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Fats Domino, boogie-woogie pianist who helped launch rock 'n' roll, dies at 89

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Fats Domino performs at Tipitina's in New Orleans on Feb. 27, 2006. Domino, a singer known for his two-fisted boogie-woogie piano and nonchalant vocals who had more than three dozen hits in the 1950s and 1960s, has died in Louisiana. He was 89. According to news reports, the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office said he died on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times copyright 2017 / New York Times)2 / 3
Fats Domino performs at the Pink Elephant, a nightclub in New York, on Nov. 8, 2007. Domino, a singer known for his two-fisted boogie-woogie piano and nonchalant vocals who had more than three dozen hits in the 1950s and 1960s, has died in Louisiana. He was 89. According to news reports, the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office said he died on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (Rahav Segev/The New York Times copyright 2017 / New York Times)3 / 3

Antoine "Fats" Domino, the jovial New Orleans entertainer whose bluesy singing and boogie-woogie piano style helped launch rock 'n' roll in the 1950s with such rollicking songs as "Blueberry Hill," "Ain't That a Shame" and "I'm Walkin'," died Oct. 24. He was 89.

Mark Bone, chief investigator with the Jefferson Parish coroner's office in Louisiana, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Additional details were not immediately available.

Among the early rockers, Domino was rivaled only by Elvis Presley in record sales. He dominated Billboard magazine's pop and rhythm-and-blues charts from 1955 to 1963. Moreover, Domino's signature piano triplets - three notes for every beat - became the basis of rock and pop ballads for the next three decades, including such diverse recordings as the Beatles' "Oh, Darling," Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine" and even Percy Faith's "Theme From 'A Summer Place.' "

In a music style identified with rebellion, Domino wasn't very rebellious in his approach. Unlike Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and any number of other flamboyant performers, he sang in a mellow voice and sported a wide grin on stage. His lone gimmick involved using his immense girth to push the piano to the front of the stage - and this he did only during his encore.

"He had a natural talent," said rhythm-and-blues historian John Broven. "Yet he seemed to have little idea as to why he was famous, which only enhanced his charm and appeal. His biggest hits made rock 'n' roll acceptable by appealing to all age groups and races. And he did it without compromising his New Orleans roots."

"The Fats Domino sound," Broven added, "was a combination of Fats' clearly enunciated and naturally melodic Creole-laced vocals, aided by his underrated piano work - from creative boogie-woogie to simple triplets - and the impeccable solos and riffs from the accompanying band."

Such songs as "Walking to New Orleans" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" instantly identified Mr. Domino with his home town. The latter recording, from 1961, was revived on the radio during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans culture was heard in the catchy parade rhythms of such hits such as "I'm Walking" and "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" - a reflection of his arranger Dave Bartholomew's background in traditional jazz.

Antoine Domino Jr. was born Feb. 26, 1928, in New Orleans' 9th Ward, the youngest of eight in a bilingual Creole family. His father played Creole songs on the violin. Domino learned the basics of piano from his brother-in-law Harrison Verrett, a banjo player and guitarist with Papa Celestin's Dixieland band, who would later work as Domino's road manager.

Domino studied boogie-woogie records by Meade Lux Lewis and developed a smooth singing style from crooning blues singer-pianists Charles Brown and Little Willie Littlefield.

He put a band together and secured an engagement in 1947 at the Hideaway Club while working during the day in a bedsprings factory. His way with boogie-woogie proved a good draw - good enough to concern Bartholomew, a trumpeter whose band worked down the street.

Bartholomew, moonlighting as the talent scout for Imperial, a struggling California record label, brought the label's owner, Lew Chudd, to the Hideaway. Chudd, who was white, later recalled that he had to scrunch down in the back seat of Bartholomew's car because of New Orleans' segregation laws. Domino signed with the label, an association between Bartholomew, Chudd and Domino that lasted more than a decade.

For his first recording session in 1949, Bartholomew suggested they write new words to Champion Jack Dupree's "Junker's Blues," one of Domino's most popular live numbers. The resulting hit, "The Fat Man," established his happy-go-lucky stage persona:

"They call me, call me the fat man

"'Cause I weigh 200 pounds

"All the girls they love me

"'Cause I know my way around"

While Mr. Domino initially balked at traveling outside New Orleans, the hit made him a touring attraction with a band that often included session saxophonists Herb Hardesty and Lee Allen. He occasionally lent his piano trills to other performers' recordings, such as Lloyd Price's 1952 hit, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," later covered by Presley.

The 1955 hit "Ain't That a Shame," his first recording to enter the pop charts, was narrowly eclipsed in sales by pop singer Pat Boone's cover version. Producers had to dissuade Boone from changing the song's refrain to the grammatically correct "isn't that a shame."

"We were actually searching for a sound in those days. I never wanted to get things too complicated," Bartholomew once said. "It had to be simple so people could understand it right away. It had to be the kind of thing that a 7-year-old kid could start whistling. I just kept in simple."

"Blueberry Hill," perhaps the song most identified with Domino, proved difficult to record. He had learned the standard from a Louis Armstrong recording but remembered only one verse. The engineer edited the finished record together from two incomplete takes.

Mr. Domino successfully recorded other pop standards including "My Blue Heaven," "When My Dreamboat Comes Home" and "I'm in the Mood for Love."

Leaving Imperial for the larger ABC-Paramount label in 1963, Domino recorded in Nashville with considerably less success. The popularity of the Motown sound had made Domino's style less fashionable. Critics have also cited the lack of New Orleans spontaneity on his later records. Undeterred, Domino toured England, where his records were still popular with the rocker subculture.

As his record sales declined in the 1960s, Domino performed steadily in Las Vegas but lost money in the city's casinos. At his first Las Vegas engagement in 1962, he gambled away $180,000 in two weeks. His fee for the engagement was $6,500 a week.

"I went to play the Flamingo for two weeks and I stayed for 15 years," he told USA Today.

He briefly re-emerged on the pop charts in 1968 with a version of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna," a song that critics have pointed out owes much to his piano-driven style.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him in 1986, its first year. The next year, Domino won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. He received a National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1998.

His wife, the former Rosemary Hall, whom he married in 1947 and for whom he named the song "Rose Mary," died in 2007. Their son Andre died in 1997. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In later years, he toured with less frequency. "I traveled all over for about 50 years. I love a lot of places, and I've been to a lot of places, but I just don't care to leave home," Mr. Domino told USA Today.

Domino remained in New Orleans in the impoverished neighborhood where he grew up. He often invited people into his home from off the street to taste his Creole cooking.

The home, a mansion among the neighborhood's "shotgun shacks," was not spared during Hurricane Katrina. Many news outlets initially reported the singer as dead. However, he had waited out the storm with his wife, two daughters and a son-in-law on the house's third floor as the water level rose to 15 feet. Domino was rescued by helicopter.

A local charity, the Tipitina Foundation, helped repair the home in return for his recording a benefit album, "Alive and Kickin', " in 2006.

The next year, rock journalist Andrew Perry visited Domino at his home.

"Just as he was the most congenial and inoffensive of the first-wave rockers, he would also be the last New Orleanian to voice anger about Katrina," wrote Perry. "When I ask him to give his thoughts on how the disaster was handled, he amiably deflects from the issue. Suddenly, he thrusts his beer bottle into my hand again. 'Feel it,' he says, 'ain't that cool?' "

When Perry asked him if he was making a comeback, Domino replied, "I just drink my little beers, do some cookin', anything I feel like ... Let us know when you're comin' again, I'll cook something up for you."

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