(Fats performing) Photo by Cheryl Gerber Fats Domino performs with his band at Jazz Fest. (fats-plant) Photo by Earl Perry (irma Thomas, fats domino, deacon john) Photo by Cheryl Gerber (fats3) Photo by Cheryl Gerber (fats2) Photo by Cheryl Gerber (fats gets award) Photo by Cheryl Gerber In addition to reproductions of the 27 gold records he lost in Katrina, Fats Domino was given a framed award made from a collage of his album covers at a special ceremony in August. It's only proper that Fats Domino's sartorial trademark is a white captain's hat. After all, he's been at the helm of New Orleans music for half a century.
For most of America, Fats' ambling piano triplets are the definitive sound of the city. Second only to Elvis Presley in record sales during the '50s, Fats' unmistakable sound traveled into millions of homes across the nation, accomplishing what very few New Orleans artists at the time managed to do " he peppered not only the R&B charts but also the pop Top 10 with a consistent volley of hits. In 1986, Fats was an inaugural inductee into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame; the next year, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony.
Twenty years later, it turns out, the Fat Man's not done singing.
In the introduction to his thorough and loving 2006 biography Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll, Rick Coleman suggests that Fats has been 'disappearing" from the annals of rock 'n' roll for some time. He means that scholars and historians who chart the landscape of music's history have been dismissing Fats for being too benign a player, omitting him from reference works or relegating him to the status of a brief annotation. As a self-proving measure of that observation, Blue Monday " the first biography of Fats " appeared 30 years after 'Blueberry Hill" hit No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts. By contrast, biographies of Nirvana were on the racks while Kurt Cobain was still alive, and six biographies of the White Stripes are available on Amazon.com.
Here in New Orleans, at least, the spotlight awaits Fats whenever he's ready to step into it. That was proven by the highly successful all-star tribute that highlighted last year's OffBeat Magazine 'Best of the Beat" awards show. Nationally and internationally, Coleman's book " which Douglas Brinkley enthusiastically blurbed as 'definitive" " and the release last month of a new greatest-hits compilation on Capitol will hopefully dispel any notions that Fats has faded into the rock 'n' roll background.
In fact, the best evidence yet of Fats' staying power may be this week's release of Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. The project is a two-disc set of recordings of Fats' tunes " some well-loved, some obscure " by more than 40 artists. The roster ranges from 20-year-old English singer Joss Stone to 82-year-old blues legend B.B. King, from New Orleans legends Dr. John and Art Neville to rock royalty Neil Young and Robert Plant. The set also includes recordings by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Elton John " very likely making this release the only tribute record with three Knights of the British Empire on it.
John Lennon's version of 'Ain't That a Shame" was recorded for his own Rock 'n' Roll album. McCartney has said that the track he covered " 'I Want to Walk You Home," laid on top of Allen Toussaint's piano " was the original inspiration for 'I Want to Hold Your Hand." It is a testament to the reach and power of Fats' influence that a vast range of artists who bring the celebrity of McCartney, the youth of Joss Stone and the stylistic difference of Los Lobos were willing to jump on board the project (at the behest of Tipitina's).
Even as Coleman charges that FATS Domino has been overlooked by rock 'n' roll's appointed scribes, the biographer says that the subtlety of Fats' persona has been mistaken for ineffectuality. It's difficult, he says, for some to remember the climate in which Fats rose to stardom. The country was still segregated, television was a startling revelation, and the new trends it broadcasted were even more so.
'Rock 'n' roll was a brand new thing," Coleman says. 'They thought it was tantamount to communism coming out. All that shaking and sexual suggestion, and the fact that mostly blacks were doing it. Elvis was the great white hope. If he was going to succeed, better him than Little Richard." In his book, Coleman notes that when Fats appeared on TV's The Ed Sullivan Show, his band played from behind a curtain 'to reduce the number of visible black men."
'Fats had been around for some time" by the time rock 'n' roll was hitting its stride, Coleman says. (Based on the song 'Junker's Blues," Fats' thunderous 'The Fat Man" appeared in 1949, six years before 'Ain't That a Shame" hit the charts.) 'He had a very appealing way about him, almost like Louis Armstrong in the '30s. He could combine that pop sensibility, doing Tin Pan Alley standards, with hardcore, gritty R&B, which was kind of a New Orleans thing; all the people who played ghetto parties could also play in the French Quarter." It was that synthesis of black and white music together that allowed Fats to charm white middle-class America. He didn't disarm black music so much as he turned white pop into a Trojan horse for the suggestion of new, exciting rhythms.
'He had a very appealing smile, and he seemed to be a nice guy," Coleman adds. 'He was subversive in bringing black music into the pop mainstream, and he was consistent at it. Twelve years in the Top 40 on one chart or another " he was a jukebox machine. He filled a need at the time and gave people that crossover. He was an icebreaker. He was paving the way for Little Richard and Chuck Berry."
'Out of all my family, I think my uncle Art (Neville) was the most influenced by Fats," says Ivan Neville, who took on the title track on Goin' Home, along with his band, Dumpstaphunk, and B.B. King on vocals and lead guitar. 'But everybody was influenced by Fats. And in turn, I was influenced by Art, big time. [Fats] was a huge impact on rock 'n' roll. The thing he did with the piano, the rocking, the New Orleans style. The Beatles and the Stones " just to name two amazing bands that influenced generations " the people like that that he influenced in turn made Fats' music more universally exposed " to millions of people." (Art Neville, on a rare solo piano recording, sang Fats' 'Please Don't Leave Me" on the tribute album.)
Dr. John, who covers Fats' 'Don't Leave Me This Way" on Goin' Home, took his first guitar lessons from Fats' longtime sideman Walter 'Papoose" Nelson. But even before that, when he was learning boogie piano from an aunt, he was aware of Fats.
'Some of the first songs I started figuring out was Fats tunes," Dr. John says. 'Listening to those 78 (rpm) records over and over, even before I started being a guitar player, I knew how to play the Fat Man from way back." Later on, doing session work and hanging out at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios, the young Mac Rebennack (now better known as Dr. John) got to hear Fats in person " though not necessarily in the studio.
'Dave (Bartholomew, Fats' longtime producer and co-writer) used to throw me out the studio with regularity, and that's one of the things I admire about Dave," Dr. John says. 'I listened to him outside the studio. Can't throw me out of the streets."
The 30 tracks on Goin' Home don't just illustrate the impact Fats' name has on the incredibly famous people who took the time to contribute. More than anything else, it's an object lesson in how Fats' deceptively simple sound actually contained influences " and more than that, building blocks " for astonishingly diverse styles of music.
'He was stereotyped as just singing over those triplets, dink-dink-dink," explains Coleman. 'But you can hear a vast array of different styles of music. Even Dave Bartholomew said "I'm Walkin'" is just Dixieland jazz without clarinets." On the record, there are some direct interpretations, like Randy Newman's wry 'Blue Monday" and Elton John's campy 'Blueberry Hill." But much of the genuine interest lies in the songs that are true interpretations and not just covers. Lucinda Williams turns 'Honey Chile" into a breathy number full of near-physical yearning. Lenny Kravitz's 'Whole Lotta Loving," performed with the Rebirth Brass Band, Troy Andrews and former J.B. Horns Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo Parker is a mellow, slow-burning platter piled high with pure feel-good funk. And Willie Nelson's spare 'I Hear You Knockin'" sounds like a cowboy's campfire song, perfect for Nelson's laid-back, behind-the-beat delivery.
'Toots suggested doing "Let The Four Winds Blow,'" Bill Taylor says. 'He wanted one with a reggae beat." That track " along with Ben Harper and the Skatalite's ska version of 'Be My Guest" " shows plainly Fats' influence on reggae. The latter song in particular was a hit in Jamaica, where Fats toured in 1961. (In the September issue of MOJO Magazine, dub reggae legend Lee 'Scratch" Perry says that Fats' single 'Sick and Tired" was the first record he ever bought.)
'He sold pop and R&B and whatever else they called it in them days," recalls Dr. John. 'He crossed over those lines way back. And it was just Antoine doing it that made those records so cool."
Most of the tracks on Goin' Home are collaborative, mixing and matching anywhere from two to five different artists together. Galactic appears twice, backing up both Robbie Robertson and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. Robert Plant also appears twice, once with swamp-pop legends Lil' Band O' Gold, and once with the Soweto Gospel choir on a haunting 'Valley of Tears."
'It brought out the old DJ jones in me," says Bill Taylor, who executive-produced the album. 'Fitting songs together " that mentality went into this. It fell into our lap in most situations," he says. 'I was like a kid in a candy store."
Coordinating producer and engineer Chris Finney agrees.
'For artists and producers, a good record is like crack," he grins, remembering some of his favorites. 'This was a crack fest. You know how they call the really good old New Orleans piano players "piano professors?' Jon Cleary (who plays with Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt on Goin' Home) should be like an adjunct professor."
Ivan Neville, who also plays with the New Orleans Social Club and Taj Mahal on a zydeco-tinged 'My Girl Josephine," says, 'His songs are such classic recordings, to go and redo those songs, it was a great idea for everyone to put their own spin on it, paying respect to an original song and giving it a new life."
Dr. John helped out with the song selection, giving Taylor and his partners a hand digging into Fats' capacious catalog.
'It was hard for me to pick any one song from his catalog that was cool, because there was so many that were cool," he explains. 'I figured I'd leave them to take all the hit records, and I'd pick something more obscure. When I was coming up, if you didn't play certain artists' work, you weren't getting no work, and Fats was one of them."
He also remembers some not-so-fortunate cover versions of Fats' work. 'He sold stuff nationally, and his biggest records got covered nationally. Pat Boone covered "Ain't That a Shame.' And man, that record stunk."
Fats' big double on Caffin Avenue stands only a few blocks from where he was born, at 1937 Jourdan St. in the Lower Ninth Ward. It's just a few blocks further away from the breaches in the Industrial Canal that let floodwaters rush in to ravage the neighborhood following Katrina in August 2005. In a storm story that's now well-known, the 78-year-old piano player and many relatives were evacuated to safety by a New Orleans Harbor Police boat that docked in 8-foot waters outside a second-story bedroom window. Fats actually owned two homes near Caffin Avenue and Marais Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, where he lived with his family, but it's the flashy black-and-yellow double " with the neon sign above the porch and 'F.D." worked into the wrought iron of the front gate " that's always been a humble local landmark. Two years after the failure of the federal levees filled it with watery sludge, the block looks beleaguered but OK. Red-and-white signs reminding residents of the Road Home deadline dot the neutral ground along St. Claude Avenue, where a fresh coat of blacktop makes it a smoother ride than it's been in a decade. The still-missing street sign marking the intersection with Caffin has been replaced, for now, with a carefully hand-lettered one by a conscientious neighbor. In the late-summer afternoon sun, the outside of the house is back to its former eye-catching glory, with a pair of bright yellow stars on either side of the gate and a neon sign hanging above the front porch. Beside it, planted in the grass in the side yard, is a billboard declaring, 'The Tipitina's Foundation: Proudly Helping Fats Domino Rebuild His Neighborhood."
The Goin' Home record is the largest, if only the latest, manifestation of the ongoing partnership between a very public organization and a notoriously private man. Fats has had a personal friendship with Tip's owner Roland von Kurnatowski, but the two started a more public relationship with the creation of the Tipitina's Foundation post-Katrina. The foundation donated $100,000 toward rebuilding Fats' Ninth Ward property. In turn, the musician allowed Tipitina's to sell Alive and Kickin', his first new recording since 1993, exclusively on its Web site.
'Fats was looking for a meaningful way to give back to his hometown after Hurricane Katrina," says von Kurnatowski, who owns hundreds of rental properties throughout the South, and had also consulted with Fats over the years on matters of real estate. 'He made it very clear that he was making this donation to us because he felt it was important to support the Foundation in its efforts to rebuild the New Orleans music community."
Then, Fats chose Tip's as the venue for a show in May, his first return to the stage in more than three years. The show generated serious buzz " not least because people wondered, due to Fats' hesitance to perform over the past few years and his well-known stage fright, if he'd actually appear. (He did.) At the time, Tipitina's Foundation Executive Director Bill Taylor was already well into the process of putting together his brainchild, Goin' Home, which he planned partly as a grand thank-you to Fats for donating Alive and Kickin' to the Tipitina's Foundation. The proceeds from Goin' Home sales, which is being manufactured and distributed through Vanguard Records, will go to the Foundation's programs. 'I also wanted to create a project that could shine the spotlight on our city's unique music culture," Taylor says.
Fats' alleged disappearance after the storm may not have seemed much different than his reclusiveness before it. People who know him all tend to paint him as an amiable, shy man who prefers to stay close to home. Before the storm, he'd visit corner bars in the Lower Ninth Ward and visit with longtime neighbors. Now, he spends most of his time at his new house, in a gated community on the West Bank, where he invites family and friends over for his Creole cooking and his favorite, Heineken beer. When he appears anywhere, it's likely due to the gentle prodding and support of his best friend, artist Hayde Ellis, and her husband, who often drives him places he needs to go. Shows have also become fewer and further between in recent years. After his last-minute cancellation on the closing slot at the 2006 Jazz and Heritage Festival, people were understandably taking bets on whether he'd actually make it to the piano for the Tip's gig in May.
Fats' famous reticence also made him awfully difficult to get on the phone. His son, Antoine Domino III, and the local R&B guitar player Guitar 'Lightnin'" Lee, visit him several days a week on the West Bank. Lee promised me he'd bring me out to meet Fats. After Fats turned down a few visits, we agreed on a phone call. I called him daily on his cell phone for almost a week until finally, one Sunday afternoon, he was in the mood to chat " briefly.
'Tipitina's, they do a lot of good things for a lot of people, is what I heard," Domino says. 'And it's nice that they thought that much of me to do what they're doing."
Fats is one of few New Orleans musicians to have graduated from the active part of his career with a decent income still coming to him through royalties in large part, Coleman says, because of the honesty of Lew Chudd, the owner of Imperial Records. After the storm, he was able to move to the West Bank with his family on his own dime. But the exposure Tipitina's is getting because of the relationship with Fats could be priceless, not just for Tip's, but also for the city and the music community that obviously still needs a tremendous amount of help. Many artists lost their homes and need assistance getting back to their old homes or finding new ones.
'They'll get a lot of press" from Goin' Home, says Coleman, referring to both the Tipitina's Foundation and New Orleans in general.
It will also be major news when Fats' home is finished. 'We all see the benefits of Fats representing New Orleans. He's the major figurehead (from here) known worldwide," Coleman says, noting that President Bush's recent meeting with Fats was excellent publicity for the White House vis-a-vis the city, as well as a big change for Fats. 'He went up to the White House to have dinner with the president, which was pretty bizarre, because it was one of three times Fats has been out of New Orleans in 12 years. He represents New Orleans, and that's why it'll be such big news all over the world it's such a symbolic thing. Because the Lower Ninth Ward has become world famous, and to have New Orleans' most famous figure move back there " it'll be huge news."
'[Hayde] and I are very happy that Roland has taken on Fats as his poster boy," Coleman says. 'It's given him kind of a splash of glory in his later years. Everything is going positive for Fats, and he feels a great deal of thankfulness to Roland," he says, adding that because of the Tip's-related events, Fats has done more photo sessions and interviews lately than in years.
In early August, Capitol Records hosted a ceremony at Tiptina's French Quarter in which they presented Fats with reproductions of the 27 RIAA gold sales awards he lost in the flood. Fats was typically shy and brief onstage in his captain's hat, taking the mic to offer thanks and retreating to the side of the stage. Coleman says he was amazed, though, that Fats spent as long as he did at the event, signing autographs for more than a half-hour and posing for photos for at least as long.
'It was such a nice day," Coleman says. 'I never saw so many of Fats' daughters together at one time like that, and his grandchildren. Irma (Thomas) was there and Charmaine (Neville), Eddie Bo, Deacon John, Grace from Dale and Grace, and Cosimo. It was an amazing thing, like a family reunion."
All the attendant hoopla and good attention for the New Orleans music scene notwithstanding, will Fats " who turns 80 in February " be moving back into his largely depopulated neighborhood? Coleman thinks he will.
'[The Lower Ninth Ward] is so intrinsic in his DNA," he says. 'It may take a year or two, but I think he'll use it as a second home, perhaps. And the more people move back, the more likely it is he'll spend time over there."
As for Fats, he's philosophical. 'I miss just being down in the Ninth Ward, is all," he says, adding that he's lost touch with most of his neighbors from Caffin Avenue.
'We don't know where each other are at now," he explains. 'I'm over the river, and everyone's scattered. But I would go back down there, if they got the street together. But you know, I'm OK anywhere, as long as I'm in New Orleans."
BOX (with CD Cover)
Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino
9 p.m. Sat., Sept. 29
Tipitina's, 501 Napoleon Ave., 895-TIPS; www.tipitinas.com
This all-star tribute celebrates the consummation of nearly a year's worth of labor from the Tipitina's Foundation: the release of Goin' Home, a two-disc all-star tribute to the legendary Fats Domino. Local talent, most of whom appear on the record, includes Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, Jon Cleary, Irma Thomas, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Walter 'Wolfman" Washington, Henry Butler, Warren Storm and many others. Call the club for info on special $150 V.I.P. packages, which include the show, a copy of the album, a commemorative poster and a special pre-party with snacks and open bar. VIP tickets $25 general admission. " Fensterstock