Fats Domino, the New Orleans piano man who died Tuesday at 89, was an early rock-and-roll pioneer who made joyful, genial music that is extremely difficult not to like.
Unlike contemporaries such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Mr. Domino never came off as a dangerous rebel who was threatening to society at large, and his his music did not have the slyly subversive streak of Chuck Berry.
What it did have — starting with “The Fat Man,” the 1949 single that was his first million-seller and that is also a contender in the argument over what is the first rock-and-roll record — was a wondrous combination of boogie-woogie and New Orleans second-line rhythm that was too much fun not to cross over to a massive pop audience.
Which it did, starting with “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955, a top-10 hit that was appropriated (and taken to No. 1) by Pat Boone that same year. (Cheap Trick also had a hit with a live cover in 1978 that was reportedly Mr. Domino’s favorite version.)
From then, more smashes followed, including “Blueberry Hill,” “I’m Walkin’,” “I’m in Love Again,” and “Walking to New Orleans.” Mr. Domino — who cowrote most of his hits with trumpeter and producer Dave Bartholomew — sold more than 60 million records between 1949 and 1962, achieving a level of popularity that that explains why a South Philadelphia teenager named Ernest Evans was willing to be renamed Chubby Checker in a nod to the cheerful New Orleans entertainer.
Mr. Domino was one of the first 10 honorees named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Rolling Stone Record Guide likened him to Benjamin Franklin, the beloved old man of a revolutionary movement.
“We’ve lowered the flag and we’re playing his music all day,” said Greg Harris, CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Fats is the godfather of rock and roll,” Harris said.
After the 1980s, Mr. Domino didn’t tour and rarely left New Orleans, making infrequent public appearances. In 1998, he became the first purely rock-and-roll musician to be awarded the National Medal for the Arts. But he cited his age and didn’t make the trip to the White House to get the medal from President Bill Clinton.
The youngest of eight children, he was born Antoine Domino Jr. on Feb. 26, 1928, into a musical family — he was one of nine children — of French Creole heritage in the Lower Ninth Ward. He quit school at 14 and worked days in a factory, playing and singing in local juke joints at night. In 1949, Mr. Domino was playing at the Hideaway Club for $3 a week when he was signed by Imperial Records.
He recorded his first song, “The Fat Man,” in the back of a tiny recording studio in the French Quarter. “They call me the fat man, because I weigh 200 pounds,” he sang. “All the girls, they love me, ’cause I know my way around.” He broke through to white audiences in 1955 with “Ain’t That a Shame.” But, like many of his peers, Mr. Domino’s popularity tapered off in the 1960s as British and psychedelic rock held sway. “I refused to change,” he told Ebony magazine. “I had to stick to my own style that I’ve always used or it just wouldn’t be me.”
In 1988, all of New Orleans seemed to be talking about him after he reportedly paid cash for two Cadillacs and a $130,000 Rolls-Royce. When the salesman asked whether he wanted to call his bank about financing, Mr. Domino smiled and said, “I am the bank.”
Even after moving across the Mississippi River to Harvey, La., he maintained a home and office in the Lower Ninth that was painted black and yellow and emblazoned with a giant F and D.
It was from the roof of that building that he was rescued by helicopter when the Lower Ninth was flooded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr. Domino was scheduled to close out the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival the next year but had to cancel due to illness (Lionel Richie filled in as a last-minute replacement). The much-beloved legend never performed live after that, though he did make a cameo in a 2012 episode of David Simon’s post-Katrina HBO New Orleans music drama, Treme.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.