Rock 'n' roll pioneer Fats Domino dies at 89

Fats Domino pictured in 1967. Picture: PA.
Fats Domino pictured in 1967. Picture: PA.

Fats Domino, the rock 'n' roll pioneer whose steady, pounding piano and easy baritone helped change popular music, has died at the age of 89.

He died on Tuesday, according to Mark Bone, chief investigator with Jefferson Parish coroner's office in Louisiana.

At least in appearance, Domino was no Elvis Presley, standing at 5ft 5in and weighing more than 200lb, with a wide, boyish smile and a haircut as flat as an album cover.

But he sold more than 110 million records, including 22 million singles with hits including Blueberry Hill, Ain't That A Shame and other rock 'n' roll standards.

Domino was one of the first 10 acts named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Rolling Stone Record Guide likened him to Benjamin Franklin, the beloved old man of a revolutionary movement.

His dynamic performance style and warm vocals drew crowds for five decades. One of his show-stopping stunts was playing the piano while standing, throwing his body against it with the beat of the music and bumping the grand piano across the stage.

His 1956 version of Blueberry Hill was selected for the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry of historic sound recordings worthy of preservation.

The preservation board noted that Domino insisted on performing the song despite his producer's doubts, adding that Domino's "New Orleans roots are evident in the Creole-inflected cadences that add richness and depth to the performance".

Domino became a global star but stayed true to his home town, where his fate was initially unknown after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. It turned out that he and his family had been rescued by boat from his home, where he lost three pianos and dozens of gold and platinum records, along with other memorabilia.

Many wondered if he would ever return to the stage. Scheduled to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006, he simply tipped his hat to thousands of cheering fans.

But in May 2007, he was back, performing at Tipitina's music club in New Orleans. Fans cheered - and some cried - as he played I'm Walkin', Ain't That A Shame, Shake, Rattle And Roll, Blueberry Hill and a host of other hits.

That performance was a highlight during several rough years. After losing their home and almost all their belongings to the floods, his wife of more than 50 years, Rosemary, died in April 2008.

Domino moved to the New Orleans suburb of Harvey after the storm but often visited his publishing house, an extension of his old home in the Lower 9th Ward, inspiring many with his determination to stay in the city he loved.

"Fats embodies everything good about New Orleans," his friend David Lind said in a 2008 interview. "He's warm, fun-loving, spiritual, creative and humble. You don't get more New Orleans than that."

The son of a violin player, Antoine Domino Jr was born on February 26 1928, to a family that grew to include nine children.

As a youth, he taught himself popular piano styles - ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie - after his cousin left an old upright in the house. Fats Waller and Albert Ammons were early influences.

He quit school at 14, and worked days in a factory while playing and singing in local joints at night. In 1949, Domino was playing at the Hideaway Club for 3 dollars a week when he was signed by the Imperial record company.

He recorded his first song, The Fat Man, in the back of a tiny French Quarter recording studio.

"They call me the Fat Man, because I weigh 200lb," he sang. "All the girls, they love me, 'cause I know my way around."

In 1955, he broke into the white pop charts with Ain't That a Shame, and he enjoyed a parade of successes through the early 1960s, including Be My Guest and I'm Ready.

Domino appeared in rock 'n' roll film The Girl Can't Help It and was among the first black performers to feature in popular music shows, starring with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers.

He also helped bridge rock 'n' roll and other styles - even country and western - recording Hank Williams's Jambalaya and Bobby Charles's Walkin' To New Orleans.

Like many of his peers, Domino's popularity tapered off in the 1960s as British and psychedelic rock held sway.

He told Ebony magazine he stopped recording because companies wanted him to update his style.

"I refused to change," he said. "I had to stick to my own style that I've always used or it just wouldn't be me."

Antoine and Rosemary Domino raised eight children in the same ramshackle neighbourhood where he grew up, but they did it in style - in a white mansion, trimmed in pink, yellow and lavender. The front double doors opened into an atrium with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and ivory dominos set in a white marble floor.

In 1998, he became the first purely rock 'n' roll musician to be awarded the National Medal for the Arts, but he cited his age and did not make the trip to the White House to get the medal from Bill Clinton.

Aside from rare appearances in New Orleans, he dodged the spotlight in his later years, refusing to appear in public or even to give interviews.