With more than 65 million record sales to his credit, New Orleans singer and pianist Fats Domino outsold every 1950s rock & roll pioneer except Elvis Presley, leaving a profound impact on subsequent generations of musicians. In 1986 he was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born into a musical family in New Orleans on February 26, 1928, Antoine Domino began playing piano at nine and a year later was playing for pennies in honky-tonks like the Hideaway Club, where bandleader Bill Diamond accurately nicknamed him Fats. At 14 Domino quit school to work in a bedspring factory so he could play the bars at night. Soon he was playing alongside such New Orleans legends as Professor Longhair and Amos Milburn. He also heard the stride and boogie-woogie piano techniques of Fats Waller and Albert Ammons. He mastered the classic New Orleans R&B piano style — easy-rolling left-hand patterns anchoring right-hand arpeggios. By age 20 he was married and a father, had survived a near-fatal car crash, and had almost lost his hand in a factory accident.
In the mid-1940s Domino joined trumpeter Dave Bartholomew's band. It was soon apparent, however, that Domino was more than a sideman, and Bartholomew helped arrange his contract with Imperial and became his producer. Their first session in 1949 produced "The Fat Man," which eventually sold a million and whetted the national appetite for the "New Orleans sound." Bartholomew and Domino co-wrote most of Domino's material.
By the time the rock & roll boom began in the mid-1950s, Fats was already an established R&B hitmaker ("Goin' Home," 1952; "Going to the River," 1953), his records regularly selling between half million and a million copies apiece. His pounding piano style was easily adapted to the nascent rock sound, although he proved less personally magnetic than contemporaries like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Jerry Lee Lewis, all of whom recorded Domino material.
Domino's big breakthrough came in mid-1955, when the Top Ten "Ain't That a Shame" established him with white teenagers. (The song was quickly re-recorded by Pat Boone, whose watered-down version reached Number One that same year; it was revived in the late-Seventies by Cheap Trick.) For the next five years Domino struck gold with "I'm in Love Again" (Number Three), "Blueberry Hill" (Number Two), and "Blue Monday" (Number Five, 1956), "I'm Walkin'" (Number Four, 1957); "Whole Lotta Loving" (Number Six, 1958); and many others. He eventually collected 23 gold singles. His last million-seller came in 1960 with "Walkin' to New Orleans." He left Imperial for ABC in 1963 and subsequently switched to Mercury, Warner Bros., Atlantic, and Broadmoor, all with less success.
In 1968 Domino released a rollicking cover of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna. " The Beatles consistently sang the Fat Man's praises, noting that "Birthday" on The Beatles did little more than sort through the old Domino-Bartholomew bag of riffs and tricks. Through the mid-Seventies Fats played six to eight months a year. In 1980 he performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Domino continues to tour sporadically. In 1993 he released his first major-label album in 25 years, Christmas Is a Special Day, to critical acclaim but middling sales. Domino was feared to be dead in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 (his mansion was in the middle of the devastated Ninth Ward). He had been rescued by the Coast Guard via helicopter, although the family lost nearly everything in the storm. In early 2006 Domino released Alive and Kickin', a benefit CD for the local Tipitina's Foundation, and performed to a packed Tipitana's the following year. In 2009, he returned to the stage, performing at The Domino Effect, a benefit concert organized in his name to help rebuild schools damaged in the hurricane.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.