian, Richie Unterberger, John Broven, Wikipedia.
Dik, June 2016
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