He would park his Rolls-Royce outside of a club, then casually sit at the bar and listen to the sounds of the jukebox. Onstage, his signature diamond rings created their own light show, whenever the spotlight hit his hands playing the boogie-woogie.
More than 72 years after the release of his pioneering rock’n’roll single and almost five years after his death, the music of Antoine “Fats” Domino is still played across town, said trombonist Glen David Andrews, 42.
“Fats is on everybody’s radio for Christmas in New Orleans. He’s a staple for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, when his music is blasting on every porch leading up to the Fair Grounds,” said Andrews, who grew up hearing about Domino. His cousin Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews had maternal relatives like guitarists Lawrence “Prince LaLa” Nelson and Walter “Papoose” Nelson who played with “The Fat Man.”
The hair on Domino’s head was entrusted to Andrews’ aunt, a beautician. “So there was a direct lineage to me,” said Andrews, who routinely plays renditions of Domino songs within his sets. “I don’t hear Fats; I live it,” he said.
On Saturday (Oct. 15), the city will celebrate the music legend by renaming of Caffin Avenue to Fats Domino Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward, a change authorized by the City Council last year. The new blue street sign pays homage to a humble superstar who played to sellout crowds around the world but felt most comfortable in his native Lower 9th Ward.
Over the years, other homegrown stars got famous and left their New Orleans neighborhoods for higher-profile places like New York or Los Angeles. Not Domino.
“Fats Domino never left the 9th Ward,” said baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis, now 81, who toured with Domino. “He’s been all over the world but he built his house in the 9th Ward, he lived in the 9th Ward, and he hung out with the same friends when he used to go to the little bar rooms. He was a homeboy.”
Domino’s black-and-gold painted home on Caffin Avenue has been an honorary local landmark since 1960, when Fats spent lavishly, $200,000, to build his house and studio on a corner lot on a block dotted with the typically working-class homes of the Lower 9. Despite his wealth, he wanted to stay in his community, with the people who mattered the most to him, said daughters Andrea, Antoinette, Anola, and Adonica, in a recent interview.
“He was an international artist, he could’ve lived anywhere he wanted to,” Andrea Domino Brimmer said.
As a young man, Domino spent most of his life on the road. Playing five weeks in Las Vegas, visiting New York four times a year for gigs, and touring Europe for a month, the band was always on the road, said Lewis, who began playing in Domino’s band in 1971. But on the road, the food just didn’t taste right.
And in the ’50s and early ’60s, even as the band played the main theaters in Vegas, they were forced to eat in hotel and casino kitchens because they couldn’t eat in public spaces. The segregation in Sin City was so bad that in 1954 Ebony magazine called Vegas “the Mississippi of the West.” Domino, an accomplished cook, responded by packing up his pots and pans and stirring up New Orleans cuisine in his hotel suites, a custom he continued throughout his life.
His earliest records, released during the last decade of Jim Crow segregation, also crossed race barriers, selling in large numbers to white fans, many of them teenagers. Police soon found it nearly impossible to enforce segregation at Domino’s live shows. Domino biographer Rick Coleman counted four riots at his tour shows due to integration-related tensions.
At the time, desegregation battles were making steady but slow headway, but music like Domino’s pushed desegregation in its own way, as white fans joined what had previously been all-Black crowds. As Downbeat magazine writer Ruth Cage wrote at the time, Domino’s music “was doing a job in the Deep South that even the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t been able to accomplish.”
Domino, who died at age 89 in 2017, said that he relied on his French and Creole heritage to bring a unique flair to New Orleans rhythm and blues. He sold 65 million records, produced 25 gold records and influenced major artists such as The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Beatles: “They all idolized Fats Domino, every musician, every artist,” Lewis said.
Lewis said that being part of Domino’s band was like attending music schools at Juilliard or Berklee, because Domino was a perfectionist who demanded the most from his players. He also had perfect pitch, so he could zero in on wrong notes even within his big band. “He’d point right at you and say ‘Hey, boy, don’t play that note – that don’t go in there,’” Lewis said.
Elliott “Stackman” Callier, a saxophonist who played in a band with Fats Domino, remembered how Domino’s music – much of it co-written with collaborator Dave Bartholomew and then recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s iconic J&M Studio at the back of his family’s shop on Rampart Street – was typically in six-eight time, where there are six beats in each measure and an eighth note receives one count.
Though every night’s performance was different, the time signature was consistent, said Callier, 79, as he scatted a few bars of Domino’s 1959 number-one hit, “I Want To Walk You Home.”
“He would say ‘I want to walk you home, da-da-da da-da-da-da da-da-da’,” Callier said. “You had to more or less depend on the mood Fats was in.”
Audiences found Domino’s act “mesmerizing,” said Lewis, who had grown up playing Fats Domino tunes — or so he thought. “We thought we were playing Fats Dominos’ music, but playing with the actual cat who invented that music was a totally different experience.”
Bling added to the spectacle, Lewis said, describing the diamonds on Domino’s rings being “as big as a pinky finger.” Every time he raised his hands up from the piano keyboard, Domino’s hands seemed like a disco ball that filled the auditorium with stars, he said.
As the band arrived at each night’s gigs, they would be greeted by throngs of people. “We never had a house that was empty when I played with him,” said Lewis. “Fats Domino was a superstar, he sold more records than Frank Sinatra at the time. Those two artists dominated the whole musical scene.”
Back in New Orleans, when he wasn’t performing, Domino was the consummate neighborhood guy. As the sun got lower in the sky, he’d sit on his front porch and even invite neighbors inside to eat. He was known for his fried pork chops and all kinds of New Orleans dishes including “the best” red beans ever tasted, said daughter Antoinette Domino Smith.
Though he was personally shy and his demeanor calm, neighbors recall that he carried himself like a king, dressed in tailor-made suits, which were topped with a coat and a hat. He also had a certain quiet swagger, as he would arrive home from the road and walk into his favorite corner bar to buy everyone drinks.
He was always welcoming to kids, said Anne Collins Smith, who recalled visiting her cousins in the Lower 9 and trick-or-treating at his house or cutting through his yard on the way to Puglias, the neighborhood grocery store. Sometimes, he’d even let them inside to play his piano, she said.
“Fats has got to be the all-time neighborhood hero,” Glen David Andrews said.
Because Collins Smith and her 9th Ward cousins loved him, they learned his song lyrics and sang along when his music was played at home on record players or radios or on the jukebox of the 7th Ward bar where her dad hung out, which was a few blocks from her elementary school and one of the places Domino frequented in his Rolls Royce. “The songs were part of our life soundtrack,” she said.
In Domino’s later years, Andrews and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield would go to the house on Caffin Avenue on Feb. 26 every year, to play happy birthday to Domino. “And as soon as you walk in, the first thing you see is platinum records, gold records, a diamond record. You know for sure that this is the real deal.” Though Domino was elderly by that time, he sat down at his piano and played a few numbers, including the opening eight bars to his hit, “Blueberry Hill.”
After Hurricane Katrina, when federal levees split, dumping 20 feet of water into the Lower 9, Domino, then 77, had been rescued by boat from his home, then airlifted to safety.
He returned to help his neighborhood recover, through contributions to institutions like St. David Catholic School on Caffin Avenue, which his children attended. He helped with citywide recovery through a notable post-Katrina performance in 2007 at the Tipitina’s music club. Eventually, the state of Louisiana also restored his white Steinway grand piano, one of three pianos that sat underwater after the 2005 deluge. The piano is now part of the permanent collection of the Louisiana State Museum.
Around the world, Domino’s music still pays testament to the man from the Lower 9. Fats Domino’s music was uplifting and reflected reality. The stories were positive and simple, focused on life, love and friendship, said Lewis, rattling off some examples. “I’m talking about lyrics like ‘I’m gonna be a wheel someday, I’m gonna be somebody,’” he said. “Or ‘I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill’ and ‘The big beat keeps you rockin’ in your seat.’”
His music still influences young artists today like Jade Santrell, 22, a New Orleans vocalist and instrumentalist, who has found a way to adapt Domino’s flair to create her own style. “He inspires me as a vocalist, to put my name out there and have a voice,” said Santrell, who hopes to also achieve his level of success outside of New Orleans.
But is the new street sign enough? Andrews said Saturday’s festival and street-naming is nice but that the city could do more. He suggested that the entirety of Claiborne Avenue should be named for Domino or that local educators should work together to establish a course about him and his pioneering music. “Put Fats Domino on the pedestal he deserves,” Andrews said.
Collins Smith sees the street renaming as a good start. “There’s an African saying: ‘As long as you say someone’s name, they never leave you.’” The renaming is a reminder of him, she said. “We will always have his footprint and a record of his impact in our lives.”
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