Fats Domino (photo: Chalkie Davies)
Like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Fats Domino was so significant in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that he was among the first inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He even inspired another rotund rock ‘n’ roll great, Ernest Evans, to assume his own stage name of Chubby Checker.
On such immortal 1950s and ‘60s hits as “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I’m Walkin’” and “Whole Lotta Loving,” Domino, who died Tuesday at 89, supplied boogie-woogie piano and a warm singing voice for the New Orleans brand of rock ‘n’ roll that he helped invent--all the while providing its friendliest face.
“His was the closest music ever came to making me feel like what being in a womb might have been like,” says Aaron Fuchs, the New York-based president of Tuff City Records and sister label Night Train Records, the latter heavy on vintage New Orleans R&B.
“I saw him at a New Orleans Jazz Fest evening event in 1979 with Professor Longhair and the Neville Brothers,” continues Fuchs. “Jazz Fest had yet to reverberate internationally, and was still a phenomenon for the locals. The show took place in the hull of a riverboat, and as the band broke into ‘Blueberry Hill’ everyone on board started slow dancing, seeming to be taken back to the best days of their still young lives.”
Looking back to his own younger self when he starred as Troy Charmel in the legendary Midwest show band Dr. Bop & the Headliners, Robert Kenison, whose rendition of “Blueberry Hill” was one of his most beloved showpieces with the group, cites Domino as “a seminal figure in the founding of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Fats Domino performs "Blueberry Hill" on "The Ed Sullivan Show"
“He’s right up there with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry,” says Kenison. “But he was never really a rocker. He never leaped from the piano bench; shaking and screaming to reach a frenetic high was never his thing. His music was about pure joy. You felt it when he looked up from his piano and gave you that impish smile. You heard it in that churning New Orleans musical gumbo of riffing saxes and triplet piano chords. And with that beautiful voice, he spun pure gold. We all found a thrill on Blueberry Hill a long time ago, when Fats did rock ‘n’ roll his way.”
Dr. Bop, incidentally, was at one time managed by the same agency that managed Cheap Trick, who had a Top 40 hit in 1979 with a cover of “Ain’t That a Shame.” Like many of Domino’s songs, it was co-written by him and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee Dave Bartholomew. Domino’s R&B original reached No. 10 on the pop charts in 1955 after Pat Boone had topped them with his straight pop take; as such it played a major role in shifting pop radio away from R&B covers by white pop artists to the original versions by black R&B artists.
Incidentally, too, “Ain't That a Shame” was notably covered by John Lennon on his 1975 album Rock ‘n’ Roll, it being the first rock ‘n’ roll song he learned to play.
In Madison, Wis., oldies radio programmer Rockin’ John McDonald is preparing at least a two-hour Fats Domino memorial special to air this Saturday night on his I Like It Like That show on listener-sponsored WORT-FM.
“A lot of my Fats Domino 45s [singles] are practically unplayable because they’ve been played so much on cheap record players!” says McDonald, who feels that one of them, Domino’s 1949 debut single “The Fat Man,” is of particular historical value.
“There’s a big argument going on as to what is the first rock ‘n’ roll record,” relates McDonald. “Most say it’s ‘Rocket 88’  by Jackie Brenston, with Ike Turner and his band. But ‘The Fat Man’ came before it and has all the rock ‘n’ roll stuff in there, including the beat and the piano.”
McDonald regularly plays Domino hits on his show, most recently his 1968 cover of The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” a hit that instantly evoked Domino’s sound when it was released.
“The second album I ever bought was This is Fats Domino! ” says McDonald (it was in between Alan Freed's Rock N’ Roll Dance Party and Ricky Nelson’s Ricky).
“Ricky’s first big hit was a cover of Fats’ “I’m walkin’,” and he was a big Fats fan,” says McDonald. “But the weird thing is that my parents actually liked rock ‘n’ roll music because it covered a lot of old standards. They gave me and my brother an allowance, which we spent on rock ‘n’ roll 45s when we lived in Brooklyn before moving to Madison. My grandmother lived downstairs, and one day she yelled, ‘Hey! Come downstairs! I just heard the new Fats Domino record. Here’s some money to buy it, so you won’t have to spend your allowance.’ It was ‘Blueberry Hill’ [originally a 1940s big band hit] and one of her favorite songs—and I still have the record!”
In 1987, Domino received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In a statement, the organization’s president/CEO Neil Portnow, said, “In a career spanning more than five decades, Domino charmed audiences with his smooth vocals, boogie-woogie piano style, and unwavering humility. He is widely recognized for influencing artists across all genres, having a number of his hits covered by music industry giants, including John Lennon, Cheap Trick, and Led Zeppelin.”
Paul McCartney, via a message on his website, credited Domino for thrilling The Beatles in their early Liverpool days and introducing them to New Orleans rock ’n’ roll.
“We were excited to meet Fats once in his home town of New Orleans,” McCartney recalled. “He was wearing a huge star-spangled diamond encrusted watch, which was our first encounter with bling! His voice, piano playing and musical style was a huge influence on us and his appearance in the film The Girl Can’t Help It was truly magnificent. As one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll singers, I will remember him fondly and always think of him with that twinkle in his eye.”
Domino’s early rock ‘n’ roll peer Dion, who himself entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only three years after Domino, also said in a statement, “Fats Domino brought so much joy into my life with his music. The rolling sound of his fingers on the piano.”
Dion then invoked Domino’s 1956 cover of another pop standard, “My Blue Heaven”: “’My Blue Heaven’ forever. You will be missed. Eternal peace my friend.”