Fats Domino Biography

Antoine Domino, 26 February 1928, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. From a large family, Domino learned piano from local musician Harrison Verrett who was also his brother-in-law. A factory worker after leaving school, Domino played in local clubs such as the Hideaway. It was there in 1949 that band leader Dave Bartholomew and Lew Chudd of Imperial Records heard him. His first recording, ‘The Fat Man’, became a Top 10 R&B hit the next year and launched his unique partnership with Bartholomew who co-wrote and arranged dozens of Domino tracks over the next two decades. As With Professor Longhair, Domino’s playing was derived from the rich mixture of musical styles to be found in New Orleans. These included traditional jazz, Latin rhythms, boogie-woogie, Cajun and blues. Domino’s personal synthesis of these influences involved lazy, rich vocals supported by rolling piano rhythms. On occasion his relaxed approach was at odds with the urgency of other R&B and rock artists and the Imperial engineers would frequently speed up the tapes before Domino’s singles were released. During the early 50s, Domino gradually became one of the most successful R&B artists in America. Songs such as ‘Goin’ Home’ and ‘Going To The River’, ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’ and ‘Don’t You Know’ were bestsellers and he also toured throughout the country. The touring group included the nucleus of the band assembled by Dave Bartholomew for recordings at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. Among the musicians were Lee Allen (saxophone), Frank Field (bass) and Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson (guitar).

By 1955, rock ‘n’ roll had arrived and young white audiences were ready for Domino’s music. His first pop success came with ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ in 1955, although Pat Boone’s cover version sold more copies. ‘Bo Weevil’ was also covered, by Teresa Brewer, but the catchy ‘I’m In Love Again’, with its incisive saxophone phrases from Allen, took Domino into the pop Top 10. The b-side was an up-tempo treatment of the 20s standard, ‘My Blue Heaven’, which Verrett had sung with Papa Celestin’s New Orleans jazz band. Domino’s next big success also came with a pre-rock ‘n’ roll song, ‘Blueberry Hill’. Inspired by Louis Armstrong’s 1949 version, Domino used his Creole drawl to perfection. Altogether, Fats Domino had nearly 20 US Top 20 singles between 1955 and 1960. Among the last of them was the majestic ‘Walking To New Orleans’, a Bobby Charles composition that became a string-laden tribute to the sources of his musical inspiration. His track record in the Billboard R&B lists, however, is impressive, with 63 records reaching the charts.

Domino continued to record prolifically for Imperial until 1963, maintaining a consistently high level of performance. There were original compositions such as the jumping ‘My Girl Josephine’ and ‘Let the Four Winds Blow’ and cover versions of country songs (Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’) as well as standard ballads such as ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’, his final hit single in 1963. The complex off-beat of ‘Be My Guest’ was a clear precursor of the ska rhythms of Jamaica, where Domino was popular and toured in 1961. The only unimpressive moments came when he was persuaded to jump on the twist bandwagon, recording a banal number titled ‘Dance With Mr Domino’. By now, Lew Chudd had sold the Imperial company and Domino switched labels to ABC Paramount. There he recorded several albums with producers Felton Jarvis and Bill Justis, but his continuing importance lay in his tours of North America and Europe, which recreated the sound of the 50s for new generations of listeners. The quality of Domino’s touring band was well captured on a 1965 live album for Mercury Records from Las Vegas with Roy Montrell (guitar), Cornelius Coleman (drums) and the saxophones of Herb Hardesty and Lee Allen. Domino continued this pattern of work into the 70s, breaking it slightly when he gave the Beatles’ ‘Lady Madonna’ a New Orleans treatment. He made further albums for Reprise Records (1968) and Sonet Records (1979), the Reprise sides being the results of a reunion session with Dave Bartholomew.

Official recognition of Domino’s contribution to popular music came in the late 80s. In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and won Hall Of Fame and Lifetime Achievement awards at the 1987 Grammy’s. In 1991 EMI Records, which now owned the Imperial catalogue, released a scholarly box set of Domino’s remarkable recordings. Two years later, Domino was back in the studio recording his first sessions proper for 25 years, resulting in his Christmas Is A Special Day set. ‘People don’t know what they’ve done for me’, he reflected. ‘They always tell me, “Oh Fats, thanks for so many years of good music”. And I’ll be thankin’ them before they’re finished thankin’ me!’ He remains a giant figure of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, both musically and physically.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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