By Edwin Buggage
Antoine “Fats” Domino: Rock-N-Roll Pioneer
The name Fats Domino is forever etched in the history of American popular music. His unmistakable piano playing, and distinctive voice set the world on fire as the sounds of boogie woogie and R&B would merge into what would become known the world over as rock-n-roll. His hits, written with his partner Dave Bartholomew would include, “The Fat Man” (1949), later earning national and international fame with tracks like “Ain’t That a Shame” (1955) “Blueberry Hill” (1956) Whole Lotta Loving” (1958), “I’m Ready” (1959) and “I Want to Walk You Home” (1959) and the iconic “Walking to New Orleans” (1960). In his prime recording years, he sold 65 million singles placing him second behind Elvis Presley. He has been inducted in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, and has received a National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1998. He is a musical legend with a body of work that continues to influence generations of artist across the globe.
Only in New Orleans: Second-lining and Celebrating Life
He recently passed away peacefully at the age of 89. He is gone but not forgotten as his legend lives on. His home going was a send- off that is truly in the spirit of New Orleans. Where there were countless second-lines and musical celebrations, culminating with a procession of thousands heading from Vaughn’s Lounge, located in the Bywater across the St. Claude Bridge to Fats longtime home on Caffin Ave. in the Lower Ninth Ward. Data News Weekly had the chance to speak to some of those who knew the man behind the music and his impact not only on the world but those who knew him intimately.
The second-line was led by James Andrews, a world-renowned artist in his own right. He has known Domino since he was a young boy. His voice is one that rings in New Orleans that is a blend of Satchmo gravely and the Treme’ neighborhood he calls home. “It was an honor to be leading a second-line that paid homage to a man that was a true New Orleanian.”
Fats Domino: The Man Behind the Music
Andrews continues speaking of the relationship between Fats and his grandfather, Legendary Singer Jesse Hill, who opened for Domino and for a time and lived next door to him in the Lower Ninth Ward. “I saw him many times and use to go by his house as a kid with my grandfather. I went by his house before Katrina and sat and talked with him and drank a few Heinekens and talked about music. And after Katrina I went over to his house in Harvey when he moved over there and spent the day with him talking about music, the City and his life. It was always great to see the “Fat man” and he had a wonderful personality; that New Orleans personality that was welcoming and giving.”
Lamar Smith is a family friend and owner of Lamar’s Creole Wings. He spent his childhood inside the home of Domino as friend to Fats’ late son Andre’. Later Domino became a mentor to the young business owner. “He was a down to earth person, when I started my business he told me if there was anything I can do for you give me a call.” He also says that while not overtly political, his music helped bring people together. Speaking of his impact he says, “He broke racial barriers in music and when I think about the second-line honoring his life and people out there of all backgrounds and how he touched their lives with his music this is what his life was about.”
Inspiring a Generation
Data News Weekly Publisher, Terry Jones grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward and was also friends with Andre’ Domino. At the time where there was still a racial divide, but many were inspired by the success Fats had achieved and felt they could aspire to a better life. “His legacy is that he was somebody to admire back in the 9th Ward he had the biggest house and 7 cars. They were the cream of the crop and he was an icon in Lower Ninth Ward if you aspired to be something, that was the top.”
Artists such as Domino, Allen Toussaint and other Black artists were overlooked by the local media and were the inspiration for Data News Weekly, which was originally founded to showcase and celebrate the great entertainers from New Orleans. “Back then this is why my dad, Joseph “Scoop” Jones started Data News because there was no recognition from the White press or anybody who was covering him or any of the greats back then. We were called DATA Amusement Guide back then and began as an entertainment paper.”
Giving New Orleans to the World
Domino eventually grew beyond his New Orleans roots, and his musical gifts took him around the world. Bobby Setter is a recording artist and music promoter from Belgium whose known Fats for over 40 years promoting his shows in Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and England, Holland and Austria who came in to bid his good friend farewell. “I have known Fats for over 40 years, we met in Berlin, Germany in 1974, he was my idol when I started my band and we became friends and since then I come to New Orleans all the time it is like a second home.”
Getting to know him beyond the music, the two bonded. “He is a man who plays a chord on the piano that it is him. He has something very special in his piano playing and his singing too. As a human being he is the most humble, loving and Christian.” He says the way of life in New Orleans is something he loves and thanks Fats Domino for being his friend and introducing him to New Orleans. “It is such a beautiful place to me, I came on short notice because of his death, but I do not regret it because I have never seen something like this second-line parade; we do not have this in Europe.”
A Look Inside “Antoine” Domino
Charles Brimmer is the son-in-law of Fats Domino and is married to his daughter Andrea and after having a recording career and business career lives in the Lower Ninth Ward. When asked of the person behind the music he refers to his father-in-law as “Antoine” that’s what who he was offstage; something that was a far cry from the man that rocked stages across the globe for many decades, “He was a very quiet shy person off stage and a humble guy, we never spoke about music.
Brimmer also speaks of Antoine as a family man dedicated to his wife Rosemary and his 8 children and throughout his life teaching his kids the importance of humility. “He was very protective of his children, but he wanted them to remain humble. To never think they were more than others and they carry themselves that way until this day. If you did not know them, you would not know because they did not go around telling people they were Fats Domino’s children.”
With a touch of joy in his voice he reminisces about a man who he felt had a full life. And while he worked hard, he also in true New Orleans fashion enjoyed spending time with those he loved. “He cared about his friends and after he cut down on traveling he would take the house next door and spend time there because he loved to entertain his friends in the neighborhood. He loved to cook, he was a fantastic cook; he would cook red beans and rice, Cowan turtle, chitterlings and the best jambalaya I’ve ever tasted. He also baked cakes, his favorite cake was a rum cake, and when I tell you a rum cake it was loaded with rum. He just loved being around the house and he would open his arms and heart to them.”
An Ambassador for the City of New Orleans
Fats Domino’s name is synonymous with New Orleans. And while his fame rose, he never forgot where he came from. In fact, he celebrated it and continued to inspire us as someone who can rise to that level of greatness and can continue to live in the community and inspire others. A fact not lost on James Andrews, who lists Satchmo and Fats as the biggest Ambassadors of New Orleans and its music, “The one thing I liked about Fats is that he stayed true to the City of New Orleans; he never left, and he toured the world, but he always made his way back to the 9th Ward. He stayed true to New Orleans and he could have left and lived anywhere in the world, but he stayed right here and that’s special.”
For more from the Fats Domino Second Line turn to page 6.