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Fats Domino Was a New Orleans Legend

The boundless singer, who died Tuesday at 89, was an unassuming force who shaped the future of rock ’n’ roll

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Antoine Domino Jr. was no more than 5-foot-5, over 200 jolly pounds of legendary pianist. He died Tuesday morning in his native New Orleans, and while living until the age of 89 with “Fats” as a nickname is a feat unto itself, he’ll be remembered most for rocking first and friendliest, a smiling, founding father of rock ’n’ roll. He’s gone, but he’s still stamping pedals and bouncing along in those personal stories about that one favorite song of his you know, that casts you back to a specific place and time.

Allow me to share mine: bleary, lazy Saturday mornings on the way to not catch fish in Washington Parish. When I was younger, my dad and I would take detours through his formative years on the way to one fishing hole or another, shuffling through best ofs and reissues and digital remasters. The first time I heard “Ain’t That a Shame”—which went no. 1 and sold a million copies in 1956, and scraped the top 20 again in 1963 when covered by the Four Seasons—was on The Fats Domino Jukebox: 20 Greatest Hits the Way You Originally Heard Them, while watching the Bogalusa paper mill grow and then shrink away through a car window, and it was easy to imagine Fats’s voice billowing out of the smoke stacks. I wouldn’t understand what he was talking about (heartbreak, betrayal, the like) until much later, but his steady, easy baritone brought words like “bellows” to mind; not the verb, though that too, but the noun, the sort of tool used to keep a fire hot or an engine running. And the horns.

“His granddaddy was a slave,” Dad told me, “and he almost outsold Elvis.” This was some time after I’d worked out that I was the great grandson of sharecroppers, which suggested whatever dreams I had might not be so impossibly out of reach.

The full story is that Domino was born an hour south of Bogalusa, across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, in 1928—right in the thick of Jim Crow, for context. He dropped out of school at 14, and worked various odd jobs to support his music, which wasn’t yet making much money. He hauled ice, he worked in a mattress factory, and he wound up a regular in Billy Diamond’s band, playing piano at the New Orleans Hideaway Club. Diamond gave him the name “Fats” because, well, he was, and in 1949 Domino cowrote the first of many songs with Dave Bartholomew, “The Fat Man,” that lays his whole deal out, simple and plain. They call me the Fat Man, ’cause I weigh 200 pounds / all the girls they love me / ’cause I know my way around, the song goes, all jangling, rolling keys, with a triplet structure he couldn’t have known would inform an entire genre of music. (Rock ’n’ roll, that is.) He certainly wasn’t his contemporaries; not as innovative as Allen Toussaint nor as edgy as Professor Longhair, but he didn’t need to be, and then again, who else is? “The Fat Man” is warm, pleasant, and reassuring, showing up at the top of Fats Domino Jukebox like a kind-hearted local who can’t watch you futz with a city map in the middle of Canal Street anymore. As endearing and inviting as Domino himself.

I defy you to watch him play the song for Jools Holland on a short documentary called Walking to New Orleans (named for a Fats classic of the same name), and have it not improve your mood. This was in 1988, after his mammoth run between the years of 1950 and 1963, during which he outsold every ’50s act save for Elvis Presley, and well on his way to the over 65 million records sold throughout his career. You can tell by the sprawling estate, Jools explains, and Fats’s huge, sparkling, rocky jewelry, which Jools marvels at, along with the size of his hands. But look at the way Fats traipses through his breakthrough hit, cheeks round with pleasure, grinning a mile wide. He looks giddy, not over a British talk-show host coming all this way south, but purely over life, maybe, or playing music, and having people listen to and enjoy it. I like to think he would be this tickled, with or without Jools in the room.

“Rock ’n’ roll Legend” wasn’t a term he self-applied—how could he have, it hardly existed before him—but he did graciously, in a pristine white tux, accept it. A standard, and an institution, he’s been covered by the likes of Ricky Nelson and Led Zeppelin; he was considered an inspiration by everyone from Presley to John Lennon to Richard Hell. But in the liner notes for his 1991 box set, They Call Me the Fat Man…, via his inductee page on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s website, Domino was characteristically unassuming: “Everybody started callin’ my music rock and roll,” he said. “But it wasn't anything but the same rhythm and blues I'd been playin’ down in New Orleans.” He also said that the key to his music was a good beat. “The rhythm we play is from Dixieland—New Orleans.”

It’s important to remember that, when thinking about Fats, in life and in death. Whether Fats was a barrelhouse pianist, the preeminent rocker, or a pop star, which he was, the rhythm is what stuck, what was most important. It was still in him as recently as five years ago, on a TV show about the music of New Orleans, and the immediate aftermath of Katrina, called Treme. In the third season, Steve Zahn’s flighty Davis McAlary is searching for star power for his blues opera, and seeks out Fats who, when the levees broke, actually lost his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, which wasn’t more than a few blocks from the one he grew up in. In 2012 he was noticeably older, bowed slightly by a full, but long life. He looked good for 84, though, and upon hearing those first stride keys of “Blueberry Hill,” brightened up and began singing along, if not as forcefully as he used to.

And there again was that smile. That smile that reminded you that things would work themselves out. And while life is short, there are unexpectedly beautiful, wonderful things in it. They’re waiting to be experienced, if you could just find your way to them—and Fats knew his way around.