It’s been more than 20 years since Antoine “Fats” Domino traveled to New York as an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. It’s been nearly 60 since he and longtime collaborator Dave Bartholomew retooled the drug-themed “Junkers Blues” into “The Fat Man,” Domino’s first Imperial Records hit and, some say, the earliest rock ‘n’ roll tune. And it’s been just over two since his Lower Ninth Ward mansion and its adjacent annex—part publishing house, part clubhouse—took on eight feet of water. In the days following Katrina, many feared that Domino, who was briefly missing, had died: Graffiti scrawled on the side of his place read, “R.I.P. Fats—You Will Be Missed.” But he’s still with us, his home slowly getting restored, his music more alive than it’s been in decades, now serving to help spark his hometown’s ongoing recovery.
In Katrina’s wake, the ever-reclusive Domino aligned himself with the Tipitina’s Foundation, the nonprofit arm of an iconic New Orleans club, to release Alive and Kickin’, an album he’d quietly completed before the flood. In that trying period, Domino’s Creole croon and rollicking tunes, accented with distinct New Orleans rhythms, were a welcome salve; marketed solely through the organization’s website, the CD did tangible good, too, raising roughly $150,000 for music-education workshops, instrument giveaways to local schools, and technology and business training for musicians.
When foundation director Bill Taylor brought up the idea of Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino, a new two-disc collection of familiar stars covering Domino’s familiar classics, Fats assented. Yoko Ono signed off on John Lennon’s 1975 version of “Ain’t That a Shame.” Neil Young covered “Walking to New Orleans.” Elton John took on “Blueberry Hill.” “From there, it was—forgive the expression—a domino effect,” Taylor says. E-mails and faxes rolled in, from Willie Nelson to B.B. King, Toots and the Maytals to Herbie Hancock. Robert Plant cut two tracks, including a haunting “Valley of Tears,” with the Soweto Gospel Choir. Norah Jones covered “My Blue Heaven,” inspired, she said, by Domino’s “general badassedness.” A marvelously funky “Whole Lotta Loving” teamed up-and-coming New Orleans hero Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his regular employer, Lenny Kravitz, with Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo Parker, and the Rebirth Brass Band. “Fats was able to make music that was in the New Orleans tradition and commercial, too,” Andrews tells me. “That’s what I try to do today.” The album’s tip-of-the-hat from all musicians across the spectrum—from rock to reggae, pop to jazz—reflects the depth and breadth of Domino’s legacy. And it extends to the foundation alliance, helping to fund a business cooperative on a Ninth Ward lot donated by Domino. When he comes to New York this week for a Tipitina’s Foundation benefit concert at Pink Elephant (featuring Ivan Neville, Leo Nocentelli, Olu Dara, Lloyd “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” Price, and others), Domino might simply tip his familiar captain’s hat and watch, as he did at a Goin’ Home release party at Tipitina’s last month. Or he might sit down at the piano, as he did at the club back in May, reeling off such crowd-pleasers as “Ain’t That a Shame” and obscure numbers like “Natural Born Lover” for half an hour with confidence and glee. Either way, you’ll have to show up to find out.
Fats Domino will appear (and possibly perform) at the Pink Elephant November 8, pinkelephantclub.com