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Fats Domino, R&B Singer and Rock Pioneer, Dies at 89

Fats Domino, the rotund, inimitable New Orleans R&B singer and pianist who became one of the defining figures of early rock ’n’ roll, died on Tuesday at his home in Harvey, La. He was 89.

Robin Nicoll, an administrative assistant at the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office in Louisiana, confirmed the news to Variety. Domino died of natural causes.

The most powerful, and certainly the most popular, of a generation of great Crescent City keyboardists, Domino rocked into the public consciousness in 1950 with the self-referential single “The Fat Man,” the first of a string of R&B hits that stretched into the early ’60s. In all, he toted up nine No. 1 R&B hits and 40 top-10 R&B singles through 1961.

In 1955, he crossed over to pop success with the slamming top-10 hit “Ain’t That a Shame.” He became a pop star of the first rank with hits like “I’m in Love Again” (No. 3, 1956), “Blueberry Hill” (No. 2, 1956), “Blue Monday” (No. 5, 1957) and “I’m Walkin’” (No. 4, 1957).

The propulsive swing of his insistent piano work and the immense warmth and fluidity of his vocals made Domino a pop luminary in an era of still rigorous racial segregation. Nonetheless, white performers cashed in on his repertoire with blander versions of his material: Pat Boone reached No. 1 with “Ain’t That a Shame,” while Rick Nelson hit No. 4 with “I’m Walkin’.”

His biographer Rick Coleman wrote, “As (Domino’s bandleader-arranger) Dave Bartholomew would later put it, Domino was the ‘cornerstone’ of rock ’n’ roll, inspiring many later legends who began their careers as Domino fans: Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, John Fogerty, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen.”

In 1986, he joined Presley, Berry, Holly and Little Richard as an inaugural inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Domino placed his last pop hit in 1968 — with a cover of “Lady Madonna,” released earlier that year by his acolytes the Beatles — and was essentially inactive in the studio after 1980.

However, he toured into the ’90s and continued to appear annually at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In 2005, he made national headlines in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he was rescued from his flooded home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

He was a product of that neighborhood. He was born Antoine Domino, the youngest of nine children in a Creole family. His main schooling on piano came from his brother-in-law Harrison Verrett.

Domino first established himself as the 20-year-old keyboardist in Billy Diamond’s band; it was the flamboyant bandleader who gave the roly-poly young pianist his enduring nickname. It was at the Hideaway Club on Desire Street that Domino was scouted by Dave Bartholomew, a local trumpeter who was serving as an A&R man for Lew Chudd’s fledgling Los Angeles-based independent label Imperial Records.

Domino’s first session for Imperial came in December 1949. It produced the bounding barrelhouse “The Fat Man,” which burst out of New Orleans to become a national hit, charting in early 1950 and eventually reaching No. 2. It was co-authored by Bartholomew, who would go on to co-write many other Domino hits and arrange the pianist’s recordings. Many of the songs would be recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s busy J&M Studio in New Orleans, with a crack team of musicians that included saxophonists Herb Hardesty, Alvin “Red” Tyler and Lee Allen and drummer Earl Palmer.

Domino swiftly became the most consistent hitmaker for Imperial. His No. 1 R&B hits of the early ’50s included “Goin’ Home” (1952), “Ain’t That a Shame,” “All by Myself” and “Poor Me” (1955) and “I’m in Love Again” (1956). “Ain’t That a Shame” was the first Domino number to cross into the pop top 10, and “I’m in Love Again” was the first to reach the top five.

In 1956-57, Domino rode the crest of rock ’n’ roll’s explosive growth, stoked by Presley’s meteoric rise and a growing teen appetite for the raucous R&B sound. His biggest hit was “Blueberry Hill,” a 1940 composition by Vincent Rose, Al Lewis and Larry Stock that Glenn Miller had taken to No. 2; Domino’s matched that pop position and charted No. 1 on the R&B side. “Blue Monday” and “I’m Walkin’” kept him near the top of the pop chart in ’57.

Domino’s stardom was such that he was featured in two rock ’n’ roll movie programmers of 1956: “Shake, Rattle & Rock” and Frank Tashlin’s lurid widescreen Technicolor pic “The Girl Can’t Help It,” in which he appeared alongside Little Richard, whose own recordings featured many of the same musicians who backed Domino.

He would continue to mine his formula successfully long after the first flush of rock ’n’ roll had passed. He charted his last No. 1 R&B hit, the strolling “I Want to Walk You Home,” in 1959. He reached the R&B top five and the pop top 10 in 1960 with an indelible salute to his hometown, “Walking to New Orleans.” “Let the Four Winds Blow,” a No. 2 R&B entry in 1961, was his last major hit.

Domino’s association with Imperial and Bartholomew ended in 1963, and he moved to ABC-Paramount. The label had seen some success with Ray Charles’ country recordings, and its new piano-playing R&B signee was sent to Nashville in the hope of similar hits. But Domino’s stay with the label produced only one top-40 pop hit: a No. 35 rendering of Bing Crosby’s 1935 hit “Red Sails in the Sunset.” A brief stint at Mercury followed.

In 1968, Domino signed to Reprise for what proved to be his major label swan song, the album “Fats Is Back.” Produced by Richard Perry and featuring a studio band that included his onetime New Orleans accompanist Earl Palmer and Crescent City keyboardist James Booker, the set was distinguished by a version of the Beatles’ Domino homage “Lady Madonna.” Despite great reviews, the album charted only briefly at No. 189, and “Lady Madonna” peaked at No. 100.

Domino would make only one more chart appearance: “Whiskey Heaven,” recorded for his appearance in Clint Eastwood’s 1980 redneck comedy “Any Which Way You Can,” became his one and only country chart record, peaking at No. 51.

He continued to play Las Vegas, tour internationally and release live recordings through the ’80s, but he left the road permanently after a pneumonia-marred May 1995 date with Chuck Berry and Little Richard in Sheffield, England. He confined himself to occasional appearances in New Orleans thereafter.

After Katrina hammered New Orleans in August 2005, Domino was reported as missing in the media. In fact, the musician, who had chosen to stay in his home rather than evacuate, had huddled with his family on the second story of his flooded house and was rescued by a New Orleans Harbor Police boat and transported to a Baton Rouge shelter. In the aftermath of the flood, Domino restored the gutted house.

Though he didn’t perform, he appeared at the 2006 Jazz & Heritage Festival to greet the crowd. He returned to live performing in May 2007 at a rapturous show at the New Orleans club Tipitina’s. Later that year, an all-star tribute album, “Goin’ Home,” was released, featuring performances by Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Elton John and Robert Plant, among others.

In October 2012, Domino appeared as himself in the HBO series “Treme.”

He was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and received the National Medal of the Arts in 1998.

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