If you listen to Al “Lil’ Fats” Jackson sing without seeing him, you may assume you’re hearing Fats Domino.
There’s good reason for that. When Jackson was a child in Bridge City, he listened to the stacks of 45-rpm vinyl records his grandfather brought home from the jukebox in the family’s bar: dozens of classics by Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Huey “Piano” Smith and more 1950s and ’60s New Orleans artists.
Domino, the local star who sold 65 million records, filled a big place in Jackson’s childhood soundtrack. Daily exposure to Domino’s music plus the Creole and New Orleans accents in Jackson’s family and his own natural talent culminated in him being the ultimate Domino tribute artist.
Jackson’s April gigs include the French Quarter Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Gala and WWOZ’s Piano Night. The Jazz Fest gala and Piano Night are tributes to Domino, who died last year at 89.
Both Jackson’s speaking voice and his singing voice sound like Domino. “When I first started singing,” he said, “people would always say, ‘Okay, we know what Fats sound like. Now, what do you do sound like?’ This is what I sound like. I couldn’t change if I wanted to. I never wanted to because, when I open my mouth, it’s like going home.”
Jackson lived with his grandparents until he was 11 because his father was away in the U.S. Navy. When his grandfather, John Hill, came home from his house-moving job, grandfather and grandson listened to the records that had been in the jukebox at the family’s bar.
“My grandfather sat in his chair and crossed his ankles,” Jackson said. “I was little, so I could sit on his ankles. We played records until it was time to go to bed. We had Tommy Ridgley, Smiley Lewis, Jessie Hill. There were so many.”
Today, when Jackson performs shows longer than an hour he’ll venture beyond his vast repertoire of Domino material. “Songs just pop into my head,” he said. “Champion Jack Dupree, Oliver Morgan, Frogman Henry. There’s so much music in me. New Orleans music is the structure I’m made of.”
In addition to his vocal similarity to Domino, Jackson has something else in common with the late star. He’s shy offstage. If not for his mother, he might never have performed in public.
In 1994, Jackson’s mother, a court deputy at the Orleans Parish Courthouse, asked him to play at the courthouse Christmas party. “I laughed the first time she asked. The second time she asked I said ‘No.’ The third time, my mother said, ‘It’s at nine o’clock in the morning. Be there at eight-thirty.’ Honestly, all the way up until five minutes before I left, I wasn’t going. I paced for an hour before I got in the car to go.”
Accompanying himself with a battery-powered keyboard, Jackson played three songs at the party. The performance impressed Joe Cardinia, another court deputy. Before the reluctant Jackson could make a quick getaway, Cardinia volunteered to be his booking agent. And as soon as Jackson got home from the courthouse, Cardinia phoned him with a private party booking. The pay was $60, almost as much as Jackson earned a week at his two restaurant jobs. “I did nothing but private parties for a year,” Jackson said. “People’s back porches and garages and living rooms. Wherever the piano was.”
In early 1997, Oliver Morgan, whose “Who Shot the LaLa” had been a national hit in 1964, brought Jackson to Domino’s home in the Ninth Ward. Despite the terror he felt, Jackson performed Domino’s debut recording, “The Fat Man,” as the star watched. An impromptu piano lesson followed.
“Fats says, ‘Okay, you got the left hand right. But you’re doing it a little different on the right,’” Jackson recalled. “So, Fats sits next to me and starts playing ‘The Fat Man.’ His hands, they’re like cat’s paws. Just as light and easy. But the intricacy of what he’s doing is so great. I realize it’ll be another 40 years before I can do this—unless I grow another finger.”
The welcoming, unpretentious Domino befriended Jackson and the singer’s mother and grandfather. “Fats wasn’t one to bring up old records, or sales, on his own,” Jackson said. “He would much rather talk about what the Saints were doing or about what happened down the street last week. Everything would be so regular with him, even though people know him on the other side of the world.”
Knowing Domino changed Jackson’s approach to performing. “After I met Fats, doing his music wasn’t just about having a good time and reliving my childhood. My responsibility is to handle it with care. And I heard this from Fats Domino himself—he wanted the people who came to see him to enjoy what he was doing. And he wanted to get every performance as close to his original idea as he could. If that was his intent, it’s got to be mine, too.” O
Catch Lil’ Fats at French Quarter Festival on the Tropical Isle Hand Grenade Stage on Saturday, April 14; New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Gala at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans Hotel on Thursday, April 26; WWOZ Piano Night at House of Blues on Monday, April 30.