Rock-and-roll pioneer Fats Domino died of natural causes on Tuesday in a New Orleans suburb, according to reports. He was 89.
And though rock and roll owes its soul to guys like Domino, one famous Philadelphia musician owes his stage name to the rock pianist — along with Dick Clark’s ex-wife.
Domino was born Antoine Domino Jr. in New Orleans, the city where he carved out his place in the music industry and earned his nickname by the 1940s. As the story goes, by the mid ’40s, Domino was growing in popularity and pants size, leading a New Orleans bandleader to nickname him “Fats,” after renowned pianists like Fats Pichon and Fats Waller.
The name stuck, prompting Domino in 1949 to release “The Fat Man,” his first hit, via Imperial Records. From there, Domino was on the path to music royalty, thanks to hits like “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I Hear You Knocking” throughout the 1950s and ’60s. According to NPR, Domino had hits on the charts 63 times between 1950 and 1963, outselling other popular artists of the day, like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry.
That influence was not lost on American Bandstand, filmed in Philly, and on which Domino made numerous appearances throughout its run. That was a good thing for Philadelphia’s Ernest Evans, better known as Chubby Checker.
Born in South Carolina but raised in South Philly, Checker, 76, got his start in music singing for customers at shops in the Italian Market in the 1950s. That eventually got him a private recording session with Clark around 1958, when the Bandstand host was working on a Christmas project, as Checker told the Inquirer after Clark’s death in 2012.
“I was 16 years old when I first met Dick. It was about two years before we did ‘The Twist,’ ” Checker told music writer Dan DeLuca, adding that, “I was Ernest” at the time. He hadn’t adopted a stage name yet.
During the session, Evans had reportedly been doing a Fats Domino impression that apparently was a little too good. Clark’s then-wife, Barbara Mallery, was in the room during the recording, and she asked the singer what he wanted his name to be. After he suggested “Chubby” — a childhood nickname, according to Billboard — Mallery had a bolt of inspiration.
In 2012, the singer said, “Dick’s wife came up with my name. ‘Chubby’ became Chubby Checker.” The joke, of course, being that Checker’s and Domino’s names are essentially the same: A first name that means “plump” and a last name that’s a tabletop game.
As with Domino, Checker’s name stuck, and by 1960, he had cemented his place in rock history with “The Twist,” which received exposure on Bandstand, thanks to Clark.
“History was made the day Chubby Checker went on Bandstand with ‘The Twist,’ ” Checker said in 2012. “Going on Bandstand was like getting a Nobel Prize.”
The rest is history, but it never would have happened without Fats Domino paving the way. He is survived by eight children, according to Forbes.