If the late New Orleans R&B singer Ernie K-Doe is remembered for anything besides his music, it’s without a doubt his repartee. “I’m not sure,” K-Doe was fond of saying, “but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.” From Louis Armstrong to Louis Prima, Baby Dodds to Earl Palmer, Jelly Roll Morton to Dr. John, K-Doe wasn’t far off the mark.
But New Orleans has always been a place of extremes, as ragtime historian Rudi Blesh wrote in 1946: “Never were contrasts so violent in degree to be seen in one community. Silk garbed wealth and abject destitution; holy masses said by brocaded priests in boarded-up warehouse churches while profligate sin prospered outside; fruitful labor and reckless gambling; beautiful flaming life and the hideous death of yellow fever; and forever the white and the black. New Orleans grew like a swamp lily in its noisome mud, now and for long a beautiful city, almost always an evil one.”
If one puts any stock in Blesh’s theory, it easily follows that although New Orleans has produced some of the world’s greatest musicians, they’ve often had to travel to other parts of the world to claim their just rewards. With the exception of Armstrong, no other musician has embodied the mystery and magic of the Crescent City like Fats Domino. But unlike Armstrong and so many others who would follow in his footsteps, Domino proved the exception to that age old curse, never having to leave his hometown in order to receive the credibility that he so richly deserved. Not only has he never left the town that first inspired him, he’s never left the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood where he first heard the Dixieland stomps and Creole melodies that he blended with boogie-woogie to change the face of popular music forever. And to his full credit, he’s still there today, residing in a yellow and black shotgun double next door to the modern pink and white ranch house that he built close to 50 years ago.
Domino’s neighborhood seems an extension of him, and he of it. Born Antoine Domino 15 blocks from where he resides today, it wasn’t far from here—in a club called the Hideaway on Desire Street—that producer Dave Bartholomew brought Hollywood record man Lew Chudd to see him in 1949. Domino was accompanying blues shouter Little Sonny Jones, but it was his own thundering, Creole-laced version of Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues” that got Domino signed to Chudd’s Imperial label that night. Fats and Dave quickly formed one of the most successful partnerships in all of rock ‘n’ roll, and beginning with the very first song they recorded—a rendition of “Junker’s Blues” sans the narcotic-laced lyrics that they dubbed “The Fat Man”—they commenced with an unprecedented domination of the charts, first R&B and then pop, that didn’t come close to letting up for over a decade.
I recently had the good fortune to spend a long evening with Domino in his house on Caffin Avenue, where he showed me around with the kind of genuine warmth and familiarity that you’d expect more from a member of your own family than a world-famous rock ‘n’ roll originator. After touring the luxurious environs, we settled into his homey kitchen for seafood gumbo, cold beer and some amazing stories. Our interview concluded with an impromptu concert and a preview of his as-yet-to-be-released latest album, which sounds as good as anything he’s ever done.
What first sparked your interest in playing the piano?
Well, when I first started out, every house had the old upright pianos. I used to work on an ice truck and everywhere I went, every house, they had a piano. I’d deliver the ice on my shoulder; during that time they didn’t have no Frigidaires, everything was ice. Sometimes I used to carry one hundred pounds, fifty pounds, twenty-five pounds, and a lot of times I would stop at a place and I was supposed to come right out. The man who owned the store would say, “Well, if they got a piano you’d better go back there; Fats is back there!”
Musically, what was New Orleans like back then? Were there a lot of people playing what they call the Junker’s style of piano?
Yeah, Junker’s Blues they used to call it. You’d go to little bars, they all had pianos. Everybody used to play the same music but they all had their own style. Archibald, Professor Longhair, it was never the same because everybody was playin’ just a little bit different. Professor Longhair, he played different and he’d kick the piano. My brother-in-law, [guitarist] Harrison Verrett, was experienced with Papa Celestin and Kid Ory and all them old-time musicians and he showed me the foundations of chords on the piano and I went on from there. My brother-in-law was the one who told me that most all piano players is fat!
Your daddy played the fiddle as well, right?
Yeah, but my brother-in-law showed me the chords and different things. Back then I used to play everybody’s records; everybody’s records who made records. I used to hear ’em, listen at ’em five, six, seven, eight times and I could play it just like the record because I had a good ear for catchin’ notes and different things.
What were some of the records that you were listening to back then?
When I first came out they had a cat called Louis Jordan. Boy, he made all kinda…he was rappin’ back then. It was different music but he was rappin.’ He’d say, “Don’t worry ’bout the mule goin’ blind, just sit tight and hold the line. Don’t worry ’bout the cow bein’ cold, just drink that milk with the Eskimo,” all kinda things. “G.I. Jive,” “Caldonia,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry;” it seemed like he’d put out a new record every two weeks. I never got to meet him back then because every time he’d come to New Orleans you couldn’t get in the place. When I finally did meet him he wasn’t as famous anymore. But I still wanted to meet him.
How old were you during your ice-hauling days?
That was when I was, I’d say 12-years-old. Around 15 I was playin’ in little night clubs three nights a week and from there I used to work in a factory making bed springs. Around 1945 I started playin’ at a place called the Hideaway.
That was the club you were playing when Dave Bartholomew brought Imperial Records president Lew Chudd to see you. And shortly after that, Dave booked you into J&M Studio to record your first session. Tell me about that.
When we first got “The Fat Man” together in 1949—the first record I made—we sent it to Lew Chudd and he called up and said he was gonna send the record back because we sounded like we were in a barn or something. So anyway, the time it took for them to get ready to send it back, he called back and said, “No, leave it like it is.” What happened, they’d just started playing it in a couple of places and it took off.
I’ve always looked at your Imperial sides as having three main ingredients: Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew and Cosimo Matassa. What was it like recording at Cosimo’s with Dave?
During that time they had no…see, if you made a mistake when you were doing a record you had to start the whole thing again. From the beginning to the end, if anybody made a mistake or a bad note we’d go all the way back to the beginning. Nowadays if you say the wrong word you can just punch it in. That saves a lot of time but it doesn’t have the same feeling. A lot of times Dave and Cosimo would say, “Darn, he had it and just when he had it he stopped and said, ‘That ain’t right!’” See, I’d stop if I didn’t like the sound. Cosimo’s wasn’t a big studio but somehow or other they got a good sound out of it. A lot of people used to come from different places to record in New Orleans, even Little Richard came on in. And Dave was a good man to work with in the studio; he did a good job with Smiley Lewis and everybody else he recorded.
To me, Dave’s productions are the greatest body of New Orleans music ever recorded. In 1952 you and Dave cut “Goin’ Home” and it became your first Number One R&B hit. Ironically, it was knocked back to the Number Two position by another song that Dave produced and you played piano on, Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” How did you feel about that?
It didn’t make no difference to me because I was just having a lot of fun and I loved to play. And I played on the other side of that Lloyd Price record too, “Mailman Blues.” So I’m playing on two songs. I happened to be passing there at Cosimo’s and Dave said “Mr. Antoine!”—that’s what he called me, Antoine—I said, “What’s happening?” He said, “Everything alright, we’re trying to get an introduction for this thing.” I said, “Well maybe I could come up with an introduction.” So I went in there for ten or fifteen minutes and come up with that “duh-duh-duh-da-da-da-da-da-da-da…” That was a good part, that piano helped sell that music. [Laughing] And I say to myself right now, “I helped kill my song from going Number One, cause I went to Number Two when Lloyd Price’s came up there and knocked mine down, messed mine up. Ain’t that a shame?!”
That wouldn’t be what led to the song of the same name?
No, when I wrote “Ain’t That A Shame” I saw somebody doing something to somebody they wasn’t supposed to be doing.
“Ain’t That A Shame,” your first pop hit, represents a crossroads in your career. It not only ushered you into the national charts, but mainstream society as well. While many rock ‘n’ rollers were not readily accepted by the white world, even a lot of parents seemed to like your music. How much did this acceptance parallel what you experienced in every day life, racially and otherwise?
Well, it didn’t reflect on me too much because I was raised up with that [segregation], you see. That’s the way it was when I started out, I knew what they had going on so it was no use me trying to do anything about it. I just went along and did my thing. You just did what you were supposed to do [according] to what the law was. I just went about my business and the Lord blessed me with the knowledge to know what to do.
I wanted to ask you about some of your hits. Another one of your biggest ones was “Blueberry Hill.”
Earl Palmer was playin’ drums when Dave and I made “Blueberry Hill.” I remember me and Earl arguing. You know that last note in the introduction? He said that note was wrong. To me, I knew that’s what I wanted.
Whose idea was it for you to do “Blueberry Hill?”
It was my idea, I wanted to do that. I liked that record ’cause I heard it by Louis Armstrong and I said, “That number gonna fit me.” We had to beg Lew Chudd for awhile. I told him I wasn’t gonna make no more records ’til they put that record out. I could feel it, that it was a hit, a good record.
And Chudd didn’t believe you?
Well, he put it out, but the reason he put it out was because I said I wasn’t gonna make any more records until he did..
Just like “I’m In Love Again,” Lew Chudd didn’t want to make that. He said, “Who want to hear anything ’bout a dog?!” So I’d wrote the song and I told Dave I wanted to record it and I had to push Lew to put that out.
How about “Walking To New Orleans?” Bobby Charles wrote that, as well as several other songs for you.
Yeah, he was a good songwriter. I talk to him pretty often. He say I’m the one that gave him the inspiration to write songs. Like “See You Later, Alligator,” he brought that to me first, before Bill Haley did it he brought it to me to do. But during that time I had so much stuff. And when I saw him I said, “Yeah, Bob, I should have did that number.” He said [deep, slow, deliberate voice], “Yeah, Fats, I brought it to you but you passed on it.” [Laughing] Nice cat too, boy!
Country music always played a big role in your sound.
Oh, I loved country music. I still like country music. You know why? It tells a story. Just like rhythm and blues, it’s a feeling. It had a certain feeling I had for music. My chauffeur, Bernard Dunn, was crazy about it too. He’d get behind the wheel and drive for 24 hours without getting sleepy and keep the radio on the country and western station all the time.
One of the most immediately identifiable hallmarks of your style are the piano triplets that you use. How did that come about?
I heard that one time on an Amos Milburn record. I said, “That’s gonna fit what I’ve got in mind for my records.” He did it one time on one record, I can’t remember the name of the record. And I just built it in there. It had a lot to do with the way I’m singing, it keeps it steady going. He made one record like that and I don’t even know if he did it all the way through, but that was it. He never made another one like it.
And your vocal style?
I don’t know where I got that from, it was just something natural, just the way I talk. I was talking to a lady the other day at a store and she said “You Fats Domino, huh?” I said, “Yes ma’am, how do you know?” She said, “I can tell from your voice, the way you sing is in your voice.” Other people tell me that too. I’m glad to hear it but to me it’s just something…I don’t know, other people see it, I can’t see it. You know who else had a voice like that was a good friend of mine, Charles Brown. When I met him I said, “This man sounds just like his records when he talks.”
Talking about your vocal style and your triplets, they were two of the primary ingredients in originating the style now commonly known as swamp pop. Just about any swamp pop artist that you can name will point to you and say, “If it wasn’t for Fats Domino, this whole musical genre wouldn’t exist.”
Well, a lot of other people did it too. That song I wrote in ’52, “Goin’ Home,” me and Dave had a hit with it, that background was used three times and each time they used it, it was a hit record. OK, one was Faye Adams’ “Shake A Hand.” Then Guitar Slim used to use it and he made “The Things That I Used To Do.” To me, it was simple and it dragged along with the voice. Papoose [Nelson] is doing that backbeat on “Goin’ Home;” he and Roy Montrell were my two best guitarists. I was lucky to get that sound, it’s a gift from God, everything I got. And I don’t know if I can sing or not, but the people think I can and that’s what counts.
Drummers have always played a big role in your sound and you’ve had some great ones, from Cornelius “Tenoo” Coleman to Smokey Johnson. What do you look for in a drummer?
Well, I like the original beat they had when we started, that back beat. And I like to hear the foot doing our thing that we did on our records. So when I play, even up to right now, I keep the drums right close to me and I keep the guitar next to the drums. I try to do everything the same way.
One of the most impressive things about your live shows is that your songs sound almost identical to your records, and your set list includes both the hits and the obscurities. That’s very rare.
Yeah, a lot of times you go to hear people and it don’t be the same. When I go to hear somebody I’m looking for the same basic thing I heard on the record. I think that’s what people want to hear; they don’t want to hear it all re-arranged. My musicians play the same solos and everything ’cause some people like the guitar, some like the piano, some like the horns. Whatever I played on that record, that’s the way I rehearse my band to play when I play in the public.
Some people have told me, “You can get better musicians than that.” Well, the boys I’ve had weren’t always the best musicians but they played what I wanted them to play and I could depend on ’em. They might not have always been the best solo men but they played my music right. I very seldom fired anybody. I might have fired maybe one or two fellas and I must’ve had a reason because I don’t like to fire anybody; I like to keep the same people working for me.
Herb Hardesty has been playing with you since 1949. Many people don’t realize that he’s the one responsible for most of the tenor sax solos on your records.
He played on my first record and he’s still with me. And he played with Dave’s band before he played with me. Once we had a show in Washington D.C. and I rode back with somebody else. Bernard, my chauffeur, and Herbert drove my car back. I’d bought a new Cadillac and I had it checked the day before we left because the drum in the brake was sticking or something. I got it out of the shop and they claimed they’d fixed it, but they didn’t fix it right. And it got hot, and it burnt. Not many miles from Washington. They said it was close to the Virginia and Maryland state line and there was a fire station 20 feet from where my car was burning, but the firemen said they couldn’t cross the state line to put the fire out. My car was burnin’ up and Herbert was takin’ pictures! Hardesty! Instead of tryin’ to put the fire out some kind of way, he was takin’ pictures of it! Boy, I was mad! Especially after I saw the pictures!
Speaking of Cadillacs, you did a lot of one-nighters back then.
Oh, I used to think nothing of traveling. The two best men that I ever had work for me weren’t no musicians; one was a valet and one was a chauffeur. Raymond Allen was my valet; he’s sick now, and Bernard Dunn, who was with me from when I first started traveling, was my chauffeur. They both smoked a lot and I’m lucky I didn’t get affected by it. My boy used to be driving the car and I’d wake up and I’d see him packing the cigarette on the dashboard. Boy, he was a wonderful man. It used to be us three in the car, them two in the front and I’m layin’ in the back. They used to tell me, “Well your plane’s leavin’ at eight o’clock in the morning and you’ve gotta get up early to go to the airport; by the time your plane gets ready to leave, if you get in the back of the car, we’ll be in the hotel by that time.” And that was it, that’s the way it was. Sometimes Bernard used to leave me in New Orleans, I used to be at a little bar or something and he’d leave here around three o’clock in the morning and I’d have to leave early the next morning. He’d say, “Look, I’m goin’ now but when you get there I’m gonna be at the airport to pick you up.” And he had to drive six, seven, eight hundred miles. And he’d be there. He died from smoking and my other boy got emphysema. The two best men that I ever had work for me.
Having traveled to so many places, did you ever think about moving away from New Orleans?
No. [Motioning to the ranch house next door] I built that house there almost 50 years ago. And people would tell me, well, they wouldn’t tell me but other people would tell me; “They want to know why would you build an expensive house like that in that neighborhood.” Well, to me it didn’t make no difference ’cause I like it and this is where I was born. When I built that house there I spent over five hundred thousand dollars. They wanted to know why didn’t I move with the well-to-do, with the people who’ve got money. Well, I was satisfied right here and I’m still satisfied. There’s something about New Orleans, it’s not like anywhere else.
The only time you left New Orleans for any extended period of time was during the ’60s when you played Las Vegas and recorded that great live album Fats Domino ’65. Who else was out there at that time?
Well, I showed you that picture of me and Nat King Cole. And I first met Elvis Presley in Las Vegas. When I was playing at the Flamingo Hotel I went to his room and played for him. He used to call me “Mr. Blueberry Hill.” I remember him telling me, “You know, Fats, I’m opening up tomorrow but when I first came here I flopped.” I guess the first time he didn’t do good at all. But after he got back there it was all gold, ’cause I was working there too, and every night it was sold out. Boy, he could sing. He could sing spirituals, country and western, everything he sang I liked. Elvis Presley did a lot before he passed. He made movies, he was traveling, everything. I don’t see how he did it; you’d have to stay up day and night.
Were there any R&B stars out there at that time?
When I was playing at the Flamingo Hotel Big Joe Turner was playing in a club out there and he come to my room to see me. I said, “I’m cookin’ pig’s feet, Joe.” He drank Scotch, and he used to talk bad: “Fats, you got any ’totch?” I left him there to go down to the Strip and said, “Joe, watch these pig’s feet for me, you hear?” We went downtown to the Strip and everybody was eatin’ steaks, tryin’ to get me to eat and I said, “I ain’t gonna eat anything, oh no. I’m gonna wait ’til I get home for those pig’s feet.” When I got back there he’d drank all the Scotch. I didn’t mind about that, but he ate all my pig’s feet! All of ’em! I had none left I’m tellin’ you! I left Joe Turner in my room and when I got back those 24 pig’s feet was gone! There was nothin’ I could do, I couldn’t get mad with him but I said, “You could have saved me one of those pig’s feet!”
You were famous for taking your pots and pans with you and cooking on the road.
Yeah, a lot of times I’d bring me a little hot plate and people’d come knockin’ on the door. “Mr. Domino, you got something up there?” I used to get my manager to get me a kitchenette, if not I’d cook in the room. I used to leave here, I’d always bring me a hot plate, some pots, the seasoning because different places it be different tastes. A lot of stuff I can’t find when I travel so I take it from here.
And you’ve been doing that since the ’50s?
I’ve been doing it ever since I got me a hot plate, it’s been a long time! I cook every day. Sometimes I cook so much I don’t know what to do with it! Very seldom does a day pass that I don’t spend over two hundred dollars cooking. I’ll cook gumbo like I’m cookin’ now. To put in that gumbo I bought about ten or twenty pounds of shrimp. Then I put everything else in, I buy crabs, different kinds of sausage—smoked sausage, hot sausage. The hardest thing is the shrimp because when we cook shrimp we de-vein ’em. A lot of people don’t do that. I just cook it and add things until I think I’ve got it the way I want it. I like to blend all my stuff together to get a better taste when you cook it off.
After 55 years in the business, how does it feel when you get up on stage nowadays?
I feel good when I’m on stage; playing music makes me happy. Sometimes I’ll be feeling down, but when I get up there, all that leaves out.