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More Thrills from Blueberry Hill 

It seems like the earth should tremble as we wait in music room behind the Pink Elephant nightclub in West Chelsea. Maybe the skies will open up with huge booms of thunder and flashes of lightning not unlike the weather in August 2005 that has in many convoluted ways led to this. A band of stellar New Orleans musicians and a couple ringers from New York are onstage rehearsing as stage techs and sound engineers plug in microphones, lift Leslie amplifiers onto the stage and adjust faders. All of us await the arrival of the legend himself. A hurricane couldn' t make him leave New Orleans, but now Antoine 'Fats" Domino is making a rare appearance in Manhattan, and we' re waiting to see if he will walk in and take his honored seat behind the grand piano to rehearse for his tribute show this evening. It is amazing that he has even ventured this far. Domino has become famous in recent years for the appearances he has not made " from the dinner at the White House to receive the National Medal for the Arts from President Clinton in 1998 to his headlining set at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Even though this trip is to promote Goin' Home (the tribute/benefit CD put out by the Tipitinas' Foundation and Vanguard Records) by staging a tribute show to Fats at the Pink Elephant and including an appearance on the Today Show the next morning, it is always tenuous to make travel plans involving Domino. The older he gets, the more reluctant he is to leave home. In the week before the trip, however, the executives at the Tipitinas' Foundation who planned it were cautiously optimistic. The night before they left, I received an email from Foundation Executive Director Bill Taylor that said, 'Fats bought new luggage today. That' s a good sign."

Suddenly, the door opens and in walks Domino accompanied by Roland Von Kurnatowski, the founder of the Tipitinas' Foundation. Fats is dressed casually in a black leather jacket and signature captain' s hat. He makes a couple brief greetings before walking into another room to be interviewed by a documentary film crew that is capturing the proceedings. The musicians come off the stage to take a break. Organist Ivan Neville says, 'This is huge, especially after all that' s happened to Fats in past few years." All the musicians, who include guitarist Leo Nocentelli, saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., bassist Nick Daniels, guitarist Eric Krasno and drummer Adam Deitch, seem more excited and animated than usual. After finishing food, drinks and cigarettes, they go back to the stage. Fats comes out and confers with Taylor and Von Kurnatowski. There seems to be some confusion about what Fats is going to play, but they confirm it will be 'Blueberry Hill." Fats is a little tentative, saying, 'I haven' t played in a long time." When he gets behind the Yamaha piano and starts in with the opening chords, the band follows. The version is a little rough at first, but Fats' playing gives everyone a rush. It takes them a few minutes to figure the sequence and the bridge, but within a half hour everything sounds good, and Fats returns to his hotel to wait for the performance that evening.

That night, the same room fills with a cross section of New Yorkers, transplanted New Orleanians and fans. Fats is on the balcony looking over the room with a smile. The band starts and plays two Meters tunes before a couple half-flashy/half-sleazy disc jockeys from the world of New York media come on to introduce New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Domino follows him on and the mayor makes a couple jokes. He asks Domino his age, and Domino replies 'I don' t remember." Finally, the mayor presents Domino with the key to the city, an honor previously conferred on such figures as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama and Muhammed Ali. Domino is genuinely touched as he says a few words of thanks. He sits at the piano, and the band breaks into 'Blueberry Hill." It is a beautiful moment, but one that only lasts a couple minutes before Domino says 'Thanks again," and starts to leave the stage. Bill Taylor has anticipated this, and bounds onstage to introduce singer Lloyd Price. Price says a few words, and then talks about one of his first big hits, 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy," which came out in 1952 with Fats on piano. When he asks Fats to do the piano part, Fats returns. As they start the song, the audience roars, and the Fats who several hours ago claimed he hadn't played in a long time now rips those patented Domino riffs like he did 50 years ago. There is something righteously New Orleanian in those notes and very American as well. Everyone in the audience and backstage is now grooving and paying attention.

The song finishes and the crowd screams as it has since Fats first wowed audiences in the early '50s. Domino rises, acknowledges the crowd and goes back to the balcony. He sits greeting well wishers for another hour or so before exiting with his entourage via the back door. He's got to be up early the next morning for his appearance on the Today Show.

It's around 9 a.m. at Rockefeller Center. Fats and the band are rehearsing 'Blueberry Hill" in the Today Show studio. Special guest Toots Hibbert from reggae band Toots and the Maytals adds acoustic guitar touches. Through the windows, the mammoth Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is being maneuvered into place. It's slightly disorienting to see all these musicians from New Orleans up so early in such an incongruous place. Certainly this is the funkiest band the Today Show has ever hosted, and it is proving it with each chord. The producers film the rehearsal to use as the bumpers to go into commercials before they will bring the band out live to close the show. Bill Taylor looks over from offstage and says, 'This is crazy, and you can quote me on that." Several of the stagehands are taking pictures of Fats at the piano. Given that this is the Today Show where the camera people and assistant producers have to deal with stars like Eric Clapton, Brad Pitt and Halle Berry, they have seen it all, but even they are impressed by the presence of Fats Domino. Several are even doing dance steps to the music. During breaks, Fats plays short riffs of some of his other tunes including 'I'm Ready" and 'Whole Lotta Loving."

Former New Orleans television reporter Hoda Kotb walks in and gives Fats a kiss on the cheek, which lights up his smile. National correspondent Natalie Morales follows several minutes later. Everyone confers, and then the hostesses step toward the cameras, and it's all live. Kotb and Morales promote the tribute record, and then the camera pans to Fats. He starts the opening notes that everyone knows, the band kicks in, and it's magic. Total magic. 'Blueberry Hill" gets broadcast across the nation just like it has since 1956.

It's amazing to consider how many people this humble man who grew up on Jourdan Road on the outskirts of New Orleans has touched over the decades. He's almost 80 now, and he'd probably be happier sitting at home, but he's still trying to play his best and worried that he won't. Unlike some of the other legends of rock 'n' roll, Fats Domino is not phoning it in. He's still sweating.

click to enlarge Fats Domino plays on the set of the Today Show on a recent trip to New York. - DAVID KUNIAN
  • David Kunian
  • Fats Domino plays on the set of the Today Show on a recent trip to New York.
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