The term “National Treasure” is used often when speaking about an artist or work of art that is enjoyed by a great percentage of people within a nation. I’ve used the term and applied it to those certain works that are considered popular, and beloved. We lost an artist whom we consider a “National Treasure” on October 24, 2017. On that date singer/songwriter Fats Domino.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1928, singer and pianist Fats Domino channeled his roots in the city’s thriving music scene to become a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll star. Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. was the youngest of eight children born to Antoine Caliste Domino and Marie-Donatille Gros. The Domino family was of French Creole background, and Louisiana Creole was his first language.
Fats Domino was born into a musical family. When Domino was 7, his brother-in-law Harrison Verret taught him to play the piano. By age 10, the talented boy was already performing as a singer and pianist. At 14, Domino dropped out of high school to pursue his musical dreams, taking on odd jobs like factory work and hauling ice to make ends meet. He was inspired by the likes of boogie-woogie piano players like Meade Lux Lewis and singers like Louis Jordan. In 1946, Domino started playing piano for the well-known New Orleans bass player and band leader Billy Diamond, who gave Domino the nickname “Fats,” because Domino reminded him of the renowned pianists Fats Waller and Fats Pichon, but also because of his large appetite. Domino’s rare musical talents quickly made him a sensation, and by 1949 he was drawing substantial crowds on his own.
Domino was signed to the Imperial Records label in 1949 by owner Lew Chudd, to be paid royalties based on sales instead of a fee for each song. He and producer Dave Bartholomew wrote “The Fat Man”, a toned down version of a song about drug addicts called “Junkers Blues”; the record had sold a million copies by 1951. Featuring a rolling piano and Domino vocalizing “wah-wah” over a strong back beat, “The Fat Man” is widely considered the first rock-and-roll record to achieve this level of sales. In 2015, the song would enter the Grammy Hall of Fame. Domino and Bartholomew continued to churn out R&B hits and Top 100 records for years, with Domino’s distinctive style of piano playing, accompanied by simple saxophone riffs, drum afterbeats and his mellow baritone voice, making him stand out in the sea of 1950s R&B singers.
When I first heard of Domino’s death, I spoke with my mother about it and mentioned how successful Fats Domino was throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. We both were reminded of the 70’s sitcom based in that time, “Happy Days”. The show starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler as young adults who grew up as a backdrop of the era’s music played on. In fact, Howard’s character Richie Cunningham, often sang the chorus of Domino’s Blueberry Hill. The show continued the legacy of Fats Domino on throughout the 1980’s.
An amazing fact is that Fats Domino rose to popularity during the 1950’s. African-American artists did not appear on television, and rarely got radio airplay on all white stations. Most of the record companies did not place black artists’ photos on the front of album covers. Most of the time music was covered by a white artist and the credit went to the white artist. Fats Domino found mainstream success in 1955 with his song “Ain’t It a Shame,” covered by Pat Boone as “Ain’t That a Shame”; Boone’s version hit No. 1 on the pop charts, while Domino’s original reached No. 10. The hit record increased Domino’s visibility and record sales, and he soon re-recorded it under the revised name, which remains the popular title/version today.
Fats Domino became a musical and cultural pioneer. In 1956, Domino had five Top 40 hits, including “My Blue Heaven” and his cover of Glenn Miller’s “Blueberry Hill,” which hit No. 2 on the pop charts, Domino’s top charting record ever. He cemented this popularity with appearances in two 1956 films, Shake, Rattle & Rock and The Girl Can’t Help It, and his hit “The Big Beat” was featured on Dick Clark’s television show American Bandstand in 1957.
The country, and perhaps even the world was going through major changes during the 1950’s. Society was integrating, painfully at times, and music was at the forefront. On November 2, 1956, a riot broke out at a Domino concert in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The police used tear gas to break up the unruly crowd. Domino jumped out a window to avoid the mêlée; he and two members of his band were slightly injured. During his career, four major riots occurred at his concerts, “partly because of integration”, according to his biographer Rick Coleman. “But also the fact they had alcohol at these shows. So they were mixing alcohol, plus dancing, plus the races together for the first time in a lot of these places.”
Even though Fats Domino did not record or perform much in his later years of life, he certainly secured his lofty place in musical history. In 1986 Domino was one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. His last tour was in Europe, for three weeks in 1995. After being ill while on tour, Domino decided he would no longer leave the New Orleans area.
Despite being urged to leave New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina striking the city in 2005, Domino preferred to stay home with his wife, Rosemary, who was in poor health at the time. When the hurricane hit, Domino’s Lower Ninth Ward home was badly flooded and the legendary musician lost virtually all his possessions. Many feared that he was dead, but the Coast Guard rescued Domino and his family on September 1. Katrina had also devastated Domino personally. To raise money for repairs to Domino’s home, friends and rock stars alike recorded a charity tribute album, Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. The likes of Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Elton John lent their support to the early rock pioneer.
The rock ‘n’ roll legend died of natural causes on October 24, 2017, at the age of 89, according to the Associated Press. He will be remembered as one of rock’s earliest and most enduring stars, who helped break down color barriers in the music industry. Thank you Fats Domino. Thank you for all the music. Thank you for all the memories, and so much more!