Fats Domino was presumed dead in 2005, after Hurricaine Katrina ravaged his beloved New Orleans. His wife, Rosemary, was ill, so Domino decided to stay at home with his family and see if he could ride it out. Nobody heard from Domino for days in the storm's aftermath; somebody spray-painted an "RIP" on his Ninth Ward house. But on September 1, Domino was air-lifted to safety. "I wasn't too nervous," he told the New York Times of his rescue. "I had my little wine and a couple of beers with me; I'm all right."
That was, by all accounts, Fats Domino: unassuming, resilient, funny, "all right." It's difficult to find a review or anecdote or essay out there that doesn't mention how nice a man he was. "Domino was the most widely liked rock and roller of the '50s—nobody hated him," Robert Christgau wrote in 1990. "It's nearly impossible to find a photo of him in which he's not smiling—I like to think that he flashed that deeply credible, no-bullshit grin every single day of his life," Amanda Petrusich wrote at the New Yorker yesterday. Here's my favorite one, from Domino's friend Dr John, the grizzled genius: "He's a good man, and people respond to that goodness."
Even in the midst of anxiety and gambling addiction—both of which he had to wrestle with in his lifetime—Fats Domino found joy in his music. And he expressed that so fully that no audience or listener could ignore it.
There are hundreds of videos out there of Domino performing live and you should absolutely spend your afternoon watching them one after the other. But the best thing out there is the clip at the top of the page. I've watched it maybe a hundred times over the last few years. It's taken from Walking to New Orleans, a documentary that had Jools Holland travelling through Louisiana, detailing the blues and meeting his heroes.
It's awkward at first. Holland tries to interview Domino but stumbles over his questions a little: "Do you happen to have very large hands?" "Are there particular keys you find it easier to..?" The two seem to be speaking different languages and, well, they are. Holland was born in Blackheath, London in 1958; Domino was born thirty years before, in Louisiana, almost five thousand miles away. They are from different worlds: old and young, black and white, America and England.
But then Holland sits down at the piano with Domino and asks to duet on "I'm Ready." After some slightly awkward attempts to decide who will go first, Holland bounces into the keys with his left hand. You catch a glimpse of Domino, who has realized that this weird British guy can actually play. Domino starts adding some color to the high keys and then they fall into a jam. Domino just keeps smiling uncontrollably as he sings. He puts his left arm around Holland, who is clearly overawed. They trade off solos. They struggled to communicate in English, but this seems to work.
When they close it out, Domino—chuckling now that he doesn't have to sing—hugs Holland and says, "You got it!" Holland tries to stay English and polite and thanks his hero with a handshake but Domino just says, "Oh, baby!"
First time round, I liked this video because it was heartwarming. Holland got to meet one of his idols and play a song with him; Domino was speechless when he saw what Holland could do. And there's still something to that. I still think this is charming. If you're feeling anxious or low, it'll lift you a little bit.
There's more to it of course. Domino, whose concerts stood in joyful opposition to racial segregation in the '50s, jams with this white dude who reveres the style that Domino pioneered. It's a lovely statement on the universality of music and the lasting impact of the blues and rock 'n' roll on our culture, on both sides of the Atlantic.
But above all, it's just great to see Fats Domino, who loved music, smiling.
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