If I were to ask you to name the most influential and successful rock ‘n roll stars of the 1950s you would probably say Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly or, perhaps, Chuck Berry. Good choices. But, I submit that Fats Domino belongs right up there with them. According to Wikipedia he was Elvis’ chief rival during the late 1950s. Perhaps, one reason why he has not gotten his full due was his humility and shy, uncharismatic, almost deferential, demeanor.
Some of the biggest rock ‘n roll stars of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Elvis, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, “Yellowman” (Jamaican reggae artist), and Richard Hell, (an early punk rocker) have acknowledged he was a strong influence on their careers. For example, McCartney claimed the Beatles’ hit “Lady Madonna” was based on Fats’ style; and “Yellowman” and Hell covered many of his songs, such as “Blueberry Hill” and “I Lived My Life.”
Elvis introduced Fats at one of his concerts as “[the] gentleman [who] was a huge influence on me when I started out.” He added, “A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But, rock ‘n roll was here a long time before I came along. …. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can.” Moreover, when Elvis was introduced at one of his other concerts as “The King,” a moniker with which most people would concur, he pointed to Domino, who happened to be in the audience, and said “no, that’s the real ‘King.’ ”
Antoine Dominique Domino, Jr. was born on February 26, 1928 in New Orleans. He was delivered at home by his grandmother, who was a midwife. His parents were of French Creole extraction. He was the youngest of eight children. The family was poor, and young Antoine had to quit school in the fourth grade to work. One of his early jobs was to help deliver ice, a backbreaking way to earn money.
Fats learned to play the piano from his brother-in-law. At 14 he was performing in local bars. In 1947 bandleader Billy Diamond hired him to play piano in his band for the princely sum of $3 per week. It was Diamond who nicknamed Antoine “Fats” due, in part, to his huge appetite, but mostly because Diamond thought he bore a striking resemblance to renowned pianists Fats Waller and Fats Pinchon.
Fats signed with Imperial Records in 1949. His first big hit was “The Fat Man,” followed up by a string of hits familiar to rock ‘n roll fans, including “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I’m Walkin’.” During his career Fats sold over 65 million records. He had eleven Top Ten hits, 35 records in the US Billboard Top 40, and several “gold” records (sales in excess of one million). During the late 1950s he sold more records than any artist except Elvis. Yet, curiously, not one of his records ever reached #1 on the Pop Charts. (“Blueberry Hill,” perhaps, his best, topped out at #2.)
Fats was a big “crossover” star, R & B and Pop. Also, he was one of the first stars to appeal to both whites and blacks, and his concerts were among the first to be integrated. Consequently, on at least four occasions violence broke out, and one time Fats had to jump out of a window to escape a melee.
Fats received countless honorariums during his long career. For example:
He was among the first musicians to be inducted into The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
President Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts.
He was a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Offbeat Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2004 Rolling Stone ranked him #24 in its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
Fats remained in New Orleans after retirement. He loved the city and could often be seen tooling around in his pink Caddy. Also, he would make frequent appearances at local events, such as the Jazz and Heritage Festival. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 his house was in one of the severely flooded areas, and for a time, he was missing and feared dead. Eventually, to the great relief of his many fans, he was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.
Fats passed away on October 24, 2017 at the age of 89. He is gone, but his music will live on forever.