At the door of his mansion in the gated community of Barkley Estates, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, Fats Domino is dressed in black slacks, black patent-leather shoes, a purple dress shirt, a captain’s hat and a gold chain that dangles a small gold airplane. At 79, with little hunch in his 5-foot-5 frame, he could more accurately be nicknamed Slightly Plumps Domino.
Inside, he points out his dining-room wall, on which he has hung two gold records — “Blue Monday” and “Rosemary” — that he managed to rescue from his old house in the Ninth Ward. His other twenty gold records got looted or washed away during Hurricane Katrina two years ago. He lives with Rosemary, his wife of sixty years, and two of his eight adult children, who help take care of Mom and Dad. The kitchen is spotless, like a catalog for high-end plumbing fixtures. His bedroom, across from the dining room on the ground floor, smells overwhelmingly and intoxicatingly of beans. He is cooking red beans in a big pot on a two-burner grill in his bathroom, which is next to his bedroom. In the middle of the bathroom floor stands a treadmill with bath towels and dish towels hanging from the rails. The counter around the sink is covered with toiletries, kitchen utensils and onions.
On the ride to lunch at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter, Fats sits in the back seat and makes up a song. “I’ve got a good relation with the Tipitina’s Foundation,” he sings. “That’s what I’m telling you, and you should too.” This is a reference to the two other guys in the car, Roland von Kurnatowski, who started the foundation and owns the Tipitina’s nightclub, and Bill Taylor, who is the executive director. The foundation is on a mission to preserve New Orleans culture and has recently released a rousing two-CD album called Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fals Domino, which features everyone from Robert Plant to Norah Jones doing Fats Domino songs, with the profits going to buy instruments for schoolchildren and aid local musicians. “I’ve got a good relation with the Heineken Foundation,” Fats sings, sucking on his beer. “That’s what I’m telling you, and you should too.”
At the restaurant, Fats gets another beer and, according to his habit, doesn’t eat anything. Also according to his habit, he doesn’t say anything. Eating food he hasn’t cooked and talking to people he doesn’t know rank near the top of his list of least-favorite activities. Most stressful of all is probably talking to strange people with notebooks. So I keep mine in my pocket until just before the end of the meal, when I figure I’ve got nothing to lose, and ask him the secret of writing great songs.
“Bein’ lucky,” he says.
Where had he picked up the triplets that are such a hallmark of his piano style? “I don’t know,” he says. “I think it might have been Amos Milburn.”
Someone asks what a triplet is.
“Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh,” he says.
I ask if he has any theories why his concerts sometimes sparked riots in the 1950s.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It wasn’t anything in the music, so it must have been something in the audience.”
After lunch, we take a ride to his previous home in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Fats lived for his entire life and had to leave in a boat after Katrina. The interior of the house is completely gutted and smells of baked mildew in the 100-degree heat. Next door stands “Fats Domino Publishing,” which served as his clubhouse. Beyond the compound fence stretches a vast tangle of weeds. The only evidence that it used to be the Lower Ninth Ward, a community of poor and working-class blacks, is a handful of homesteaders and dozens of fire hydrants that poke out of the undergrowth. And he plans to move back here? “At my age,” he says, “you can’t count on nothin’.”
Shy and quiet from earliest childhood, Antoine Domino was ten when he got his first piano, and he has been inseparable from the keyboard ever since. Delivering ice to homes and business establishments of varying repute, washing cars, listening to jukeboxes and the marching jazz bands of New Orleans’unique culture, he learned from and was soon jamming with some of the most innovative musicians in American history. When he was twenty-one, in 1949, he recorded a song called “The Fat Man,” which he and his producer/writing partner, Dave Bartholomew, reworked from a tune called “Junker’s Blues” on the theory that singing about being fat was more commercial than singing about being a junkie. Antoine changed his name to “Fats,” and the song became a huge hit. It was also, strangely, not jazz. With its rollicking beat and thunderously repetitive pop sensibility, it was something else. It was, in hindsight, rock & roll, or at least one of the first and biggest steps toward it.
Fats went on to sell an estimated 110 million records, second only to Elvis in sales among rock’s pioneers, and second to none in talent. With a string of astoundingly catchy and danceable hits like “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I’m in Love Again,” “Blueberry Hill” and “Whole Lotta Loving,” Fats influenced Little Richard (who was a speeded-up and straightened-out Fats), Phil Spector, the Beatles, early reggae artists like Bob Marley and Toots Hibbert, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and every garage band south of the Mason-Dixon Line that was pretty much obligated to play Fats Domino songs at every senior prom for decades to come.
“When Fats was having all those hits in a row, he kept it very simple,” says Allen Toussaint, also one of the great New Orleans pianists. “He would start a pattern right from the beginning and it would last throughout the song, so if you liked the first two bars, you would like everything. He never fixed what wasn’t broken. Another thing he discovered was moving his triplets below middle C. Before Fats, people played triplets in the upper register, and it was a timid kind of sound. When Fats played triplets in the lower register, there was nothing timid about it. No way.”
Least legendary in rock’s first generation, Fats didn’t do much to mythologize other than write and play immortal songs. Onstage he was a radiant bowling ball of love, beatific and a bit anomalous with the relentless backbeat and raucous saxophones. Offstage he gambled a bit, had a thing for fancy cars and jewelry, and was known to cook beans in his hotel room, annoying the other guests with the smell. He was also prone to homesickness and blowing off gigs so he could go back to New Orleans. Completely apolitical, he was nonetheless a major force for civil rights because of his irresistible hooks, which attracted black and white teenagers to the same dance floors during segregation.
During the dangerous and divisive Sixties, the safe and inclusive Fats had fewer and smaller hits until they petered out entirely. He’s never failed to sell tickets, however, and remained a top attraction in nightclubs and on the nostalgia circuit throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Having no desire to be anywhere but New Orleans, he gave up touring in the Nineties, doing mostly local appearances. He remains the patriarch of all celebrities in his hometown and cannot walk around the French Quarter without being mobbed.
“Fats played a concert for us on New Year’s Eve 1999,” says Kurnatowski, who is a real estate developer when he’s not preserving New Orleans culture. “It was a sit-down dinner for a thousand people, and they all crushed up against the stage when Fats came out. They all wanted to touch Fats Domino. At one point, Fats accidentally knocked over the microphone stand. He kept playing, sang a little louder and calmly reached down to pick it up. He didn’t miss a beat, just a few words, and the crowd went nuts. The next morning, he called me up at eight o’clock and wanted to refund some of his fee, because he’d knocked over the microphone stand. I said, ‘Are you kidding? We should pay you extra money for that. It was a real crowd-pleaser.’ Fats said, ‘Well, OK, but I want you to know I don’t work like that. When I play, I want it to be right.'”
Leaving his hot plate back home in the bathroom, Fats comes to perform in New York for the first time in more than twenty years. After staying up all night practicing on an electronic keyboard in his hotel room, he orders breakfast and goes into total-meltdown mode when he discovers that the cook removed the fat from his steak. At soundcheck, he is still so bummed about the steak that he plays two listless verses of “Blueberry Hill” and wanders off. At the show (a benefit for the Tipitina’s Foundation), he accepts the key to the city from Mayor Bloomberg. Then he plays the same two listless verses, wanders off again and has to be coaxed back onstage for a ripping rendition of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” with Lloyd Price, who recorded the song with Fats on piano in 1952. Fats waves, Fats signs a few autographs, Fats goes back to his hotel.
“It’s hard for me to get him to eat like he should eat,” says Walter Miles, 75, backstage. Miles has been Fats’ favorite cab driver, runner of errands and traveling companion since Katrina. “Yesterday, he ate a few shrimp outta his salad. This morning, he didn’t eat but half his steak. He said, ‘They cut the best part off. The fat is where the flavor is.’ He always want as much fat as he can get. And he only want his own food. Except for Subway sandwiches. He like a good Subway sandwich.”
Why does he cook in his bathroom?
“‘Cause he don’t wanna leave a big mess for his wife and daughter in the kitchen.”
What’s his technique for beans?
“He gotta have fresh beans. And it’s hard to find fresh dried beans. It’s funny. He always cook too much. He always cook beans for an army, even if he the only one gonna eat it. He used to feed all his friends back in the old neighborhood. Now he don’t know his neighbors. I say, ‘You ain’t livin’ in the Ninth Ward no more. The army’s gone.’ But he still want to cook for em, wherever they at.”