Most people know him as a musical pioneer, but what was Fats Domino’s greatest hit?
Though his chartbusters date back to the 1950s, he was far from a passing piper. His songs have become classics.
But which of his 37 top 40 singles was the biggest?
Let’s find out!
The Story of Fats Domino
Antoine “Fats” Domino was an American musician who paved the path for rock ‘n roll in the 1950s. Born in 1928 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Fats was a musical prodigy. His father played violin, and his brother-in-law was a well-known local guitar player. As a result, Fats played piano and sang in the local scene by age ten.
The vibrant New Orleans music scene influenced Domino. Jive, jazz, jump blues, and boogie-woogie piano were all part of his budding salad days. Highly gifted multi-instrumentalists, such as Meade Lux Lewis and Louis Jordan, inspired him. So, it’s no wonder Fats developed his own unique style of rhythm and blues.
In 1947, the bandleader, Billy Diamond, hired Domino to play the piano. Diamond gave Antoine the nickname “Fats,” which suited him well when he started his own band in 1948. Fats hit fame with his first 7-inch record release, “The Fat Man,” in 1949. “The Fat Man” sold over one million copies and is cited as one of the first rock-and-roll records.
Fats married his wife Rosemary in the same year and remained with her until her passing in 2008. He produced over 25 gold singles during his five-decade career. He toured the world and became a significant influence on the Jamaican musicians of the 1960s. But he was shy and would battle anxiety and stage-fright on and off throughout the years.
Fats Domino was part of the first group of inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Who Was in Fats Domino’s Band?
Domino played with a long list of musicians during his lifetime. Here are our ‘cliff’ notes!
His early and more long-standing band members included such saxophone players as Herbert Hardesty, Alvin Tyler, and Clarence Ford. Dave Bartholomew wrote and performed on the trumpet, and Billy Diamond was on bass with Walter Nelson on guitar. Earl Palmer and Clarence Coleman both banged the drums for Fats.
Domino also played with bassist Frank Field and guitarist Roy Montrell. Two additional saxophonists included Reggie Houston and Lee Allen. And our last musicians of note are Roy Montrell (guitar), Smokey Johnson (drums), and Fred Kemp (bandleader.)
What Was Fats Domino’s Biggest Hit
Fats Domino’s biggest hit was “Blueberry Hill,” released in 1956. It reached number two in the Top 40 charts for three weeks and number one in the R&B Charts for eleven weeks.
Vincent Rose, Larry Stock, and Al Lewis wrote and initially published in 1940. Many artists covered and recorded it before Domino, including Gene Krupa and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. “Blueberry Hill” was born with great lyrics, but it would be some years before Fats gave it groove and a rock ‘n roll swagger.
In 1949, Louis Armstrong released a “Blueberry Hill” cover that would inspire Domino to do the same. Initially, Domino had trouble locating a music sheet for the tune and got help from his brother-in-law to get the words down.
Looking back, these may have been happy accidents. Domino’s 1956 version of “Blueberry Hill” became the definitive version. With its uptempo beat and a dash of attitude, it remains a staple in rock ‘n roll history to this day.
In 1987 Fats Domino won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his cover of “Blueberry Hill.”
What Other Hit Songs Did Fats Domino Have?
Domino recorded hundreds of songs, with nearly 40 on the popular music charts.
His first crossover hit was “Ain’t That a Shame,” released in 1955. In an era of tense racial segregation, this tune got enough radio airplay to give Domino a diverse crowd at his gigs.
Domino’s record label, Imperial records, knew they had a hit. The dominant blues piano with stop-time rhythm became a part of Fat’s signature sound. Imperial sped up the track, ever so slightly, to give it an extra punch. Theoretically, this made the song harder to rip off as well.
Another great hit by Fats was “I’m Walkin,” released in early 1957. The single remained #1 on the R&B charts for six weeks and peaked at #4 on the pop singles charts. A few months later, the young yet unknown Ricky Nelson covered it too.
The rumored backstory to “I’m Walkin’” is that a fan inspired the tune. According to songfacts.com, when a fan saw Domino after his car broke down, he said, “Hey, look at Fats Domino, he’s walking!” Domino heard those words, and the writing process began!
The song is fast, catchy, and fun. It marked the early upswing of rock ‘n roll in the late 50s when Fats Domino was one of the most popular musicians in America.
What Adversity Did Fats Domino Overcome?
Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino’s ancestors were brought to Louisiana from Haiti as slaves. His parents were sharecroppers, tenant farmers who gave part of their crop to their landlords for rent.
Like many people of color, Fats Domino faced increased adversity simply by being born in America shortly after the civil war.
Early in his career, there were many hurdles to face as a touring black musician. During the ’50s and early ’60s, Domino and his band would often have to travel 100 miles away from the gig just to find lodging. The band had to play it cool during run-ins with the KKK and escape provocation from angry mobs of white men after some shows.
But Domino’s talent broke barriers in the segregated country he grew up in.
In the 1950s, crowd areas were often divided by rope—one side for black attendees and one for white. The teens at a Fats Domino gig would get so into the music that the ropes would get ripped down. His gigs became known for their integrated audiences. One could argue that this was one crucial step towards desegregation, powered by sheer love, joy, and passion for music.
Winding Down, But Not Out
During the 1970s and 1980s, Fats Domino continued to record and play out. But by the 1990s, touring became much tougher on his body. In 1995, Domino became extremely fatigued during a European tour and spent some time in a British hospital. The doctors said he had a severe infection and had to leave the tour early.
Domino redirected his day-to-day life after that health scare. He stayed local in his New Orleans home, focusing his time on his wife and eight children. By 2005 when Hurricane Katrina was brewing, Domino’s wife Rosemary was in poor health. He did not want to move her and thus refused to leave his home. Although rescuers eventually helped Domino and his wife escape from their home, floods damaged their property, and they lost nearly everything.
Luckily, support poured in from fellow musicians and friends alike. Domino received worldwide publicity and reciprocated the global generosity with his 2006 record entitled Alive and Kickin’.
Talk about resilience!
How Did Fats Domino Influence Rock and Roll?
Fats Domino’s influence on rock and roll is mammoth. He’s considered a rock and roll pioneer, along with Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Some even say he’s the founder.
Fats was known to say rock and roll was just rhythm and blues and that he’d be playing it for years. And it’s true, rock and roll has roots in the music of African American musicians: R&B, Jazz, Creole, to name a few. But his distinctive use of bold piano with his big effortless vocals made its mark. The often upbeat yet jagged drops in rhythm drove the crowds wild.
Fats was an inspiration to countless musicians. According to pbs.org, “Ain’t That A Shame” was the first song John Lennon learned to play on guitar.
And who better to ask than ‘The King’ himself? During a 1969 press conference held for Elvis Presley, a reporter referred to Presley as his common nickname, “The King.” But, Presley pointed to Fats Domino, who was in attendance, and said, “No, that’s the real King of Rock n’ Roll.”
The Real King of Rock and Roll
Going by the numbers, Fats Domino’s biggest hit was “Blueberry Hill.” But his legacy will always be tied to being one of the first rock and roll musicians in world history. He’s been cited for bringing racial integration to the dance floor and for his sweet demeanor and smile.
Fats said his goal was simple: He wanted to make “Happy songs the people could remember.” We think he hit that goal head-on, right out of the ballpark.