ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Fats Domino took the rhythms of New Orleans and used them to help build the foundation of rock 'n' roll. Elvis Presley tipped his hat to Domino, as did hundreds of others who followed in his footsteps. Fats Domino died in his sleep yesterday of natural causes. He was 89 years old. Gwen Thompkins has our appreciation.
GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: In the 1940s, Antoine Domino Jr. was working at a mattress factory in New Orleans and playing piano at night.
(SOUNDBITE OF FATS DOMINO SONG, "THE FAT MAN")
THOMPKINS: Both his waistline and his fan base were expanding. That's when a bandleader began calling him Fats. From there, it was a cakewalk to his first million-selling record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FAT MAN")
FATS DOMINO: (Singing) They call me the fat man because I weigh 200 pounds. All the girls - they love me 'cause I know my way around.
THOMPKINS: "The Fat Man" was Domino's first release for Imperial Records, which signed him right off the bandstand. Dave Bartholomew was there. He described the scene in a 1981 interview now housed at the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAVE BARTHOLOMEW: Fats was rocking the joint. And he was sweating and playing. He'd put his whole heart and soul in what he was doing. And people was crazy about him, and so that was it. And we made our first record, "The Fat Man," and we never turned around.
THOMPKINS: Between 1950 and 1963, Fats Domino hit the R&B charts a reported 59 times and the pop charts a rollicking 63 times.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA BE A WHEEL SOMEDAY")
DOMINO: (Singing) I'm going to be a wheel someday. I'm going to be somebody. I'm going to be a real gone cat. Then I won't want you.
THOMPKINS: He outsold Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly combined. Only Elvis Presley moved more records during that stretch. But Presley cited Domino as the early master.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BLUE HEAVEN")
DOMINO: (Singing) When whip-poor-wills calls and evening is nigh, I hurry to my blue heaven.
THOMPKINS: So how does a black man with a fourth grade education in the Jim Crow South, the child of Haitian Creole plantation workers and the grandson of a slave sell more than 65 million records? Domino could wah-wah-wah (ph) and woo-hoo (ph) like nobody else in the whole wide world. And he made piano triplets ubiquitous in rock 'n' roll. Jon Cleary is a piano player who's devoted most of his life to the New Orleans sound.
JON CLEARY: The triplets thing - this little pattern (playing piano) - that was one of the building blocks of New Orleans R&B. And that's really the famous Fats Domino groove, you know? (Playing piano, singing) I found my thrill. Everybody knows that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUEBERRY HILL")
DOMINO: (Singing) On Blueberry Hill, on Blueberry Hill when I found you.
THOMPKINS: And then there was producer and arranger Dave Bartholomew. He and engineer Cosimo Matassa perfected a rhythm-heavy sound in Matassa's studio that was the envy of rock 'n' roll. "Blueberry Hill" may have been Domino's biggest hit, but Bartholomew wrote Domino's favorite.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MONDAY")
DOMINO: (Singing) Blue Monday - how I hate Blue Monday - got to work like a slave all day. Here come Tuesday, oh, hard Tuesday. I'm so tired, got no time to play.
THOMPKINS: "Blue Monday" had other levels of meaning in Domino's career. In the 1950s, the birth of rock 'n' roll was hard labor. Social critics called the Music vulgar. Jim Crow laws segregated Domino's audiences sometimes with only a rope. And the combination of racial tension and teenage hormones at concerts proved violent - bottle throwing, tear gas, stabbings, arrests. Here's Domino biographer Rick Coleman.
RICK COLEMAN: It was not an easy time period even though the music was beautiful and joyful. It was a hard birth.
THOMPKINS: By 1960, Domino's audience was overwhelmingly white. And, boy, what a wide spectrum of white people they were. In South Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan gave the band directions by the light of a burning cross. Saxophone player Herbert Hardesty was driving the Domino bus.
HERBERT HARDESTY: So I had to make a turn. In about five minutes, I came to the Ku Klux Klan. They said, well, where's Fats Domino? I said, he's not here. They said, well, what are you guys doing? I said, I'm lost. I'm trying to get back to the highway. And they were very nice. The Ku Klux Klan treated us very nice.
THOMPKINS: The British Invasion sent nearly every American performer tumbling down the charts. And yet longtime confidant Haydee Ellis says Domino wouldn't change a note.
HAYDEE ELLIS: He said, when I play, I want the people to hear exactly what they're used to hearing on the record. And eventually that was one of the things that made him reluctant to play, let's say - was he was afraid that he would mess up a word or a - whatever.
THOMPKINS: Domino toured for many years but eventually settled into life at his compound in the Lower 9th Ward, cooking loads of hog's head cheese for his many friends. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and everybody thought Fats was dead.
ELLIS: When Katrina came, Lord. Fats would say - he wanted to leave, but he said, what kind of man would I be if I left my family? They don't want to leave.
THOMPKINS: The family survived. Fats Domino lived out the post-Katrina years in a suburb of New Orleans with 1 of his 8 children. But his house still stands on Caffin Street in the Lower 9th Ward. The initials F.D. are on the front facade. They're a reminder of the greatness the neighborhood once produced, of the golden age of New Orleans music and of the fat man who rocked the world. For NPR News, I'm Gwen Thompkins in New Orleans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING TO NEW ORLEANS")
DOMINO: (Singing) This time I'm walking to New Orleans. I'm walking to New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.