When the February 1957 cover of Ebony Magazine proclaimed the immensely popular singer/pianist and genre pioneer Fats Domino the “King of Rock and Roll,” the publication may have been onto something.
After all, Domino was a young music phenom who’d been dominating the R&B charts for seven years at that point and who had just enjoyed his biggest of several top ten hits on the pop charts with “Blueberry Hill.”
More importantly, Domino’s brand of R&B was critical to the development and expansion of what would soon become known as rock and roll, a music genre that started with rolling piano riffs and horn blasts – oh, and black people (like Domino) – but ultimately became associated with guitars and, well more guitars…and our lighter-skinned counterparts.
Antoine “Fats” Domino, Jr. – the legendary singer and pianist who spent almost all of his life in New Orleans, Louisiana – died in his home state on October 24, 2017, of natural causes. He was 89.
There wasn’t much in the way of news coverage when Domino passed away. Yes, there were the obligatory short segments on news channels and the major networks, but it didn’t garner the kind of attention that other recent celebrity deaths like Prince, George Michael or Whitney Houston did.
It certainly wasn’t the sendoff befitting music royalty.
Part of that was understandable – even excusable. After all, Domino, whose 90th birthday was only four months away, had lived a full life by most standards, particularly rock star ones, while many of the other major celebrities who’ve passed recently did so seemingly before their time.
But Domino’s passing happened in much the same way he lived his life, with very little fanfare and hardly any public fuss.
In fact, Fats Domino rarely asked for the spotlight, whether he was selling millions and millions of records like he did throughout the 1950s, or when he was unwittingly thrust (by others) into the decades-old debate about his place in rock and roll history, particularly as it relates to his white counterparts whose names are more often associated with rock music’s expansion… Elvis Presley being the most prominent among them.
In recent years, Domino was so ensconced in his retirement that the only time many music fans were even sure he was still alive was when he would emerge from his solace in New Orleans for some major occasion, like one of his many Hall of Fame inductions or the infamous rescue of Domino and his family f rom their flooded home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But Domino’s unparalleled success during the 1950s, particularly on the soul music charts, made him worthy of the kind of recognition and praise afforded artists possessing far less talent and facing much easier odds than he did throughout his life and career.
From the beginning, the odds were stacked against Domino – a poor, uneducated black kid in the segregated south and the last of eight children born to a part-time violinist and racetrack worker. Domino was a 4th-grade dropout whose fate would change for the better when he was introduced to the piano at age ten, something that would define the rest of his life – as well as change American music forever. He would take on music as a profession not long after being spotted playing piano in a New Orleans bar as a teenager. By 1949, he was signed to Imperial Records and at 21 years old he recorded his first single, “The Fat Man.”
The music industry during the racially divided 1940s and ‘50s was no different from any other profession. With few exceptions, like Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole or the Ink Spots, or an occasional jazz musician like Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington, black musicians had their place and it was usually not on white radio or the pop record charts. Black songs were often still being called “race records” and only six months before “The Fat Man” was recorded, that was even how Billboard Magazine referred to their black music charts as well, before adopting the “rhythm and blues” moniker in June of 1949.
“The Fat Man,” with its rolling piano riffs and Domino’s famous “wah-wah-wah” vocals, would chart in early 1950, reaching No. 2 on the 15-position rhythm and blues singles chart and selling a million copies in the process, earning Domino instant recognition and a huge audience among black listeners (and some whites). Not only did the song launch the legendary career of Fats Domino, but it is largely considered to be the first rock and roll record to sell a million copies, though the term “rock and roll” didn’t yet exist and the song sold well without the benefit of white radio.
As his career progressed, Domino would forge a very successful songwriting partnership with bandleader Dave Bartholomew, in whose band Domino played and with whom he co-wrote many of the million-selling, chart-topping songs that followed “The Fat Man.” From 1950-55, however, those songs were relegated to the R&B charts, with none crossing over to pop until 1955’s “Ain’t That A Shame” (retitled from “Ain’t It A Shame”).
The crossover success of “Ain’t That A Shame” wasn’t a given. “Shame” was not that different from Domino’s other R&B sides. The song had been around for months and was doing very well with R&B audiences before a budding white pop singer named Pat Boone released a cover version.
That was when things changed for both Boone, whose career had launched only a few months earlier with a moderately charting cover of another song by a black act (“Two Hearts” by The Charms), and Domino, who became a pop chart mainstay after Boone covered his hit.
Boone’s version of “Ain’t That A Shame” famously reached the national pop lists first, with Domino’s following a week later. Predictably, Boone’s very pop version topped the mainstream charts with ease, while Domino’s soulful rocker barely cracked the top ten.
But because of his newfound mainstream exposure, Domino continued to make the pop charts between 1955-57 (and beyond) with even bigger hits, including “I’m In Love Again” and his signature song, “Blueberry Hill” which topped the R&B charts and reached No. 2 pop. Big hits like “Blue Monday” and “I’m Walkin’” quickly followed and soon Domino would have more hits on the pop charts during his career (66) than he did on the R&B lists (61).
It was the near-simultaneous success of two of his biggest hits, “Blueberry Hill” and “Blue Monday,” that made Domino a household name and prompted that Ebony magazine cover proclaiming him “King of Rock and Roll,” right around the same time that Elvis Presley was making waves with white (and black) audiences using black musical styles.
As rock and roll became more and more distanced from R&B, it eventually became synonymous with white artists like Bill Haley & the Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and of course, Presley, who scored nine number one pop singles between 1955-57 (he would have nine more later in his career).
We all know how the story ended. Elvis Presley has been known as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll for generations. It’s a title his fans firmly believe and – along with many rock music historians – will defend to their graves.
Domino, however, never laid claim to the title, despite Ebony magazine’s crowning to the contrary in 1957, and despite the fact that when the two genres – R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll – were barely distinguishable – Domino was the top R&B artist in the business… and the second-most successful rock and roll artist, behind Elvis.
Many artists who’ve directly or indirectly benefited from Domino’s groundbreaking musical style have since sung his praises as an influence. Even Elvis, with whom Domino forged a touching friendship through the years, would defer his title to Domino whenever he was present during Presley’s shows or interviews. Paul McCartney famously wrote the Beatles’ 1968 hit “Lady Madonna” from vocal and lyrical inspiration he derived from Domino’s “Blue Monday.” Ironically, Domino’s cover version of “Lady Madonna” would be his last Hot 100 single later in 1968.
Of course it’s easier to give someone their props when you’ve reaped most of the benefits. For that reason, the acknowledgment of artists like Domino by McCartney, Tom Petty, Elton John, John Lennon and many others has always been dubious at best.
But that never appeared to bother Fats Domino, whose humility and shyness didn’t allow him to take part in such debates.
He left that to us…and history.
In 1986, Domino and Presley were among ten acts included in the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, along with Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and the Everly Brothers.
During the ceremony, Fats paid a personal tribute to Presley, the widely acknowledged King of Rock and Roll.
But, under very different and more just circumstances, Domino could easily have been our King of Rock and Roll.
RIP Antoine “Fats” Domino (February 26, 1928 – October 24, 2017).