Sunday, August 29, 2010
Fats Domino finds solace and hope in the piano five years after Katrina stole the neighborhood of his life
“This is Fats,” the gentleman says over the sound of conversation and music in the living room of the house he’s called home since Hurricane Katrina wiped out his homeplace, his neighborhood – the Lower Ninth Ward – and nearly cost him his life.
Fats Domino is one of my favorite musicians -- a gentle, bear of a man, whose flamboyant dress, songs and piano pounding that offered up a mix of the bordello, the tabernacle and the streets of his city, make him a unique figure in the history of popular music.
On the fifth anniversary of the hurricane, I figured I’d just check up on him, wish him well.
I actually expected one of his family members to answer the phone. In previous calls, a friend or family member has answered and said “the Fat Man is asleep” or “Call the Fat Man back in an hour when he’s done playing the piano” or perhaps watching TV.
Much as he was in the home in the Lower Ninth Ward – where he and his family were rescued from the second story by searchers who had feared that the rock ‘n’ roll legend had perished in the floods – he is surrounded by family.
“Yeah, we all livin’ together now, like always,” he says from the house in Harvey, on the West Bank, where he moved with his family after the rescue.
I’ve written a few times about Fats in the years since Katrina. And sometimes I just call. Since I hadn’t called in awhile, I figured the hurricane anniversary was a good time to catch up with him a little bit.
“I can’t talk much,” he says, “but I’m doin’ all right.
”I just stay at home and fool with the piano.”
As for the damage by the hurricane and what it did to his section of town, well, he laments that it happened. But he’s a pragmatist. Can’t change it.
“No, well, it’s the truth,” he says. “Everything is pretty good.”
In fact, his home office, the colorful heart of the Lower Ninth Ward has been resurrected with funds from Tipitina’s Foundation.
But it’s one of the few bright spots in a wasteland. There’s no place to live around there.
In a story I wrote for Goldmine Magazine a couple of years ago, I addressed Fats, his legacy and the fact that many people say he doesn’t get enough credit for helping create the musical style we call “rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Well, that’s the way people feel. It don’t make no difference to me,” he said back then.
That story talked about his humility when we talked about Elvis, his old chum, who is called “the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Fats wanted nothing to do with that crown.
Here’s a bit from that story:
“I like Elvis and Chuck Berry and all of them,” he said in that interview for Goldmine. “Elvis, I went to see him when he was in Las Vegas. He was a real nice fella.”
He, too, regards Elvis as “the King.” “I like him myself. So does everybody,” he says.
Antoine Domino’s large stage persona, dancehall piano playing and drawling tales of love and home made him Elvis’ top rival, if not as a sex symbol, then at least as a box-office attraction and hit record-maker, during the birthing of rock ’n’ roll.
He calls himself simply “lucky” that such songs as “I’m Walkin’” and “Blueberry Hill” allowed him to make a living while staying true to his religious beliefs. “Nobody lives forever,” he says. “Stay as close as you can [to the teachings in the Bible]. That’s the main thing.”
He could easily argue that he doesn’t get enough credit as one of the originators of rock ’n’ roll. After all, he “sold more records (65 million) than any other ’50s-era rocker except Elvis Presley,” writes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about the man who was honored at the organization’s first induction dinner in 1986.
(The class of ’86 also included Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and the Everly Brothers in the performers’ category. Early influence honorees that year included Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey and Robert Johnson. John Hammond was honored for lifetime achievement and non-performer inductees were Alan Freed and Sam Phillips.)
Fats thanks fans for their loyalty. “I never thought about [being called “King”]. But I know people bought the records, so I appreciate that part. I sold a lot of records, so I say, ‘Thanks‚ to everyone.’”
I pointed out in that story, John, Paul, George and Ringo as well as Bob Marley (who said Fats inspired reggae music) as well as Elvis and Carl Perkins all pointed to Fats as the man.
I also ruminated that much of the world likely had forgotten that Fats was even alive until Hurricane Katrina struck.
In fact, as the floodwaters rose in the Lower 9th Ward, and as National Guard helicopters plucked the victims off roofs, there were broadcast reports that Fats was missing.
Many musicians were accounted for at evacuation sites from Houston to Austin to Nashville and Memphis. But no one could locate Fats, who had chosen to ride out the storm at home. There were real fears about his well-being.
That changed with the mass publication of a New Orleans Times-Picayune photo of Domino being helped off a boat after being rescued from his house.
“We were on the second-floor balcony. The water kept coming up,” Fats recalls.
Finally, it was time to summon a boat to rescue the singer and Rosemary, his wife of almost 60 years, as well as many of their eight children and countless grandchildren (“Oh, I never count ’em. I got a lot of them,” says Domino).
Like almost everyone in the Lower Ninth, he lost everything. But to Fats, that’s just material stuff, and it’s not that important. “I ain’t missed nothing to tell you the truth, and I was able to replace what I lost.”
But it was only through Tipitina’s fund-raisers, including a recording and a show at which Fats appeared, that his landmark home, his sanctuary during his years of stardom, was reclaimed.
At the time of the interview, the home was being rebuilt and the family was hoping to move back in.
In a bit of optimism, either my own or Fats’, the story speculated that he would move back home, providing a beacon of hope for the thousands displaced.
I love New Orleans and Fats Domino, and I bought into his vision of returning home, to his happily ever after existence, occasionally venturing out to play.
Truth is, he’s probably not going to return to the Lower Ninth Ward, at least full-time. For some reason, the federal government has allowed that to become a complete wasteland which has shown little sign of rebirth in five years.
And, while he is surrounded by family, his beloved Rosemary has died … far from their compound in the part of the city that was their life’s home.
Still, on this anniversary of Katrina, while Fats isn’t full of conversation – he’s always enjoyed letting the piano keys do the talking – he’s pretty upbeat.
“I still get back to my house,” says the 82-year-old. “It’s only 20 minutes away. Go back often enough.”
Then he asks me to call back sometime … soon and “whenever you want to talk some more.”
But on this Sunday afternoon, I’ve interrupted a session on the piano. No he may never tour again to delight thousands of cheering fans.
That’s not stopping the music in his heart.
“I’m getting ready to record again,” he says. ”I got a lot of songs.”
Is there a market for new music by the Fat Man?
That’s not really the point. “I just want to play again.”