How Domino survived Katrina, and how the recording came together, form a new chapter in the life of a music legend, who will turn 80 on Feb. 26, 2008.
Interviewing him is no piece of cake
In the late 1990s a WWL-TV anchor named Bill Elder wanted an interview with Domino, the man whose magical records were a soundtrack to his adolescence in the 1950s. Elder typically closed his broadcast with a verbal drum-roll: “Alllll right now. We stop … and take you live and direct … to Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News.” He managed to get Domino’s unlisted number and started calling. “Hey Bill,” purred Domino. “My wife and I love your show.” But Domino wanted no interview. Elder kept calling, Domino kept saying no.
Elder owned guns, flew his own plane and once he was thrown out of Haiti on assignment. Losing interviews wasn’t his style. One day, he drove across the Industrial Canal bridge on St. Claude Avenue to the big house surrounded by a sea of low-income homes; he told his camera crew to wait in a van down the street. (You don’t ambush Fats Domino.) Standing on the porch he rang the bell. Domino answered. “Honey,” he called to his wife, “it’s Bill Elder.” A celebrity in the Lower 9th! Elder tried to wheedle his way in. Domino pulled the door behind him and stepped out, saying: “Can you do me a favor?” Sure, said Elder. Domino led the newsman to a nearby, sagging shotgun house. “When my neighbor answers, give him your sign-off. You know, when you hand it off to Dan.” Elder sighed – anything to get an interview.
A man came to the door. Domino beamed: “This my friend Bill Elder.” Elder peered into the door and said: “All right now! We stop … and take you live and direct … to Dan Rather and the CBS Nightly News.” The man blinked. Pleased, Domino insisted they go to another house – same drill: “All right now …” and then another house, and another, each time Elder delivering his sign-off.
He never got the interview.
Lost in the flood
After 110 million record sales, who needs more publicity? Domino was a grade-school dropout, naturally shy and deeply set in his ways. Born in 1928, he built a split-level house with a terracotta roof in the sprawling Lower 9th Ward, a few blocks from his childhood home. With his wife Rosemary he had eight children – the brothers Antoine III, Anatole, Andre, Antonio and the sisters, Antoinette, Andrea, Anola and Adonica. His biographer Rick Coleman, in Blue Monday, reports that the marriage was on the rocks in the 1950s; Rosemary filed suit for alimony but soon withdrew it. Time passed; things improved.
The touring years fell away as he lumbered into his 70s. Next door to the baronial big house, his renovated shotgun double, “The Annex,” became an old guys’ club. Painted black and gold (in honor of the New Orleans Saints football team) with F.D. emblazoned on the facade, The Annex featured an enlarged closet for his wardrobe, a superscreen with mini-theater seating to watch sports and a stellar kitchen where he spent afternoons cooking hens or gumbo. Pals like former deejay Larry McKinley and retired Louisiana Weekly gossip columnist Tex Stephens and others dropped by. Sometimes they stared agog at white-trash acting out on The Jerry Springer Show. “Can you believe that?” said one podna as a Goth biker threatened to bash his tattooed moll. “A disgrace!’” stewed another. So ran afternoons of the man who turned down $70,000 gigs.
Domino relied heavily on his grand-nephew, Ronald Domino, who shared duties as his driver with “Box” [Ernest Fontenot], who was also his drummer on those occasions when Domino chose to perform.
As Katrina barreled across the Gulf, Haydee [pronounced Hayday] Lafaye Ellis telephoned Domino from her home on the far side of Lake Pontchartrain in rural Folsom. Raised on the fringes of Uptown society’s old pedigree families, Ellis balanced time with her grandchildren and a semi-bohemian lifestyle as a portrait painter and musician. She and her husband, Stephen Ellis, a retired judge and author of a history of St. Tammany, had become two of Domino’s closest friends. Domino joshingly referred to Steve as “Clark Gable.” As the Ellises left Folsom, Haydee implored Domino to leave.
“Rosemary doesn’t want to leave,” Domino told her. His wife had survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which caused heavy flooding in the Lower 9th, when he was on tour in Detroit. Forty years later, Rosemary was semi-invalid. “If I can’t take Rosemary what kind of man will I be?”
As the Ellises drove to Nashville, Steve Ellis called Domino on his cell phone: “Get out!”
“What kind of man would I be?” came the reply.
Haydee Ellis was in tears. The whole family needed to get out.
Over at WWL-TV, news anchor Eric Paulsen was worried, too. On Domino’s 76th birthday, the news director had told him to seek an interview. Elder had tried, Angela Hill had tried; Paulsen called Domino’s daughter Adonica. Fats and Rosemary Domino were loyal viewers of Paulsen on The Morning Show. Perhaps that’s why Domino finally agreed to the interview, after which they struck up a friendship. Paulsen joined Domino for occasional visits to taverns in the 9th Ward. On a rare occasion when Domino performed on the Gulf Coast, Paulsen had gone with him in the Mercedes, the windows rolled down in the heat, at Domino’s insistence. (Stars have their quirks.) Now, listening to his co-host, Sally Ann Roberts, urging her mother to leave the Gulf Coast, Paulsen worried. Domino, he knew, was stubborn.
On Mon., Aug. 29, the levees buckled, a barged crashed into the Lower 9th and eight feet of water filled the house, driving Fats, Rosemary, Adonica, Roland and other family members to the upper floor. The baby grand piano, his many gold records and photographs went down in the muck. Rescue officers from the Harbor Police took them to the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. They were bused to the Superdome, a grim scene with 19,000 desperate people. He began shaking hands, thinking he was supposed to perform; then the realization sank in among Domino and the extended family that they were in horrid conditions. On Wednesday, they were bused to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the Louisiana State University (LSU) campus in Baton Rouge. As Domino went through triage, he caught the eye of a volunteer, LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who was dating one of his granddaughters, a child of Andrea.
The group ended up with 20 people at Russell’s apartment.
In Nashville, Haydee Ellis was frantic.
The Dominos packed off to Fort Worth where Domino rented a place. On reaching Haydee Ellis by phone, he said: “I been worried about y’all.”
Someplace to live
Eighty percent of New Orleans took water in the flood; whole swaths of the city were lifeless and only a third of the 455,000 population was back when Domino returned in November 2006, taking a room at a downtown hotel. He went with Paulsen and a WWL camera crew to inspect his property, a high-profile episode in the continuing coverage of America’s worst natural disaster. Two months after the flood, the Lower 9th Ward still lacked electricity. Tourist buses had passed his famous house before the flood; now there were “disaster tours” motoring through the ruined area. A brown waterline rimmed both of his houses. The big house had been spray-painted with a message: “R.I.P. Fats. You will be missed.”
The cameraman followed as they walked, in boots, inside Domino’s home. Paulsen spoke of “thick sludge” and “an unbelievable smell.”
“What are you going to do, Fats?“
“I don’t know,” Domino said, his face grim.
He was homeless; he also had more money than most people, so he bought a large house across the river in Harvey. The gated neighborhood was light years from the folksy vibe of the Lower 9th. Adonica joined him to help with Rosemary. Paulsen and the Ellises began visiting. His life had changed utterly. Box, his driver and sometime drummer, was gone and unreachable. His old neighbors were gone, swept away; his daughters, Antoinette and Andrea, were living elsewhere. The old guys who gathered to cook and swap stories were gone. He missed the people at Puglia’s grocery store and Moore’s, a tavern on St. Claude Avenue where everyone knew him. His old life was gone.
Fats Domino was lonely and depressed.
Back in the groove
Before the flood, Domino had laid down tracks for his first CD in years. The recording industry was in a free fall as Internet downloads cut bone-deep into profits. Haydee Ellis tried to shop the CD during her displacement in Nashville. The only labels interested in a Domino CD insisted on a promotional tour as part of the contract and that was a deal-killer for the man whose first chart-buster, “The Fat Man,” had appeared in 1949. Roland von Kurnatowski, the owner of Tipitina’s music club – and a real estate investor who had advised Domino in the past – offered to release the CD, a first for Tip’s. The early 2006 launch for Alive and Kickin’ was a bright spot in the city’s torpid recovery. Domino insisted that the CD be sold solely at the club and through its Web site. He donated the profits to the Tipitina’s Foundation, which has realized $29,000 from the project thus far.
Under Executive Director Bill Taylor, Tipitina’s Foundation has been a driving force in the city’s cultural recovery. In August, the foundation donated $500,000 worth of musical instruments to the impoverished local schools, an educational system that for years has failed to field a band in every school. In contrast, when Louis Armstrong entered a reform school, the Colored Waif’s Home in 1913, he received a horn, lessons and a place in the band.
Roland von Kurnatowski and Bill Taylor hatched the idea for a tribute CD to Fats Domino by stars of the rock universe. Taylor, 33, is a Princeton graduate who had never produced a recording before. The first step was to find a label. After a game of squash at the Hilton, Taylor mentioned it to a buddy in the wine business. “This guy knows Kevin Welk – Lawrence’s grandson – who has Vanguard Records in L.A.,” says Taylor. “That afternoon they called. Vanguard really had passion for the project. When something is this close to your heart, you don’t want to cough it up to the wrong entity.”
Says Kevin Welk, a mellow voice on the other end of the phone: “Bill understood why we got into this. We are charging a bare-bones distribution fee and the majority of everything else goes to the charity. We’re donating all of our label services. For us it’s a project not only to help the 9th Ward but as an overall statement: Let’s Not Forget. That’s why we’re involved. People tend to forget tragedies after they happen, no one wants to pick up the pieces.”
Circles of influence
As Taylor contacted publicists and producers who worked with big league talent, Haydee Ellis cast lines to Bill Bentley, who had been a major force at Warner and now worked with Neil Young. Delighted at the invite, Young delivered a ringing version of “Walking To New Orleans.”
The Domino sound was molded by his musical alter-ego, trumpeter and bandmaster Dave Bartholomew, who dominated the recording sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s small French Quarter studio in the 1950s. The flood wiped out Bartholomew’s house; he relocated in Dallas. Haydee Ellis knew that most of the major rock stars of the baby boomer era had virtually grown up on Antoine’s music; those who came upon it later, like Norah Jones – who does an ethereal version of “My Blue Heaven” – knew the authentic item when they heard it: the rocking backbeat, shouting horns, the rippling boogie stride and that deep Creole voice with a stretch and roll of its very own.
“Randy Newman was adorable,” explains Ellis. “He has relatives in New Orleans. I telephoned: Mr. Newman, I’m calling for Fats Domino” – and explained the project. “I’d love to,” said Newman. “I’ve been stealing from Fats for years.” He contributes a pumping “Blue Monday” on the CD.
The range of impressions in the two-CD package conveys the idiomatic reach in that New Orleans rock-and-roll beat, a sound that opened the door for Elvis. Jon Cleary, the New Orleans blues singer and pianist who works with Bonnie Raitt, is from England. He recalls the day in early adolescence, in Kent, when his mother took him to a black-and-white movie The Girl Can’t Help It, which featured the Domino band. “I thought it was the most fantastic thing I’d ever seen,” says Cleary. “My mom had a big smile.”
Cleary proposed a medley to Raitt: open with “Yes It’s Me, I’m in Love Again” and its booming beat, then segue into “Let the Four Winds Blow.” But he learned that Toots and the Maytals, from Jamaica, were working on a cover of “Four Winds.” Cleary continues: “The challenge was to find another Domino song that started on the four-chord. I went through my entire library of Domino recordings and came up with ‘All By Myself.’ I used to hear James Booker do that song. For the medley to work I needed second song to start on that chord.”
Cleary recorded the basic track at the Music Shed, using Johnny Vidacovich on drums and Matt Perrine on upright bass; he edited the cut and sent it to Bonnie Raitt; she put down her vocals and slide guitar in California, sent it back to Cleary and he did the final mix.
Each recording is like an episode in the music that Domino and Dave Bartholomew made with the 1950s band, circling back now in new forms.
“Ain’t That A Shame,” by a shouting John Lennon, opens Disc One. Paul McCartney collaborates with Allen Toussaint on the tender ballad, “I Want to Walk You Home.”
The beauty of the Domino sound lies in the clear melodic lines, tight harmonies and that deep gorgeous voice matched by few singers today.
When Lafayette rocker and guitar wizard Charles Adcock learned about the project from Haydee Ellis, he made a move. “I know Band of Gold isn’t on everyone’s radar, but [lead vocalist] Warren Storm has made his career singing Swamp Pop, which is Fats Domino’s music. Down here Warren is as famous as Rod Stewart. You don’t want to got to Wal-Mart with him because you’ll waste your time while he’s signing autographs. I knew it was an A-list record but I called long shot and found out they were trying to pair some of the big names with local artists. When [Taylor] mentioned Robert Plant’s name I perked up.”
Adcock had previously sent the English rocker his CD Lafayette Marquis. “I took a chance,” he continues, “and pitched Plant on a total vintage style – no overdubs, no modern gadgets. He jumped at it. We did [‘It Keeps Raining’] with him in New Orleans. He was a total gentleman.” Plant also does lead vocals, with the Soweto Gospel Choir in back harmony, on “Valley of Tears.”
Get that interview!
In the countdown to the launch for Goin’ Home, Haydee Ellis went to work on Domino to grant me an interview. Through her auspices I had visited him at The Annex in 2000 as part of a photoshoot. He was amiable that day, executing a series of sartorial changes before matching the sun yellow coat with the turquoise shirt, while the old guys stared at the meltdown of civilization on Jerry Springer. That was then. This is now and the issue of an interview bears hard in the countdown to deadline.
“Be ready at 7:30 tomorrow morning,” Haydee Ellis said on Labor Day. Next morning, a silent phone. At 9 a.m. she telephoned to say it would be Tuesday, after his 4 p.m. trip to the barber shop. Wait by the phone.
The time on Tuesday passed. At 5.30 p.m. she called: “He says tomorrow, he’s going to Praline Connection and he’ll feel comfortable doing it there.”
But lunchtime came and went – nada. Mid-afternoon she called. “I just spoke with him. He took down your phone number. I gave it to him.”
“He wrote it down – “
“Let me guess. He says – “
“Absolutely, that he’ll call you.”
“And you’re telling me I can go to the bank on that.”
“No, I’m telling you Fats is Fats. ”
Jason Berry is music columnist for New Orleans Magazine and author most recently of Last of the Red Hot Poppas, a comic novel about Louisiana politics.