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Fats Domino, whose piano helped create rock, dead at 89

New Orleans resident and legendary piano man Fats Domino, seen here in 2007, has died aged 89
Paul J. RICHARDS (AFP/File)
Domino is estimated to have sold 65 million records, a major feat for an artist of his era

Fats Domino, whose rollicking rhythm and blues piano helped give birth to rock 'n' roll, has died in his lifelong home of New Orleans, the coroner said Wednesday. He was 89.

The famously reclusive musician, who had made few public appearances over the past decade, died Tuesday morning of natural causes, said Gerry Cvitanovich, Jefferson Parish Coroner.

"He was true to his New Orleans roots and he was a real legend," he said.

Domino's daughter earlier announced the death to a local television station, saying that the rock legend died peacefully around family.

Despite finding fame around the world, Domino never moved out of the working-class Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans where he built a house and would sometimes be spotted sleeping outside in a hammock.

In his heyday he was considered a rival to Elvis Presley as the king of rock 'n' roll. But with a natural shyness, the self-effacing Domino faded in prominence by the mid-1960s as a crop of swaggering rock stars came to dominate pop culture.

Born as Antoine Domino, he picked up his nickname early -- which was cemented by the success of 1949's "The Fat Man," one of the first tracks in rock 'n' roll to find a mass audience in the burgeoning consumer culture.

With his rhythm-and-blues piano backed up by an energetic back-beat, Domino on "The Fat Man" offered self-deprecating humor -- "They call me the fat man / 'Cause I weigh 200 pounds" -- and turned his voice into a trumpet-like instrument, singing, "Wah-wah-wah, wah-wah."

He later recorded some of the greatest hits of the 1950s, which became omnipresent on the jukeboxes of America, such as "Ain't That a Shame," "Blueberry Hill," "I'm Walking" and "It's You I Love."

Domino is estimated to have sold 65 million records, a major feat for an artist of his era. He was part of the first group of musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 alongside Presley and Chuck Berry.

- Innovative piano style -

Born to a French Creole family of limited means, Domino as a child would work hauling ice in the notoriously humid city in the age before air-conditioning. With most homes then keeping pianos, Domino would stop to play as he dropped off the often gigantic chunks of ice.

With a style rooted in boogie-woogie, Domino became an innovative piano player, most notably with his use of triplet notes which added to the vibrant rhythms. He honed his musical skills with his father, a fiddler, and a brother-in-law who played banjo.

Domino found a global audience after being sought out by Lew Chudd, a Canadian-born advertising salesman who had seen the potential of recorded music and earlier worked with the jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.

Domino signed with Chudd to the new Imperial Records, where the pianist would co-write songs with longtime collaborator Dave Bartholomew.

"Ain't That a Shame" marked a turning point for Domino and rock history. Working for the first time outside New Orleans, he recorded the song in Hollywood where Imperial Records seized on early studio effects to make the song more lively and less bluesy.

The 1955 song was the first by an African American artist to triumph on the US pop charts. He was soon performing on national television programs including "The Ed Sullivan Show" and touring the country.

But several of his shows in the segregated South were disrupted, with Domino -- like Chuck Berry soon after him -- offering the then unprecedented formula of music loved by both whites and blacks, played in venues with dancing and alcohol.

- Rooted in New Orleans -

In a rare interview, Domino told the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat in 2004 that he was not shocked by the segregation as he had grown up around it.

"That's the way it was when I started out," he said. "I knew what they had going on so it was no use me trying to do anything about it. I just went along and did my thing."

He said he never planned to leave New Orleans. Even when traveling, he was often spotted cooking up shrimp for gumbo and other quintessentially Louisiana dishes.

"People would tell me -- well, they wouldn't tell me but other people would tell me, 'They want to know why would you build an expensive house like that in that neighborhood.' Well, to me it didn't make no difference 'cause I like it and this is where I was born," he said.

Domino was briefly unaccounted for when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2005. He was evacuated and a year later released a final album, "Alive and Kicking," to benefit artists hit by the tragedy.

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