Filed Under:  Entertainment, Local

New Orleans’ legendary ambassador, Fats Domino, dies at age 89

30th October 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

When Fats Domino sat at the piano to perform, his vocal microphone was always at the side closest to the audience. Each time he began to sing, he’d look up from the keyboard and offer the crowd a big, loving smile. People around the globe beamed right back at the amiable musical icon from New Orleans. Antoine “Fats” Domino, a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who, like trumpeter Louis Armstrong, put his hometown on the map and on the music charts, died on Tuesday, October 24, 2017, at the age of 89.

“It was something just to see this man walk across a stage and see how the people responded to him and how much love he to them,” says saxophonist Roger Lewis who joined Domino’s band in 1971. “Everybody loved Fats Domino all over the world. Playing with Fats was the highlight of my career.”Fats-Domino-circa-103017

Born in New Orleans, Domino spent most of his life living in the Lower 9th Ward. It’s where he first laid hands on a piano, there in his family’s modest shotgun home. The instrument, on which he found instant affinity, had been inherited by his family and he received instructions from his brother-in-law, guitarist and banjoist Harrison Verret. At age 10, he was already playing at parties and barbecues in his neighborhood. Meanwhile, he also worked odd jobs including delivering ice.

When Domino was 18, bandleader and bassist Billy Diamond, who called the chubby young musician Fats, hired the pianist to play with his group at its regular gig at the Hideaway Club, a noted spot in the Lower 9. “He was creating a sensation in the nightclubs where he was performing,” vocalist/guitarist/bandleader Deacon John remembers. Deacon, the current president of the local musician’s union, notes that Domino was a lifelong union member joining the organization in 1946 when it was still segregated.

It was at the Hideaway that trumpeter/bandleader/producer/arranger and talent scout Dave Bartholomew and Lew Chudd, the founder and president of the Imperial record label, first heard the pianist and vocalist everybody was screaming about – Fats Domino. The same night, they asked Fats if he wanted to make a record and soon Domino signed with Imperial. The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.

“When I first saw him playing, I just knew he had something special,” says Bartholomew who teamed with Fats as co-writer on his first recording, “The Fat Man” that hit the R&B charts in February 1950. “He was a natural – he just had a natural gift. Fats had a gift from God that he could sing and play.” The collaboration between Fats and Bartholomew, who also acted as Domino’s producer and arranger, was magic as is evident by Fats’ million selling hits and rise to fame. Fats boasted 11 Top 10 records in the five years between 1955 and 1960.Antione-Fats-Domino-2001-NO

“I made the music fit him so we could get together to sell it – you see what I’m trying to say?” Bartholomew offers. “We made it a commercial type thing. I took the music and sounds that we heard from the street and arranged it to fit dance halls but also to fit Fats!”

“The reason he made it so big is that he had a simple style that appealed to a whole generation of teenagers that were growing up and dancing to the rhythm and blues that his music provided,” Deacon John suggests. “He was the guy who provided the beat. As a producer, Dave knew how to put all the parts together. He was like the architect and Fats provided the talent, songwriting and vocal delivery that appealed to the people of that era. Fats had a producer who was up to selecting the right material for him to succeed in show business. Dave was an expert and in his collaboration with Fats they came up with the right songs. After you put out a hit, you have to have one to follow that. Once you have ‘Blueberry Hill’ what are you going to follow up with that one… ‘I Want to Walk You Home.’ It was mostly sing-a-long songs. With sing-a-long songs you’ve got the audience in the palm of your hand. Fats sang about the kind of themes that appeal to people during their teenage years – cars, dating, falling in love, falling out of love.”

“You know, his music was non-threatening – all clean lyrics,” Lewis adds then as an example he mentions “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” On the bandstand Lewis remembers Domino as being a perfectionist. “He had perfect pitch so if you played a wrong note, he could figure out where it came from and who played it. He’d say, ‘Hey, boy, don’t play that note.’ His voice was like a fine-tuned instrument and he had that kind of Creole thing in his voice – very unique. His memory was also incredible. Fats was something else, I’m telling you.”

Fats’ talent went beyond the bandstand and straight into the kitchen. “He’d always tell you to come over to his house to eat,” Lewis recalls. “I remember one day he was making some hog head cheese – you know he liked pork products. He had three kinds of hog head cheese – mild, medium and hot. He’d always be cookin’ – it was his pastime. He might have a big old pot of butter beans with ham hocks in ‘em or be making rum cake. Eat a slice of that rum cake, you’d come out a different person than you went in. Fats was a beautiful human being.”

“I was so blessed getting to play with Fats Domino,” says Deacon John, who performed several gig with the pianist’s band. Though Deacon was a guitarist, he, like musicians around the world, was highly influenced by Fats. “I used to listen to the guitars on Fats Domino’s records. I got to know Papoose (Walter “Papoose” Nelson), Fats Domino’s guitar player. I went over to his house and he’d be showing me this shit,” Back in the day, Deacon says he played many of Domino’s hits like “The Fat Man” and “Valley of Tears” with his own band and they still remain in his repertoire today. His favorite: “Going to the River.”

Fats Domino was among the first 10 musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sold 36 million records and he became a musical icon who was known and admired throughout the world. With all of that, he remained down home in his nature. According to Deacon John, it was in a shoe box that Fats kept his numerous diamond rings that shined on his fingers when he masterfully played his signature triplets on the piano.

“Great people come from humble beginnings and Fats was one of them,” Deacon proclaims. “He was blessed with humility. Fats was never a flashy cat – he kept a kind of low profile. Fats spent his life helping people. He was taking care of so many musicians, giving them jobs and giving them money to support their families. He paid them well and kept them working all the time. Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong are originators. They perpetuated the indigenous culture of New Orleans.”

The image of Fats Domino bumping a piano across a stage at the end of a show always brings a smile. It’s a smile that mirrors his own broad grin when he joyfully connected with his fans who he loved and who loved him. “This time I’m walkin’ to New Orleans…”

This article originally published in the October 30, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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