MUSIC: Harken to New Orleans
RICK COLEMAN HAD NO WAY of predicting that Antoine “Fats” Domino’s high-profile presence at this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival would be a harbinger of hope. In today’s broken city, musicians are more important than ever; they are our muses. For a writer who toiled two decades on the newly released biography, Blue Monday, Coleman scored one dramatic wrap for the narrative.
When flooding began in the Lower 9th Ward, Fats was at the center of media speculation. As water poured into the baronial house on Marais Street, 14 people waited. “Besides Antoine and [his wife] Rosemary, their children “Brother” [Antoine III], Anatole, Andrea, Anola, and Adonica all took refuge upstairs, along with Anola’s husband Edward, their three children and Andrea’s husband,” writes Coleman. They “waited and watched neighbors and dogs climbing onto roofs nearby.”
The family’s rescue and evacuation, first to the Superdome, then to the Baton Rouge apartment of LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell (boyfriend of a Domino granddaughter, Chantel) made international news.
Much later, when a displaced Domino inspected the storied house with Eric Paulsen and a WWLTV/ Channel 4 crew, the destruction hit countless survivors of Katrina personally.
The well-to-do in Lakeview, the middle class in eastern New Orleans, the poor in the Lower 9, all could identify with Fats Domino looking at his overturned piano, flood-trashed rooms and lost treasures of memorabilia.
Coleman’s book will touch everyone who loves Fats Domino’s music, with stories of the songs, the sidemen and how the music came together under the catalytic genius of producer Dave Bartholomew, creating a grand, sweet and powerful sound. The subtitle, Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll, points to something missing. This life-and-times account is less than a biography; anyone who has been around Domino for any stretch of time will know why. For all his wealth and fame, Domino is a shy personality, a fourth-grade dropout who spent years on the road and since the late 1980s has spent more time at home, surrounded by a wall of kinfolk and friends.
Over the years Fats spurned countless interview requests. The late newsman Bill Elder tried and tried, only to show up at the house one day with a camera crew waiting around the corner. Domino greeted him genially, dodging the request, instead taking him next door, nudging him as they climbed the stairs to a neighbor’s porch: “Give him your sign-off line, OK?”
Elder wanted that interview. The door opened. An ancient black man peered at Domino, beaming, as the anchorman hit his drumroll, on-air cadence: “Allright, now – we stop and take you live and direct to Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News.” Imagine getting that on your front porch.
Domino put Elder through the same drill at other houses as they walked the streets of the neighborhood. Elder never got the interview.
Rick Coleman penetrated the inner sanctum and got a full sense of the ho-hum normality of Domino’s home life.
The voice and personality of his subject is more elusive.
How much can you say about a guy who broadcasts magnetism onstage, but in private
life is friendly and aloof? Coleman fills in the gap with industrious historical research and reporting. He is particularly thorough on the early years, before the music was known as “rock.” There is a huge difference between “rock” and “rock ‘n’ roll,” the latter more strongly rooted in the black popular music of Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the doo-wop singers of the 1950s. Today’s celebrity-saturated culture is far removed from the ironic world those early musicians inhabited, when television was tame and racial animosities raged in the South. Who thinks much about the oppressive
Leander Perez today? “There were many reasons why rhythm & blues appealed to teenagers,” writes Coleman. “Besides its physical and emotional release, the music represented forbidden fruit. America preached WASP values of patriotism, puritanism, and consumerism, but kids related mostly to the latter.
When the beat was the message, the words didn’t have to make sense. “Domino,” he continues, “didn’t seem rebellious or even politically conscious, but his single-minded drive to rock everyone who heard him would have a significant effect on race relations.
[His] unaffected charm made him the perfect ambassador of the coming rhythm & blues revolution.”
It is a fitting coda to his career that in the bruised, wounded town where he grew up and made his home, Fats Domino will put his singleminded drive to work at Jazz Fest, lifting spirits when the lift is needed most.