OffBeat Magazine: Fats Domino, The Quintessential New Orleanian

OffBeat Magazine: Fats Domino, The Quintessential New Orleanian

The Once And Future King

OffBeat Magazine April 23, 2018

Fats Domino passed last October, but he remains an animate force in New Orleans life through his music. Domino’s spirit is not just the sound of Mardi Gras, it’s what New Orleans feels like 24/7/365. It’s the fickle finger of ivory-tickling fate that makes every five-year-old kid with an ear for the sound of joy a likely practitioner of his music. It’s the call of the professors ringing out of the swell houses of Storyville and the barrelhouse joints from Back O’ Town to Algiers to the Lower Ninth Ward, a river of sound that ranges back through the piano kings of the nineteenth century to Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton, the barrelhouse masters of early jazz, Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Champion Jack Dupree, Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith and a host of others. It’s safe to say that no piano player working in New Orleans today is not influenced in some way by Domino, and all of them who came from somewhere else were lured here at least in part by the seductive pleasure of his sound.

Fats was the quintessential New Orleanian until the end. Even after he had moved in with relatives he kept his brilliant yellow and black house in the Lower Ninth Ward, which had been destroyed in the flood following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as a kind of shrine to his status as one of the kings of rock ’n’ roll. The tribute to Fats on the first Saturday of Jazz Fest will be one of the festival’s do-not-miss events. But there will be other unannounced tributes to Fats happening at the festival, and all over town, because the day does not go by when someone, somewhere in New Orleans, is playing a Fats Domino song. I talked to some of the musicians who will be playing at the festival. They talked about his music, and they talked about his other passion—food.

Musicians In Cars Getting Gumbo

Davell Crawford will be part of the official Fats tribute at Jazz Fest and will play his own set the day before. Crawford, the grandson of the great New Orleans pianist/vocalist James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, was very close to Domino.

Fats poses for a photo on February 26, 2010, his 82nd birthday, at his home, in Harvey, LA.

Fats poses for a photo on February 26, 2010, his 82nd birthday, at his home, in Harvey, LA.

“I’ve known Fats just about my whole life,” notes Crawford, “and we became close in 1990 when I was 14 years old. He had a cousin, Geneva Morris, who I was very close with, she attended St. Augustine Catholic Church right there in the Treme. She set up a meeting with Fats, who had been following me for some time although I didn’t know that. He knew my grandfather and made the connection that I was Sugar Boy’s grandson. He became a fan of mine before I really knew how to become a fan of his. I would go to his house and he would send me home with some great crawfish bisque and homemade cheese or we would get in the car and ride around.

“At that time I was playing a keyboard called the Yamaha Clavinova. It had just come out and I was demonstrating it for a lot of musicians. Fats wanted one, so we went and purchased one and I spent a lot of time showing him how to record on that machine. So we spent a lot of time talking about music. He thought a lot of me and saw himself in me. We spent a lot of time together when no one else was around. Sometimes some of his friends would pass by and we’d have a little meal, then get in one of the cars and ride around out to Arabi. We’d listen to music, New Orleans music, and it seemed as if he loved and appreciated everyone. He knew everything I was doing. He had VHS tapes of me playing and he would watch shows I was on from HBO and Showtime.

“I remember the Rolling Stones coming to town and they wanted meet Fats. Mick Jagger wanted to do two things. He wanted to go to church and hear some gospel music, which he loved, and he wanted to meet Fats. He called me because he knew Fats and I were very close. ‘I just want to go shake his hand and say thank you,’ he said. I had a connection with the church so we went to hear the Gospel Soul Children, but I couldn’t get Fats to greet him. Even Elton John, I couldn’t get Fats to greet him, he would say ‘No, no, who’s that?’ I would say ‘The Rolling Stones, one of the biggest groups in the world,’ and he would say ‘Oh, Lord, I got my beans on, I don’t know.’ I just said ‘Wow.’ I thought I knew how to get through to him, but I guess not. Over the years a lot of my celebrity friends wanted to meet him but he would never do it. Sometimes I would just take them over there unannounced or even some of my fans, I would just take them in the car, and he would come to the door and either welcome us in or we would have to go away.

“When we played together on Treme, they wanted him to play the piano and I said ‘Okay you’re gonna have to give me some time to talk to him and encourage him and just let us do what we do.’ They agreed to that and that’s exactly what happened. He came out and I sat at the piano and just made some loose conversation about old times. I started to play and asked him to come to the piano. He didn’t want to at first. Eventually he got up and he played a little bit of ‘Blueberry Hill’ with me. He enjoyed that. It was all organic. I knew when he started pattin’ his foot, I said ‘If that foot moves, I got him.’ What a joy. That was one of the highlights of my life.

“It’s not true at all that he stopped recording. Once he got that Yamaha Clavinova he set up a little studio at his place and he did record more music. Considering that his home and most things in it were destroyed in the flood most of it is gone. I’m sure there is something still out there, I don’t know what it is.”

Big Easy Boogie

Pianist Mitch Woods has been paying tribute to Domino ever since he came to New Orleans to record with members of Domino’s band for his 2001 album Big Easy Boogie.

“The Jazz Fest people actually requested me to do some Fats stuff so we will definitely be doing that,” he says. “Fats is one of the greatest influences on my music. I always tell people if you like rock ’n’ roll, then go back to Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, they were actually great boogie woogie piano players. Fats had the great songs, written with Dave Bartholomew that were catchy songs that everyone could sing. He had a happy spirit and that’s what I love to communicate in my music. That was probably Fats’ main goal—whenever you heard him speak he said ‘I just wanna make people happy.’

“My project Big Easy Boogie was actually recorded with the Fats Domino band. It wasn’t Fats himself but I started writing tunes in the Fats Domino style. We did a couple of Fats covers on that as well. I had been working around town with a lot of his sidemen—Irving Charles, Reggie Houston—and I gradually got to meet Herb Hardesty. When it came time to make the album, it was obvious that I should make the record with these guys. The Fats Domino band—best band in the world. We were able to put together most of the surviving guys including Dave Bartholomew who was instrumental in co-writing all the big hits with Fats and leading his band; and Earl Palmer, his first drummer, who went on to be the most recorded drummer in the world. Dave had produced Fats and it was a dream to get him to produce some of my songs. It was like going back in time and getting to play with your mentors. Through Dave I learned the song structures that he gave Fats in writing his songs. Everything was straight to the point. He had a lot of expressions like ‘Put a goose egg on it,’ which is all the horns hitting that one chord altogether. When Herb Hardesty would take a sax solo Dave would say ‘You opened the door, now close it!’ You know like, get to the point, do a nice little solo, and get out. All that stuff is invaluable, that’s what made Fats’ music endearing and enduring.

“Earl and Herb kept telling me, ‘You gotta get Dave Bartholomew in on it,’ so when Dave came in on it, it took a while to convince him but finally he came in, and they would call him the Chief. He was the Chief, even with me. There’s one point on the DVD where he’s right in my face, telling me how to sing: ‘Open your mouth, boy, open your mouth!’ I’ll never forget that, it was a priceless moment. Then Earl tells him ‘He’s got a good voice but don’t expect him to be Fats Domino.’ Those guys really enjoyed playing together again. Earl and Herb talked about when they used to record at Cosimo’s, it was all done live, there were no overdubs in those days, they would be getting a really good cut down and in the middle of it Fats stopped and said ‘How did that sound? How’d I sound?’ and Dave would say ‘Man, just keep playing!’ There were a lot of stories about being on the road. Earl told about one time, you know, Fats at the end of the show would push the piano across the stage with his stomach, and apparently this time he pushed it to the point where it collapsed the stage and the whole piano went down. The promoters were pretty pissed at him and I guess he had to pay for the piano.”

Fats Domino Music

The wonderful pianist, singer and songwriter Marcia Ball is a long time Jazz Fest favorite and another Fats devotee.

“When I talk about who the stars were in my youth, growing up, Fats Domino would be the first person I would mention—Little Richard, Jerry Lee and Ray Charles, all piano players. Whenever anyone asks me what kind of music we play, if I say ‘New Orleans rhythm and blues,’ I get a blank stare. If I say, ‘You know, like Fats Domino,’ everybody goes ‘Oh, yeah!’ That’s what we do. I do a lot of original material that’s basically based on the style of Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair, the major influences from New Orleans. But it all comes together under the heading ‘Fats Domino.’

“I go back to Louis Moreau Gottschalk if you wanna know the truth, the connection between classical and ragtime in New Orleans led us to where we are now.

“What a lot of people don’t know if they haven’t listened to very early Fats Domino is that he was a kickass boogie woogie player. If you go back to the earliest Fats recordings you can find there’s some straight out boogie woogie. And he rocks.

“I love the way he sings ‘baby.’ That’s the whole French Creole stuff coming out of him. It’s some combination of bidet and baby. But yeah. There’s that sweet mellow voice, there was something so, I don’t wanna say gentle about it except that’s really the word that comes to mind. Sweet eyes, smile, he played with a smile on his face. I think that one of the reasons that he crossed over so completely, besides the quality of his music, was that he was unthreatening in a way. He had that look about him and he sang great songs. To me he set the tone for what became swamp pop. The 6/8 dance beat that goes through ‘Mathilda’ and ‘I’m a Fool to Care’ and all these songs was Fats’ signature.”

“Let’s Go Hang With Fats”

Reggie Scanlan, bassist with the Radiators, is celebrating that band’s 40th anniversary at this year’s Fest. But before he was in the Radiators he played the festival in 1977 as part of the Professor Longhair band. That stint with Fess was his ticket to an audience with Domino.

“The little bit that I knew Fats he was just the greatest guy,” says Scanlan. “When I was in Fess’ band we would back Jessie Hill up on his gigs. At the time Jessie Hill was living in half a house behind Fats’ house on Caffin Avenue. It was a little shotgun house. Jessie lived in one half of it and the other half was kind of Fats’ clubhouse. When we would rehearse at Jessie’s house after we’d finish he’d say ‘Let’s go hang out with Fats.’ Fats seemed to always be there, hanging out and cooking and stuff. Jessie an’ ’em would be there. I would just sit in the corner, I was just a dumb white kid, I didn’t know what was goin’ on. I was amazed that I was even in the room with these giants. I’d just sit there with my little bowl of gumbo or red beans or whatever Fats was makin’ and I would just listen to these guys tell stories or whatever. Fats was the most gracious guy. I treasure those moments even though I didn’t have much of an input in ’em. Just to be in that atmosphere with those guys to me at my age it was like something you read about in a fairy book or something. It was totally unreal and something that I couldn’t even imagine was happening to me. These were people I’ve read about and listened to. Fats Domino, you listened to him your whole life when you grow up here. He’s part of the tapestry of the city. To actually hang with these guys, it was like somebody coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, you wanna be in the Rolling Stones?’ When I was in Fess’ band I thought I was as far as you could go in the music business. Where else could you go? I wouldn’t trade those memories of those times for any amount of money.”

Scanlan’s partner in the Rads, Dave Malone, has a different connection to Domino.

“I grew up in Edgard, Louisiana and Fats has relatives in Edgard and also his bandleader Dave Bartholomew is from around there. When we were in high school the head cook was Miss Domino, who was a relation of Fats. So our school lunches were killer. Nobody brought their lunch. The food was crazy good. Miss Domino ran the cafeteria. Back then you could go back for seconds or thirds. Another story is Fats used to go to Crescent City Steakhouse pretty often and me and Ed Volker also went there pretty often. One time I was pulling up in front of Crescent City Steakhouse on Broad and I tapped the bumper of the car in front of me and I realized it was Fats’ car. So we went inside and I fessed up and he said it was all right. He bought us a bottle of wine and talked to us for a little while. He was a gracious, fine man. I have a cassette tape that someone gave me of Van Morrison working on the His Band and the Street Choir songs. One of the songs is in its early stages, it’s going G to C and he’s singing ‘Ooh Domino, that Fat Man Domino.’ So that song was about Fats. I don’t know if many people know that.”

“It’s A Very Universal Thing”

Pianist and songwriter Davis Rogan is fond of saying that every show he plays is a tribute to Fats Domino. After the Katrina flood Davis went to the bar at the hotel where Domino was staying just to sit next to his idol and chat. Now Davis is teaching grade school kids to sing Domino’s songs.

“The traditional jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong created American music which became the music of the world,” says Davis, “and I think the second most important era is classic New Orleans rhythm and blues, not just commercially but it created the aesthetic of popular music from there on out. I love the rhythms, I love playing it, there’s something magic about all that great New Orleans rhythm and blues—Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Cosimo Matassa, Imperial Records, that whole scene, that alchemy of magic that created those great tunes.

“I’m back to teaching at Homer Plessy School which is full circle for me because it’s at the old McDonogh 15 building where I went to school. The first two songs I teach them are ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘I’m Gonna Be A Wheel.’ I like both of these tunes for teaching the kids because the kids can really relate to the lyrics. ‘Blue Monday’ is a song about a working person, but that kind of quotidian schedule is so banged into somebody’s head by the time they’re seven or eight. How do you feel on Monday? Bummed out. How do you feel on Saturday? Happy. It’s a very universal thing. You can kind of teach kids how to use the arrangement—on ‘Blue Monday,’ when it gets to the chorus, Saturday morning, the drummer, Earl Palmer, changes from accenting the 2 and the 4 on the snare, he goes 1-2-3-4-5-6, the way he accents the beats. There’s certain ways in which the arrangement supports the lyrics and it’s not too early for second or third graders to start noticing how these things work. And making sure kids from New Orleans know to be clapping on the 2 and 4. Nobody does it better than those children. As for ‘I’m Gonna Be a Wheel’ I think the kids tend to relate to ‘I’m not big right now but I’m gonna be something someday.’ They totally get that.

“I print out a lyric sheet and I kind of go chord by chord call and response on the words for the younger kids. By third and fourth grade, I’ll play a chord, call a line, call and response, kind of like church. Once we get the lyrics we’ll sing the song a couple of times, then I play them the song, then we get into some other stuff, we talk about the arrangements, we make a map of how the song goes, we talk about where the strong beat is, if we get a little more advanced we try to imitate some of the Dave Bartholomew horn arrangements, we talk about syncopation and note values and all that kind of stuff.

“I think these tunes are little narratives unto themselves. Another teaching tool I can use is watching Fats on videos play these songs, just to show them how he sells the hell out of his lyric. He’s got this warm voice, it brings you in, and you feel it with him. There’s an easy, fun-loving joy that Fats Domino has.

“Before the kids get to be prejudiced about age in general, when they get to be around 10 or 11, when they’re this young you just play them the tune and they will jump right into it. All I need to do to get second and third graders into Fats Domino is to sing them those great lyrics and play some reasonable facsimile of that rhythm. It’s those two rhythms brought together that create a visceral excitement. The kids aren’t predisposed to dismiss something because it happened in the 1950s, which happens around 5th grade. With these young kids if you show them something exciting then they’re hooked. That’s in the music.”

Nothing Better Than Fats Domino

John Gros grew up on Fats Domino because his father Don Gros was a piano player who played Fats’ material around the house.

“For me it started with my dad because my dad grew up on the West Bank and when he was in high school he was one of those guys who did all the Fats Domino and Huey Smith songs at sock hops. He was probably a few years younger than Frankie Ford, and he was one of those guys. Gary Edwards will tell you that nobody did Fats Domino better than my dad. He was the closest thing. When I was growing up my dad would always play on the piano when he was home. When he wanted to relax or have a good time or just put himself in a better mood, he would play some Fats Domino. That was my first catalyst for being aware of it, and then as you become more aware of the sounds around you I realized that these songs had been surrounding me my whole life at family parties, wedding receptions, Fats’ music was everywhere. When I became a working musician it was important for me to know the Fats Domino songs. When I started out I was in some very good bands with heavy musicians and the reason I was on the gig was because I knew the New Orleans stuff like ‘Walking to New Orleans’ or ‘Hello Josephine’ or ‘My Blue Heaven.’ Now when I want to put myself in a good mood there’s nothing better than Fats Domino music.

“When you think about it there’s only two New Orleans musicians that changed the world. Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino. They touched more people in the world than any other New Orleans musician directly touched. His voice and the way he enunciated the words, he radiated such joy and happiness, even when he was singing a breakup song like ‘Walking to New Orleans.’ There was a certain rhythmic thing that he played on songs like ‘Let the Four Winds Blow’ and “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel,’ that rock ’n’ roll piano bounce, it was rudimentary but it made people feel really good. When you put Earl Palmer’s drums behind it, the big rock ’n’ roll beat, those big horns, it was a format that created a long, illustrious career.”

The Golden Touch

Pianist and music historian Tom McDermott ruminated on a bit of a contrarian take on the Domino legacy as it relates to the New Orleans music tradition.

“I think Fats’ strongest influence is in the form of repertoire because he’s part of the school of standards that we still play today,” says McDermott. “Since Toussaint died there aren’t people in New Orleans generating standards. What Trombone Shorty song are we going to be playing 50 years from now? Even Harry Connick Jr. or Wynton Marsalis has not generated a standard. I see that as a problem for New Orleans music going forward but in the meantime we have Fats and a lot of his stuff is holding up a lot better than a lot of the other icons except for Toussaint, who was more than just an R&B or rock ’n’ roll guy. As far as playing in Fats’ style, the triplets, it’s a good thing to be able to do but I don’t really hear it that much outside of a handful of people. It seems that the rhythm and blues scene is kind of dying. It’s a generational thing but when I moved here in ‘84 everybody knew who Professor Longhair was but now I would say James Booker is more popular because of the film about him. People who were R&B icons are not as well-known as they used to be. Fats might be the exception. The songs that he recorded are the songs from that era that are still being played. He’s such a joyful image. You can’t help but love what he does. It’s comforting, apart from whatever musical merits it has. He had the golden touch.”