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Fats Domino, the man Elvis called the ‘real king’ of rock, is dead at 89

Fats Domino, the New Orleans kid who became one of the seminal creators of what we know consider rock ‘n’ roll, passed away earlier today. He was 89 years old.

Born Antoine Dominique Domino Jr., the man they called Fats started working with a band at a local New Orleans club called Hideaway. His gregarious style and ‘boogie woogie piano’ immediately made him the de facto leader of the group.

Before long, Imperial Records came to the Hideaway and immediately signed Fats. This was in 1949, when segregation was rampant and Black musicians getting major record deals was extremely rare.

Domino, along with producer and arranger David Bartholomew, got right into the studio and made “Fat Man”, which would sell a million copies only a couple years later.

Throughout the 50s, Fats would continue to stay at the top of the charts with hits like “Ain’t It A Shame” and “I’m Walkin'”.

White performers often took Domino’s songs and flipped them to make their own hits. Pat Boone got a No. 1 hit with his version of “Ain’t That A Shame”.

Boone was nowhere near the performer or musician that Domino was, but his skin color allowed him to profit off Fats’ own songwriting.

Ultimately, Domino will be remembered for his influences on the genre of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues. Fats brought sounds from the Bayou, the boogie woogie piano, his swaggering personality, and love for the music, to mainstream, white audiences like no one before him. Domino changed the sound and look of popular music during an intensely conservative era.

And the more popular (white) figures in rock knew it.

In a 1957 interview with Jet magazine, Elvis Presley was quick to give Fats and the real originators of rock music their props. Presley said,

“A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

At one point, after a performance in Las Vegas in which an interviewer referred to Presley as ‘King’, Elvis pointed towards Domino, who was sitting nearby, and said, “There’s the real king of rock ’n’ roll.”

And for Domino, the music was just natural. Once asked “How did this rock ’n’ roll all get started anyway?” Domino replied simply, “Well, what they call rock ’n’ roll now is rhythm and blues. I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans.”

When he was young, Domino dropped out of elementary school to become the assistant to an iceman. He learned piano by stopping in people’s homes and playing on their keys. He told USA Today about teaching himself the piano, “In the houses where people had a piano in their rooms, I’d stop and play. That’s how I practiced.”

Fats Domino’s legacy stretches throughout American music and has influenced genres like rock, R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and soul. He was one of the first Black American musicians to enter the mainstream and at a time when segregation was at its apex, Domino toured in front of white teenagers and played primetime TV shows, broadcasted into millions of American households.

Robert Christgau, the ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’, wrote that Fats Domino was perhaps the ‘most widely liked rock and roller of the 50s’ and that Domino’s true influence had been minimized over the years. From Christgau’s 1990 review of The Best of Fats Domino:

“Nobody hated [Domino], which you couldn’t say of Elvis, or Pat Boone, who despite the color of his skin charted just two more top 10 records. Warm and unthreatening even by the intensely congenial standards of New Orleans, he’s remembered with fond condescension as significantly less innovative than his uncommercial compatriots Professor Longhair and James Booker. But though his bouncy boogie-woogie piano and easy Creole gait were generically Ninth Ward, they defined a pop-friendly second-line beat that nobody knew was there before he and Dave Bartholomew created ‘The Fat Man’ in 1949. In short, this shy, deferential, uncharismatic man invented New Orleans rock and roll.”

Rest in power, Fats. We know you’ll keep on boogieing.