Inside Rock Legend Fats Domino's World: Crawfish, Cards, Boogie-Woogie

On his 88th birthday, the rock & roll architect's musical influence is honored in a new documentary

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Fats Domino
Fats Domino, now 88, is one of the pioneers of rock & roll, with a particular style of piano playing influenced by his hometown of New Orleans Clive Limpkin/Daily Express/Hulton Archive

When a friend of Fats Domino's invited filmmaker Joe Lauro to hang out at Domino's New Orleans house in the early 2000s, he knew he had to make a film about the rock & roll architect. More than a decade later, Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll will air tonight, on Domino's 88th birthday. The film captures how the New Orleans pianist cut what many believe is the first rock & roll record, 1949's The Fat Man, and went onto sell 65 million records, making the Billboard pop chart 63 times between 1950 and 1963, thanks in part to his songwriting partnership with bandleader/producer Dave Bartholomew. "Everybody started calling my music rock and roll," Domino said in 1991, "But it wasn't anything but the same rhythm and blues I'd been playin' down in New Orleans." 

But even as he sold more records than any Fifties-era rocker except Elvis Presley, Domino and his band dealt with  discrimination and turmoil on the road. Lauro touches on the issues, but he mostly focuses on the music, using footage from a recently unearthed 1962 Paris concert that shows Domino at the top of his game. The film airs tonight on PBS at 10 p.m and is also available on DVD. 

Of all the Fifties rock & roll pioneers, Fats is one of the most mysterious. Can you tell me about why you wanted to make a film about him?
I'd been going down to New Orleans working on other films just as a friend, visitor and lover for many years, and Fats in that town, to this day, is like a god. But for the rest of the world, he's relegated to some jolly old oldies act, and that really gnawed at me. When I got to know him a little, I realized that, unlike his contemporaries – like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry – there was no high drama. There was no great tragedy. But he sold more records than all of them combined, not counting Elvis. And he was just being forgotten because of his shyness and the fact that he lived a very private, un-crazy life.

The man was on the road for 40 years, but he's not flamboyant with lipstick and screaming, lighting the piano on fire. He's not marrying his cousin that's 13. So in a sense, we all gravitate to that sort of sensationalism. Of course his extreme shyness is the reason why he was forgotten. I said, "Man, we gotta try to change that." For my money, he was the most influential. He was recording before all those guys. His first million-selling hit was 1949. He never changed his music. The music just became rock & roll because it came out of the blues and that's what he played and it was always hard-edged anyway. He had an amazing talent as a songwriter with Dave Bartholomew. Before Lennon and McCartney, it was Fats and Dave. There was no other team that worked on each other's differences to work on amazing songs, and it was a story that was really never told. 

If there was no high drama – like Little Richard going to the church or Chuck Berry going to jail – how did you approach making an interesting film about him?
I knew that Fats was private. And when I finally gained his trust – and that took several years – there was no way I was going to let him down. The man sold 60 million records before 1962. The music alone is all I needed to talk about. If anyone wants to read a tell-all on Fats Domino, they can go somewhere else – because this is about great American music. It's a hybrid of New Orleans, all these beats and rhythms that he just used naturally. People from Iowa didn't know that. They'd just heard great songs, but if you listen to the music, more than his other contemporaries, it's traceable to a local rootsy sound. I don't know if you could say that Elvis' sound was a Memphis sound. Fats Domino's sound is 100 percent New Orleans. 

How did you gain his trust?
I made a film about Louis Prima a few years ago. [A couple of Fats' closest friends] came and we started chatting. They said, "We love your film. Wanna come over and meet Fats?" This was about 10 years ago. I went over into Fats' world. Talk about a parallel universe. He was still two blocks away from where he was born in the Lower Ninth Ward, in a double-shotgun shack. You'd walk through his bedroom to get to the kitchen. And there was this super modern house next door where he and his wife lived, with a little passageway. We hit it off. I'm sitting in his little room, and he's playing piano and we hit it off. What a sweet man. 

I went over a couple of times, and of course I'm thinking I gotta make a film. All his buddies are around, cases of food coming in. They're playing cards, hanging out. That's his world. It was just Fats' world, all his old childhood friends because he's in the same neighborhood. He'd be hanging in his silk pajamas and his hair net. He didn't give a shit. Someone told me another filmmaker came out and started snapping pictures of Fats in his hair net and he got physically removed from the premises. So I knew that I needed to be a little softer in my approach, and it took a really long time. He wanted $10,000 in a bag, cash, like all those guys did. So it took a real long time to really get him online. We'd play pool a little bit, and he would always beat my ass. One time, I won, at that point he owed me a little money. He said, "Hey, Joe, you want me to sign that release? You still making that movie?" I said yeah. He didn't wanna pay me. I got the release.

It took a real long time to really get his trust and all that. He said, "I don't want to be documented by anybody." Then Katrina came, and everything changed a little bit for him. I was in production already. He had moved to be with his daughter, but even then, I was hesitant about whether I was gonna make the movie. Because the tragedy for rock & roll in America, there ware very few TV shows, very few places you could see the music where it was filmed in America. Maybe you'd get on Dick Clark or some horrible rock & roll movie, but there was no good performances because no one filmed them. I wanted to make something where you could see the music and the band. So I lost interest. And then a couple years later, we found a full-length concert that was in the French National Archives. The whole band in 1962. All the guys that played on every rock & roll record in New Orleans. And there they are. There's an attitude that Fats' piano playing is simplistic. He's going nuts on the keyboard! It shows him and the band for what they were, which is one of the most phenomenal groups out there on the road. So I said, "OK, now I can do it."

Joe Lauro; Fats Domino
Joe Lauro with Fats Domino Haydee Ellis

One problem I have with documentaries is they only show a few seconds of a great performance and then cut to an interview. But you don't do that.
If I wanted to spend all my time talking about his private life, you wouldn't see all that great music. When I make films about musicians, we show the whole songs. There's even an extra where we go to his house and he's playing everything. That's one issue: He wasn't a very talkative fellow. How do I get Fats in the film? I tried to interview him but couldn't get too much. His biographer Rick Coleman had done some audio interviews 10 years earlier, which was very detailed about his childhood and everything. That way, we were able to get Fats in the film a little bit more. Whenever he was on The Steve Allen Show, they interviewed him, but it was nothing really of any substance. That, combined with the French Archive really helped, so I could make this film.

What are Fats' hobbies? 
His name is Fats, and the man loves food. He would rather talk to you about the type of frying pan he uses. He would rather cook for you than do anything else. That's what it was all about. It was about cases of New England clam chowder arriving. Or crawfish he would cook on the stove and give you for breakfast. Even when he was a younger man, he would bring his own burner on the road and pack New Orleans food. He continued that love. If you would go to his house and knock on his door, if he was in the right mood, he would invite you in. His hobbies were always music and cooking.

The film doesn't shy away from how difficult it was to be a black musician in the South – they often had to drive 100 miles from a gig to find a hotel that would take them.
These guys are top of the charts, and they didn't have a place to stay. That man lived through it. And you know all of them were hesitant to talk about it. More than anything, I could tell they just wanted to forget about it. Dave Bartholomew particularly: "I don't wanna be talking about no civil rights thing, we just lived it."

I said to Fats, "Did you go see The Girl Can't Help It?" He said, "Yeah." "Where did you see it?" He said, "I went to the Saenger Theatre." He's the star of the film, and he had to sit upstairs! He had to go upstairs at the premiere. The New Orleans Times-Picayune never covered his career. Nothing about Fats. 

Fats Domino
Fats Domino at JM Studio in 1956 Photo Courtesy of Historic New Orleans Collection

What did Fats think of your film? 
Fats just loved it. At the premiere, he kind of grabbed my hand. His daughter told me he watched the rough cut like four times. They even made some comments on a couple factual things we got wrong. It was a long, drawn out thing. It's a labor of love, these types of things. I choose not go to Keith Richards or big names –  why talk to them when I could talk to Fats' friends from the Ninth Ward? When you do it that way, it's harder to get them made because you're not wheeling out the checkbook. 

The thing that really broke the ice with him is that I knew he loved boogie-woogie. My company Historic Films is a huge archive of music on film, and we license it out to people. So I made him a tape of Meade Lux Lewis, Amos Milburn, Albert Ammons. All those guys he just cherished, I made a VHS. I put on this clip from the Forties called "Low Down Dog" with Meade Lux Lewis. I gave him the tape, and he just went nuts. They said he never took it out of the machine. He started calling me Video Joe. "Is this video Joe?" When Katrina happened and he lost everything, I made him another copy.

Domino was thought missing in the week after the Hurricane in 2005. What's his life like now?
Right after Katrina, they thought he was dead. They finally found him. The whole neighborhood was completely devastated. This is the Lower Ninth Ward. It's not a wealthy neighborhood. Most of the people either left, died or never came back. The Tipitina's Foundation rebuilt his house, but he never moved in. Why? Because everyone was gone. His whole way of life ended. It's a displacement that you don't hear a lot about as a result of that storm. You hear about people losing their houses or dying or whatever, but you get an old person used to having everyone around their whole life, well, it's gone. So he moved into a wonderful suburban house. His daughter takes care of him. But it's not the same. And it made him withdraw, in my opinion. When I was shooting him like five years ago, I couldn't get too much information from him, but man, I said, "Play the intro to 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy.' Play me a little bit of 'Swanee River Boogie.' There was nothing from his playing and singing he ever forgot. 

Why did he stop performing?
I think what happened is he did it for 65 years, and it was just time to stop. I think it was just too much of an effort when you're getting that old. Fats wanted to have that sound unchanged. That's the thing about Fats that none of the other guys preserved. Fats made sure that those arrangements were played. He made sure Herb Hardesty was on the sax. He rehearsed. He did not take a pick-up band and play. When you saw Fats Domino, to the last show, you could close your eyes and it would be like being in a joint in 1955. It was ageless.

Do you ever see him doing another show, even an appearance at New Orleans Jazz Fest?
I don't know. Who knows. The man is still going. I think he pretty much made a conscious decision to not perform in public anymore. But if you happen to be lucky enough to be invited to his house and he's in the right mood, you'll hear some great stuff. 

In the film, you talk about the myth of Fats as a harmless guy. 
He was a little guy, kind of roly-poly, soft spoken, not outrageous. Everyone assumed he was this harmless sort of little black guy from the South. He wasn't threatening. That image is really unfair because he ran a tight ship with that band. He kept that band going. He played this great, wonderful music. But people react in strange ways on that level. He didn't give a damn but, then again, that goes back to one of the reasons why he's so misunderstood by so much of the world. They get it in New Orleans but nowhere else. And man, those records are kick-ass. They are some serious records.

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