Playing Boogie-Woogie with Fats Domino


In Memoriam


So now it’s Fats Domino’s turn. I guess you could say he was eighty-nine and had had a full life. And, yeah, he did. But it doesn’t matter. It’s like hearing that lilacs won’t exist from now on. Or mockingbirds. They’ve been around for a long time, too.

You sort of had to see him perform live to really get it, although there’s plenty of video on YouTube and elsewhere that can give you a good hint. When he was playing, he was the music, he was all of the music. He looked as if he was having at least as much fun as the audience. He radiated commitment to the hilt, humor, total musicianship at the piano, and some other unquantifiable thing, some alchemy that made you want to continue to live. He could steer what the band was doing with a glance or at most a quick, whispered word to the guitarist standing just behind his left shoulder.

Fats Domino was one of the indisputable rock and roll pioneers, of course, half a decade before Chuck Berry and Elvis and the rest of the gang, and his recordings (most of them arranged by R & B pioneer Dave Bartholomew) like “I’m Walkin’,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blue Monday,” and “The Fat Man,” along with the better-known hits like “Blueberry Hill” and “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” are indelible. His piano style, deeply rooted in blues and boogie-woogie, was infectious and widely imitated, his voice was instantly recognizable, and he expressed all the essentials of the New Orleans spirit in three-minute holograms of recorded sound.

In November 2009, when Fats Domino was in his early eighties, I spent an afternoon with him at his house. Unlike a lot of New Orleans musicians who became famous, Fats liked it in his hometown and stuck around. When Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005, Fats had to be rescued by boat from his famous, even iconic, Lower Ninth Ward house. He lost everything he owned in the flood. Eventually he settled across the Mississippi River on the West Bank, in a fine, large, new house in a gated community that you could generously call “antiseptic.” His family’s first concern was, naturally, to make sure that Fats was safe and comfortable. But he had none of his old buddies around to keep him company, tell jokes, or watch a football game on TV with, and it had to be a pretty lonely life out there.

A longtime friend of his named Haydee Ellis would bring people by, usually musicians, to visit with Fats and cheer him up. One day, I got a call from the New Orleans pianist Tom McDermott, saying that Haydee had invited him and a Danish pianist named Esben to visit Fats, and would I like to join them. That is what is known as a rhetorical question.

Later that day, we found ourselves in Fats Domino’s kitchen, standing around a little awkwardly and trying to take in the fact that we were there. Fats had largely retreated from public appearances at that point, but he was gracious, good spirited, and clearly happy to have the company.

After a while, we made our way into the living room, and Tom and Esben took turns playing for Fats as he sat on his sofa, grinning and sometimes clapping along. I took a couple of turns, too. But Fats never made a move toward the piano, despite repeated invites. He rarely played anymore at that point, apparently, even for himself.

About forty-five minutes into it, Esben was playing a fast version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” with a heavy boogie-woogie left hand, and McDermott started playing along with him at the upper end of the piano, a chorus at a time, punctuating the choruses with gestures inviting Fats to jump in. After they’d given it a few tries and gotten no response from Fats I decided that there was nothing to lose by my jumping in as well, so I got on the right-hand end and played a couple of choruses. To my astonishment, Fats got up from the couch, walked over and looked down at my fingers as I was playing, and after two or three choruses said to me, “Key of C … ?”

The fact that Fats had to ask what key we were in was a measure of how tentative he had become, but I nodded and scooted over a little toward the middle, playing some chordal riffs, and Fats Domino—Fats Domino, I say—dove in next to me and played some totally killing boogie-woogie figures for five or six choruses up at the top of the keyboard, electrifying everybody, until we finally landed the plane in a total pandemonium of happiness. There is film of this, which unfortunately I can’t share, but it shows Fats playing this tinkling, spangling boogie way up top and grinning at the camera over my head, and I wish that moment could have lasted forever.

After that, we could not get him off the piano. He played parts of “Swannee River Boogie,” “Blueberry Hill” (changing the lyrics to “I drank my fill … on Blueberry Hill …”), and a bunch of other songs, laughed, made jokes and radiated joy. When we left, I had the feeling he wished we could have stayed. I know we did.

Now he’s gone, too, and—as if we needed another reminder in this rotten time not to take human beauty for granted. Rest in peace, Fats Domino.

Tom Piazza is a novelist and nonfiction writer, living in New Orleans. His books include
Why New Orleans Matters and the novels City of Refuge and A Free State.