Rock-and-roller Fats Domino kept his home town New Orleans — and the rest of the world — dancing throughout the 1950s and ’60s with his rollicking piano riffs powering his smash hits like “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Walking to New Orleans,” “Jambalaya” and “Blueberry Hill.”
At the time Domino, who died Tuesday at 89, was emblematic of New Orleans’s pleasures. A half-century later, he would become emblematic of its resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Though his piano playing was stylish, his lyrics were simple. Songs about falling in love (and making it), eating jambalaya (on the bayou) and hanging out in his home town made him the living embodiment of the Crescent City’s moniker: Laissez le bon temps rouler, or let the good times roll.
And he was almost untouchable. From 1950 to 1963, he hit the pop charts 63 times and outsold Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly combined. For a moment he rivaled Elvis Presley — the only person to sell more records during that time period. Even Presley bowed to Domino, telling Jet magazine in 1957 that even though he’s called the King of Rock-and-Roll, “I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can.”
The piano player seemed to agree, telling one interviewer, “What they call rock ’n’ roll now is rhythm and blues. I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans.”
But he eventually settled down. While his nimble fingers kept tinkling his ivory keys, by the 1980s, he rarely went on tour. He chose instead to live in a small, colorful house in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood he grew up in. While Elvis Presley continued to dominate headlines for years after his death, Domino slowly faded from the public eye outside of Southern Louisiana and its many music festivals.
But he was unceremoniously thrust back into the limelight in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, tearing down its levees and flooding its homes and businesses.
Chaos overtook the city in the aftermath. No one knew anything. Family members couldn’t find each other. Neighbors wondered if they would ever see each other again. The storm’s official death toll would reach 1,833.
And no one knew the whereabouts of then 77-year-old Domino, who chose to weather the storm at home with his wife and children. The world began to panic.
News of his disappearance appeared alongside a flood of national headlines about FEMA, President George W. Bush, looting and people stranded on their roofs.
“I hope somebody turns him up, but as of right now, we haven’t got anybody that knows where he’s at,” his longtime agent Al Embry told the Associated Press three days after the storm. “I would think he might be safe because somebody said he was on top of the balcony.”
Not everyone was as confident as Embry. Some outlets began reporting that the boogie-woogie legend was dead, a musical legend lost to a historic storm.
Fans were relieved when Domino was found on Sept. 1. The good news came serendipitously when his daughter who lived in New Jersey told CNN she spotted Domino in a photograph in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in which he was being helped off a boat in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Domino had been airlifted from the third floor of his home after it filled with 15 feet of water. He was brought to the Superdome, a pro-football stadium where tens-of-thousands of hurricane refugees awaited rescue. The building had no power and no plumbing, as USA Today reported.
Not everyone heard, however. Days later, someone spray-painted “RIP Fats Domino. You will be missed” on the balcony of his home.
Inside, his grand piano was destroyed. Many of his two dozen gold records were carried away by floodwaters, NOLA.com reported.
But he was okay.
He proved it with a 2006 charity album that raised funds for New Orleans musicians, appropriately titled “Alive and Kickin.” As usual, his lyrics were simple. He mostly sang about living in New Orleans, because that was his home, and he wasn’t planning on leaving.
“All over the country, people want to know / Whatever happened to Fats Domino,” he sang, “I’m alive and kicking and I’m where I want to be.”
The record, which he released through the nonprofit Tipitina’s Foundation, was his first in a decade.
“He hooked up with us and realized that Tipitina’s Foundation was helping other musicians and this is his way of giving something back to the community that he cherishes so much,” Bill Taylor, the foundation’s executive director, told CBS News.
In the aftermath of Katrina, he stayed out of the spotlight, generally only emerging to help his city’s rebirth. His 1961 version of the homesick standard “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” returned to regular radio play as the city struggled to rebuild. He appeared every now and then to play charity concerts. He loaned that ruined piano to the Louisiana State Museum.
And he didn’t complain about his losses.
“I ain’t missin’ nothin’. Just one thing that happened, I guess,” Domino told CBS News. “I’m just sorry it happened to me and everybody else, you know?”
All the while, he, just like so many natives displaced by the storm, couldn’t wait to return to his original home.
“I ain’t too far from [my neighborhood]. Fourteen, fifteen minutes,” he told NPR in 2006. I’m going to wait it out. I’ll be there pretty soon, I hope. I don’t think I’ll leave the Ninth Ward.”
The Tipitina’s Foundation and a few other charities eventually restored the house. But sadly, like many others, Domino never did return. The neighborhood he once called home had disappeared. Even when the houses were rebuilt, it just wasn’t the same.
“Most of the people either left, died or never came back,” Joe Lauro, who directed a TV documentary about Domino, told Rolling Stone in 2016. He added, “Everyone was gone. His whole way of life ended. It’s a displacement that you don’t hear a lot about as a result of that storm. You hear about people losing their houses or dying or whatever, but you get an old person used to having everyone around their whole life, well, it’s gone.”
He lived out his remaining years in a New Orleans suburb with one of his eight children.
But he did so with that resilient spirit that many said defined New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Even when everything fell apart, Domino still enjoyed life’s small pleasures, the same ones he always sang about: his wife of 60 years, Rosemary, who died in 2008, his Creole dishes and, of course, his cold beer.
In that way, Domino really did laissez le bon temps rouler.
“I just drink my little beers, do some cookin’, anything I feel like,” he told rock journalist Andrew Perry of his retirement. “Let us know when you’re comin’ again, I’ll cook something up for you.”
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