Fats Domino: I found my thrill

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Elvis Presley called him "the real king of rock 'n roll" (Image CC via Wikimedia Commons)

Seminal New Orleans rock and roller Fats Domino has died, aged 89.

The influential singer and pianist sold more than 65 million records, outselling every 1950s recording artist except Elvis Presley. He had more than 30 Top 40 hits during his career, which flourished during the 1950s and 1960s. Five of his pre-1955 records sold more than a million copies and were certified gold.

Domino was only five feet five inches tall and overweight all of his life, due to his love of food. He used to joke that he was as wide as he was tall. This, coupled with his engaging grin, and penchant for ornate and jewel-encrusted "bling", made Domino an iconic figure in the rock and roll world.

He was born Antoine Dominique Domino Jnr in New Orleans on 26 February 1928 to a family of French Creole descent. Louisiana Creole was his first language and spoken at home.

Domino was the eighth and final child of violin player Antoine Caliste Domino and had a very limited education, leaving primary school after completing grade four. He started work as a helper to an ice delivery man and studied shipping management while learning to play piano.

By the age of 14, Domino was performing regularly in New Orleans bars and was eventually discovered in 1947 by a well-known bandleader called Billy Diamond, who invited Domino to perform at a backyard barbecue.

Domino played so well that Diamond recruited him to perform with his band, the Solid Senders, on a regular basis. Domino, a consummate showman, was soon drawing the crowds. Diamond christened Domino "Fats" because of his gargantuan appetite and the fact that Domino reminded him of music greats Fats Waller and Fats Pichon.

The year 1947 was also significant for Domino because that was when he married the love of his life, Rosemary Hall, who bore him eight children and remained with the artist until her death in 2008.

In 1949, Lew Chudd signed Domino to the Imperial Records label, where Domino was paid royalties based on sales rather than a fee per song. He struck gold with 'The Fat Man' — a toned down version of a song about drug addicts called 'Junkers Blues'.

By 1951, the record had sold a million copies.

Domino achieved crossover success in a racially segregated era with 'Ain't That A Shame' (1955), which reached the Top 10. 

A milder version by clean cut boy singer Pat Boone reached number one.

By 1956, Domino was earning $10,000 a week through touring and struck gold again with what was arguably his best-known song, 'Blueberry Hill'. This was a remake of a 1940 song by Vincent Rose, Al Lewis and Larry Stock, which Gene Autry, Louis Armstrong and others had previously recorded.

It reached number two on the Top 40 and was top of the R&B chart for 11 weeks.

Domino had a string of further hit singles between 1956 and 1959, including the rollicking anthem 'I'm Walkin', which reached number four in the charts.

Meanwhile, his concerts had become riotous due to the mixture of black and white patrons in venues that sold alcohol in the Deep South of the United States. The region was racially segregated at the time, and Domino was one of the first artists to bring the two races together for evenings of music and dancing. In 1956, police armed with tear gas had to break up the unruly crowds at one of Domino's shows in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Domino jumped out of the window to avoid the riot that had broken out, and he and two band members were slightly injured.

Due to his street cred and compelling stage performances, Domino was asked to appear in two movies that were released in 1956: Shake, Rattle & Roll and The Girl Can't Help It.

Domino was also kept busy in the studio until 1963, when Imperial Records was sold and he left the label.

"I stuck with them until they sold out," explained Domino.

A move to ABC-Paramount Records, in Nashville, Tennessee, proved to be less than successful, as a new producer and arranger tinkered with Domino's iconic sound. By the end of 1964, the British Invasion had taken over the music industry and Domino's run of chart success was at an end. That said, the Beatles met Domino and claimed to have been very impressed by him.

When asked if he had met the Beatles, Domino famously replied: 

"No, they got to meet me."

Domino eventually moved back to his old neighbourhood, the working class Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, with his wife and children. He was a familiar sight in his bright pink Cadillac. Domino remained in the Lower Ninth Ward until Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, after which he moved to the suburbs.

Despite a lack of chart success in later years, Domino was much loved within the music industry. His rich baritone voice and boogie woogie piano style have been credited for influencing various musical movements, including ska. One of his show-stopping stunts was to play the piano standing up, throwing his body against it with the beat of the music and bumping it across the stage.

Elvis Presley referred to Domino as "the real king of rock and roll".

"A lot of people seem to think I started this business," said Presley. "But rock and roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like coloured people. Let's face it — I can't sing it like Fats Domino. I know that."

Paul McCartney of the Beatles reportedly emulated Domino's style when he wrote 'Lady Madonna'.

Domino was one of the first artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the same year. In 1995, he fell ill while on tour in the UK and announced that he would no longer leave his home in New Orleans. Domino's reasons for this decision were a dislike of touring, sufficient royalty payments to live comfortably and a passion for New Orleans food, which he could not get anywhere else. Domino declined an invitation to perform at the White House based on this policy.

He did, however, continue to perform in New Orleans and made an unexpected appearance in the audience of a 2009 fundraiser called the Domino Effect. Featuring Little Richard and others, the concert was aimed at raising money to help rebuild schools and playgrounds damaged in Hurricane Katrina.

According to the New Orleans coroner's office, Domino died peacefully at home of natural causes.

His death prompted a flood of tributes.

Harry Connick Jnr said:

"You helped pave the way for New Orleans piano players. See you at the top of Blueberry Hill in the sky."

Guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour mourned Domino's death by tweeting, 'Rock & roll lost part of its soul'. 

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