NEW ORLEANS — The godfather of rock and roll. A performer who always gave all he had. A man who loved his city and his neighborhood. Tributes to Fats Domino are accumulating, in words and in bouquets and Mardi Gras beads left at the yellow house in New Orleans where, after Hurricane Katrina, a fan spray-painted an erroneous RIP.
The amiable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, whose steady, pounding piano and easy baritone helped change popular music while honoring the traditions of the Crescent City, is dead at the age of 89.
“He was one of my greatest inspirations. God was tops — but earthly, Fats was it,” said singer Little Richard — another founding father of rock and roll — in a telephone interview from Nashville.
Domino died early Tuesday of natural causes, Mark Bone, chief investigator with the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office, said Wednesday.
Two people from New Orleans — Domino and jazz great Louis Armstrong — have changed the world’s music, said Quint Davis, who produces of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was a decades-long friend of Domino.
Little Richard said he’d known Domino for 60 years and idolized him before that.
“I loved the way he played; I loved the way he was just so wrapped up in his music. He always did a good show.” Domino never “slacked and cheated the people out. Every time, he gave his all,” the musician said.
Domino stood 5-feet-5 and weighed more than 200 pounds, with a wide, boyish smile and a haircut as flat as an album cover. But he sold more than 110 million records, with hits including “Blueberry Hill,” ”Ain’t That a Shame” — originally titled “Ain’t It A Shame”— and other standards of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide likened him to Benjamin Franklin, the beloved old man of a revolutionary movement.
“Fats is the godfather of rock and roll,” said Greg Harris, CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which made Domino one of the first 10 people it honored.
He said the flag outside the hall was at half-staff Wednesday, and Domino’s music was playing all day.
At the home where Domino spent most of his life, a steady stream of people showed up Wednesday with flowers, beads and cameras. One man brought a guitar and started in on “Walkin’ to New Orleans.”
Angelina Cruz brought her three children from suburban Kenner. She said she’d listened to his songs since she was 10 years old, in North Carolina. “I’m bringing my kids up to the old-school music,” she said.
Domino’s dynamic performance style and warm vocals drew crowds for five decades. One of his show-stopping stunts was playing the piano while standing, throwing his body against it with the beat of the music and bumping the grand piano across the stage.
His 1956 version of “Blueberry Hill” was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of historic sound recordings worthy of preservation.
Most people didn’t appreciate the breadth of Domino’s ability, Little Richard said. “He could play jazz. He could play anything,” he said. “He was one of the greatest entertainers that I’ve ever known.”
Domino became a global star but stayed true to his hometown, where his fate was initially unknown after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. It turned out that he and his family had been rescued by boat from his home, where he lost nearly everything he owned, including three pianos and dozens of gold and platinum records.
Many wondered if he would ever return to the stage.
But in May 2007, he was back, performing at Tipitina’s music club in New Orleans. Fans cheered — and some cried — as Domino played “I’m Walkin’,” ”Ain’t That a Shame,” ”Shake, Rattle and Roll,” ”Blueberry Hill” and a host of other hits.
That performance was a highlight during several rough years. His wife of more than 50 years, Rosemary, died in April 2008.
Domino moved to the New Orleans suburb of Harvey after the storm but often visited his publishing house, an extension of his old home in the Lower 9th Ward, inspiring many with his determination to stay in the city he loved.
“Fats embodies everything good about New Orleans,” his friend David Lind said in a 2008 interview. “He’s warm, fun-loving, spiritual, creative and humble. You don’t get more New Orleans than that.”
The son of a violin player, Antoine Domino Jr. was born Feb. 26, 1928, one of nine children. As a youth, he taught himself popular piano styles — ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie.
He quit school at age 14, and worked days in a factory while playing and singing in local juke joints at night. In 1949, Domino was playing at the Hideaway Club for $3 a week when he was signed by the Imperial record company.
He recorded his first song, “The Fat Man,” in the back of a tiny French Quarter recording studio.
“They call me the Fat Man, because I weigh 200 pounds,” he sang. “All the girls, they love me, ’cause I know my way around.”
In 1955, he broke into the white pop charts with “Ain’t it a Shame,” covered blandly by Pat Boone as “Ain’t That a Shame” and rocked out decades later under that title by Cheap Trick and others. Domino enjoyed a parade of successes through the early 1960s, including “Be My Guest” and “I’m Ready.” Another hit, “I’m Walkin,'” became the debut single for Ricky Nelson.
Domino appeared in the rock ‘n’ roll film “The Girl Can’t Help It” and was among the first black performers featured in popular music shows, starring with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. He also helped bridge rock ‘n’ roll and other styles — even country/western, recording Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Bobby Charles’ “Walkin’ to New Orleans.”
Like many of his peers, Domino’s popularity tapered off in the 1960s as British and psychedelic rock held sway.
“I refused to change,” he told Ebony magazine. “I had to stick to my own style that I’ve always used or it just wouldn’t be me.”
In 1988, all of New Orleans seemed to be talking about him after he reportedly paid cash for two Cadillacs and a $130,000 Rolls-Royce. When the salesman asked if he wanted to call his bank about financing, Domino smiled and said, “I am the bank.”
Ten years later, he became the first purely rock ‘n’ roll musician to be awarded the National Medal for the Arts. But, citing his age, he didn’t make the trip to the White House to get the medal from President Bill Clinton.
That was typical. Aside from rare appearances in New Orleans, including a 2012 cameo spot in the HBO series “Treme,” he dodged the spotlight in his later years, refusing to appear in public or even to give interviews.
His love for his home town was one of the things that stuck with John Jenks, a New Orleans resident who took a photo of himself Wednesday in front of Domino’s house. “He stayed right here — as famous as he got, he stayed right in his old neighborhood here in the 9th Ward.”
Associated Press writers Kevin McGill in New Orleans and Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this story.