How to Experience Fats Domino’s New Orleans
By JOHN L. DORMAN OCT. 27, 2017
Fats Domino in 1967. Clive Limpkin/Daily Express, via Getty Images
In charming and free-spirited New Orleans, music has an unescapable way of penetrating the soul. For fans of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s and ‘60s, the death of singer and pianist Fats Domino on Tuesday elicited both nostalgic solemnity and a desire to celebrate his musical legacy.
Born in New Orleans in 1928 to a French Creole family, Mr. Domino rose from modest beginnings in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood to become an international sensation. His catalog boasts 23 gold singles and 37 Billboard Top 40 hits, including classics like “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” “I Want to Walk You Home” and “Walking to New Orleans,” selling more than 65 million records in the process. Mr. Domino presented a raw and unique sound to the world, attracting scores of fans from all backgrounds, a rather stunning feat for an artist who lived through the deeply ingrained segregation of the American South.
Rick Coleman, the biographer and author of “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’N’ Roll,” wrote that Mr. Domino “was stepping beyond blues and jazz to the crossroads of a new, wider world that he would help create both musically and socially.”
Even with these accomplishments and his travels around the world, Mr. Domino’s heart remained true to Louisiana — and specifically, New Orleans.
In Mr. Coleman’s book, Dave Bartholomew, the prominent composer and music producer who recorded “The Fat Man” with Mr. Domino in 1949 and maintained a friendship with him over the years, gave one of the most succinct descriptions of New Orleans and its irreplicable style.
“There is no, no, no, no place like New Orleans for music,” Mr. Bartholomew said. “The pioneers are here. We built the house. You can decorate it, but we laid the foundation.”
Friends and fans of Fats Domino gather at a memorial outside of his old residence in the Lower Ninth Ward. Emily Kask/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Lower Ninth Ward
Travel east through the city’s French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods and you’ll reach the Lower Ninth Ward. The Industrial Canal, which connects Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River and allows cargo ships to pass, essentially cuts off the neighborhood from the rest of the city. This forged a unique culture in the area, which was largely swampland and was drained at the turn of the 20th century, with mostly working-class residents settling the land.
The Domino family lived in a narrow shotgun house on Jourdan Avenue that no longer exists, within sight of the eastern levee of the canal. In his book, Mr. Coleman describes how Mr. Domino “walked the dirt path of Jourdan Avenue to St. Claude Street, lighted in those days only by oil lamps in the houses and the stars above.”
Mr. Domino was rather shy as a child and left formal schooling during the fourth grade. He then had a succession of jobs, from an ice deliveryman helper to stable boy at the New Orleans Fair Grounds to coffee factory worker. During this time, Mr. Domino also learned how to play the piano, a pivotal part of his young life that would come to define his long career.
Even while Mr. Domino was achieving dizzying success, touring the country extensively and embarking on his first European tour in 1962, he preferred to keep his roots in New Orleans.
New Orleanians often spotted Mr. Domino driving around the city in his pink Cadillac. For decades, he resided in the Lower Ninth Ward at 1208 Caffin Avenue with his wife, Rosemary, who died in 2008. The property consists of a shotgun-style building and a corner building trimmed in pink. With a sign that reads “Fats Domino Publishing” and the initials F and D on the front of the home, this landmark property is easily identifiable.
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy brought severe flooding to the neighborhood after the levee protection system was breached. In 2005, flooding from Hurricane Katrina levee breaches was even more catastrophic, emptying the Lower Ninth Ward of much of its population, including Mr. Domino. Many buildings from his young adulthood were razed after they were deemed inhabitable. After initially riding out the storm, Mr. Domino had to be rescued by boat and subsequently decided to live with one of his daughters in Harvey, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish.
After Mr. Domino’s death, the Lower Ninth Ward property quickly became a makeshift memorial, with admirers visiting to pay their respects and leave personal mementos to commemorate his life. The property presents an opportunity to see a slice of the city that has dealt with a great deal of tumult, but also one that always embraced Mr. Domino and paved the way for his first forays into rhythm and blues.
A streetcar on Canal Street. John L. Dorman/The New York Times
Central Business District
Canal Street, with its swaying palm trees and bustling streetcar lines, serves as a grand gateway to the heart of the city. In Mr. Domino’s heyday, the street also showcased the dichotomy between the bustling economic engine of the city, and at the time, lower-to-middle black class areas like the Lower Ninth Ward.
The lyrics to “Fat Man” highlight the busy corner of Rampart and Canal, where the black and white worlds of the city, respectively, merge:
I was standin’, I was standin’ on the corner
Of Rampart and Canal
I was watchin’, watchin’
Watchin’ all these Creole gals
Mr. Domino deftly references Creole culture, acknowledging the mixed-race women who descended from free black citizens. The lyric is a continued recognition of the somewhat fragile racial realities of the time, as well as a nod to his own background.
Musicians performing in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Annie Flanagan for The New York Times
At the intersection of Rampart Street and Dumaine Street, on the northern edge of the French Quarter, a nondescript laundromat is in the former home of the J&M Recording Studio. The studio, opened by the recording engineer Cosimo Matassa, was designated as a Historic Rock and Roll Landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2010, with songs including “Fat Man” and Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” having been recorded at the location. Mr. Coleman describes the recording session for “Fat Man” as lasting almost six hours, which was not unusual for Mr. Domino, as he generally practiced his songs religiously.
In the Central Business District and straddling the border with the French Quarter is the old State Palace Theater, which operated as a Loew’s Theater during Mr. Domino’s adolescence. The original building, which was constructed in 1926 and features over 3,000 seats, remains intact, but redevelopment plans remain unclear. Mr. Domino went to the State Palace frequently in the 1940s.
“I used to see Gene Autry movies all the time,” Mr. Domino told Mr. Coleman, adding that he also saw “Roy Rogers, the Three Musketeers, and John Wayne.”
The nearby Civic, Joy and Orpheum Theaters, which all rose to prominence from the late 1900s to the ‘40s, underwent extensive renovations and continue to welcome new generations of audiences.
Mr. Domino’s performances in the 1990s and early 2000s at the House of Blues were highly anticipated and well-received, a testament to his enormous staying power.
A Fats Domino record was placed on the ground near Mr. Domino’s old home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Emily Kask/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Domino was a master at fusing music genres like rhythm and blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, gospel and even country. His love for New Orleans always remained a major theme in his musical universe. Performances at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, fittingly held at the Fair Grounds where he once worked as a boy, always brought out legions of his fans. In his later years he played to smaller crowds, including a 2007 set at Tipitina’s Uptown, one of his last public performances.
In the song, “Walking to New Orleans,” Mr. Domino describes the sense of belonging and optimism that the city holds. Despite the sad circumstances, the song is upbeat and refreshingly personal:
I’ve got no time for talkin’
I’ve got to keep on walkin’
New Orleans is my home
That’s the reason why I’m goin’
Yes, I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
At the time of Mr. Domino’s death, he was 89 years old. New Orleans shaped his work ethic and songwriting throughout his life, a testament to his ability to connect people through music.
“I try to keep a light beat and pleasant words to say in all my songs,” Mr. Domino told Mr. Coleman in 2006. “That’s part me and you know I love New Orleans, so I can do nothin’ but New Orleans.”