Fats Domino, Rock Pioneer Behind 'Ain't That a Shame' and 'Blueberry Hill,' Dead at 89

Fats Domino, the New Orleans musician whose hit versions of “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t That a Shame” were part of the opening salvo of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, has died at the age of 89.

The death was announced by his daughter, who shared the news with local television outlet WWLTV early Wednesday morning. The Louisiana State Coroner’s Association later confirmed to PEOPLE that the musician had died Tuesday. The cause of death remains unavailable at this time.

“We are all touched by the outpouring of love and tribute for our father,” his family said in a statement. “He passed away peacefully at home surrounded by those he loved and those who loved him. His music reached across all boundaries and carried him to all corners of the world.

…Then I rock myself to sleep
Prayin’ that I am here to keep
Then I ride the rising sun
Gee ain’t I being a lucky one
“Rising Sun”(Domino) ©1960 EMI Unart Catalog, Inc.

We thank you for allowing us to grieve privately during this difficult time. Funeral arrangements are pending.”

While nascent R&B had coalesced around the Mississippi Delta for at least a generation before, Domino’s music helped bring what was then known as “race music” to mainstream—predominantly white—culture. Throughout the next decade he would mark an astonishing run of more than three dozen Top 40 hits. Selling more than 65 million singles, it was a commercial streak bested only by Elvis Presley.

Born Antoine Domino Jr. in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward on Feb. 26, 1928, the Creole French musician pioneered a boogie-woogie piano style that would become the bedrock of rock. “What they call rock ‘n’ roll is rhythm and blues,” he admitted in a 1956 profile. “And I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans.”

His records inspired generations of performers—most notably John Lennon, who said that Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” was the first song he ever learned how to play. Fellow Beatle Paul McCartney later wrote “Lady Madonna” as an affectionate tribute to Domino, and Presley once dubbed him “the real king of rock n roll.”

Growing up hearing his father playing violin, he took to music early. Having been taught piano at age 10 by his brother-in-law, jazz musician Harrison Verrett, Domino dropped out of school a short time later to play local bars at night. “Back then I used to play everybody’s records; everybody’s records who made records,” he told Offbeat magazine in 2004. “I used to hear ’em, listen at ’em five, six, seven, eight times and I could play it just like the record because I had a good ear for catchin’ notes and different things.”

By day he supported himself working a series of odd jobs, including stints at a bedspring factory and as an assistant at an ice delivery service. “In the houses where people had a piano in their rooms, I’d stop and play,” he told USA Today in 2007. “That’s how I practiced.”

It was during this time that he was given his distinctive nickname by bandleader Bill Diamond—a comment less on his physical size but his piano style, which recalled that of Fats Waller and Fats Pichon.

By the mid-’40s he had teamed with trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, who would prove an important collaborator. Together they penned what would be Domino’s first hit, “The Fat Man,” a sanitized version of a drug-addled R&B standard called “Junkers Blues.” Released in 1949, it would eventually sell over a million copies.

With his flamboyant, bejeweled fashion sense, laid-back vocal delivery and, of course, his girth, Domino became one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most visible and distinctive early stars, appearing at DJ Alan Freed’s famous revues, and on variety shows helmed by early television titans Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen. He also had brief roles in films like Shake, Rattle and Rock, The Big Beat and The Girl Can’t Help It—popular rock movies aimed at the burgeoning teen market.

In 1956 he scored his biggest hit with an amped up version of “Blueberry Hill,” an old musical chestnut that had been popularized by the swing bandleader Glenn Miller over a decade earlier. Domino followed up this success with a pair of Top 5 songs, “Blue Monday” and “I’m Walkin’.”

The pop hits continued into the ’60s with “Whole Lotta Lovin’,” “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” “Walkin’ to New Orleans” and “My Girl Josephine.” His version of “Lady Madonna”—the Beatles song he inspired—marked an appropriate end to his string of Hot 100 entries, but he continued to be a force on the Country charts for many years.

In honor of his immense influence to music, the portly piano-playing prodigy was honored with an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. He declined to attend either ceremony, preferring to stay in his native New Orleans.

He refused to leave even on Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina brought havoc to the city. Rumors quickly spread that Domino had died in the aftermath, with one misinformed fan spray-painting the message “RIP Fats. You Will Be Missed” on the side of his home. However, the star had survived the destruction and was ferried away by family members in a boat.

He retired from music in 2007, but remained a familiar presence around the city in his eye-catching pink Cadillac—and his matching pink-roofed house. “I just drink my little beers, do some cookin’, anything I feel like ” he told London’s Daily Telegraph in 2007.

Stars and notables took to social media to mourn the loss of the music icon.

“Words fail me in this moment of deep heartache and sadness,” wrote Wendell Pierce. “We have lost a legend. One of my heroes. New Orleans’ Fats Domino is dead.”

  • Reporting by SARAH MICHAUD