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Add Fats Domino to the pantheon of founding rock 'n' rollers

Pop sounded bluesy, blues sounded fresh

(CNN) - Fats Domino was the founding star of rock 'n' roll, putting dozens of songs on the R&B and pop charts and paving the way for Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and the rest. And yet he often gets left out of that pantheon, remembered as a roly-poly piano balladeer singing "Blueberry Hill" while the rock 'n' roll rebels were changing the world.

Pop historians tend to position Domino, who died Tuesday at 89, as a cheerful, nonthreatening figure whom white parents preferred to sexier, scarier artists like Little Richard or Bo Diddley. The irony is that if one actually listens to Domino's records, even his most seemingly teen-friendly hits are drenched in a New Orleans blues style that goes to the deepest roots of African-American music.

Domino hit the national rhythm and blues charts in 1950 with his first record, an adaptation of Champion Jack Dupree's boastful song of heroin use, "Junker Blues." Domino had been scoring in local clubs with the original, but for his record he rewrote the lyrics as a cheerful calling card, "The Fat Man," singing that he weighed 200 pounds and the women all loved him, "cause I know my way around."

Over the next five years he made good on that boast by putting a dozen songs in the R&B top 10. Then in 1955 he broke into the pop top 10 with "Ain't That a Shame," an original composition co-written with his longtime bandleader Dave Bartholomew. In those days it was standard for white singers to cover R&B hits, and Pat Boone's pale imitation outsold the original -- an injustice regularly revisited in rock 'n' roll documentaries -- but when Domino followed up a year later with "Blueberry Hill," he left the white covers far behind.

Domino had a genius for making light pop songs sound bluesy and deep blues sound fresh and timely. Young fans thrilled to his rocking energy and older listeners could hear the debt he owed to pianist-singers like Amos Milburn and the relaxed growl of Louis Armstrong.

Though he is usually filed alongside Berry and Presley as a teen idol, he also paved the way for Ray Charles' crossover success with songs like "Blue Monday," a solid piano blues that reached the top five in 1956 with a lyric focused on thoroughly adult concerns: "Blue Monday, I hate blue Monday, have to work like a slave all day."

While other artists adapted their style to reach white teens, Domino's voice was unmistakably black, and reflected a depth of hard-won experience. Presley was the first to admit his version of rock 'n' roll couldn't come up to that standard, telling a Jet magazine interviewer in 1957, "Let's face it: I can't sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that."

The notion that Domino appealed to parents as a cheerfully sexless entertainer is hard to square with performances of songs like "Whole Lotta Lovin'." On the contrary, he was more likely to appeal to grown-ups because his style felt more adult, linking rock 'n' roll to a tradition that 40 years earlier had swept the world as the first wave of jazz.

Like Ray Charles, he was comfortable with the old big band styles, with blues, with pop and even with country music -- in the early 1960s, he preceded Charles' groundbreaking country-soul fusions by cracking the pop top 40 with R&B reworkings of "Jambalaya" and "You Win Again."

By the mid-1960s the hits dried up, but Domino did not seem troubled by the changing fashions. He kept touring into the 1990s, but gradually cut down in favor of a comfortable life in New Orleans. On his home turf he was recognized as a local piano master, alongside figures like Professor Longhair and Huey "Piano" Smith, a tradition-bearer rather than a nostalgia act.

Domino was playing his music before anyone called it rock 'n' roll, and he didn't burn out when that era ended. He and his wife, Rosemary Hall, married in 1947 and remained together until her death in 2008, raising eight children.

He made the news again in 2005, when he chose to remain in town through Hurricane Katrina, sparking rumors that he had died and a rescue effort that culminated in him being airlifted from his flooded house in a helicopter.

Far from being fazed by that experience, Domino responded with his first studio album in some 20 years. The title song, "Alive and Kickin'," was a new composition that sounded a lot like his old writing. As he explained, he'd never stopped composing, and wanted to let his fans know that he was all right: "Don't you worry about me," he sang over the familiar rolling piano rhythms. "I'm alive and kicking, and I'm where I want to be."


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