I was friends with Fats for the last twenty and a half years of his life, and I am still amazed that I got to ride the tail end of his comet. Last Wednesday was a rough day, no doubt, but I am reminded of my great grandmother’s sage advice upon saying, “It is better to have loved and lost a loved one than never to have loved at all.” And everyone loved Fats.
I remember my initial trip into Fats’ 9th Ward house, which was after the first weekend of Jazz Fest in 1997. I was outside, and there stood two men from Minneapolis who had stopped their cab to photograph the home. They had guessed which weekend Fats was playing Jazz Fest but had guessed wrong, so they were on their way back to the airport. When I went in, Fats asked if they were my friends, and I told him the story. He disappeared from the room, re-emerged about 20 seconds later wearing a sport coat, walked right by me out to the sidewalk, stuck out his right hand and said, “Hi; I’m Fats Domino.”
I vividly recall when we went into the security area at the White House, where the Marine guards—who were seven feet tall, I swear—were taking cell phone photos of him. I also remember being in the New Orleans airport earlier that day as that accordion thing was being unbuckled to roll away and then having the gate agent chew me out for being late. When I said he absolutely must hold that plane (Fats was being hand-searched in the New Orleans airport), he blathered on and on about airport security, the FAA, the YMCA, the PGA, etc. I told the man with whom I was traveling and what we were doing eight hours later, and I remember him staring at me, looking down the passenger manifest, staring at me again and then picking up the phone to alert the ground crew that he thought they should re-latch the aft cargo hold. Obviously, he was stalling so Fats could get on the plane. That man never said another word to me, but we boarded the aircraft. Since we were the last two on, the attendant immediately rolled up the beverage cart and asked if we would like coffee, tea, or juice. I said, “Two Heinekens, please,” whereupon Fats said, “David, aren’t you having anything?” And this was shortly before 8 a.m.!
I also remember that on about my eighth trip to Fats’ house, after my never having asked to take a single picture, he suddenly told me to take a few. He and the full band were practicing for the grand opening of Harrah’s Casino that same night (October, 1999). I took one or two pics, and then Fats told me to open the door and back up so I could capture the entire scene. This happened to be the front door of the house, and I can’t forget the astonished tourists outside who then saw Fats in his hairnet, thick reading glasses and pink pajamas hammering away at the piano as the band roared on.
One last story, if I haven’t droned on enough already. About eight years ago I was visiting Fats, and I gave him a CD featuring every gospel song Elvis ever recorded. Fats loved Elvis and often told me about their relationship. As I was leaving that day, he said, “David, you haven’t been here for a while, why don’t you stay a little longer?” So I did. He then put the CD in a little boom box on top of the keyboard in his bedroom and started to play as I sat on the foot of his bed. Aside from “Peace in the Valley,” “How Great Thou Art” and a few others, Fats didn’t know the music at all. As a result, for the first 30 or 40 seconds of each song he had his head cocked to one side listening and playing the keyboard about two seconds behind the melody. For the next 20 or so seconds he played along with the melody, and from then to the end of the song he embellished the music and turned it into a “Fats” gospel song. Mind you, Fats Domino never recorded a single gospel song. This went on for well over one hour until all 32 songs had been played. Apparently my lower jaw was on the floor when he finished, and being a wiseacre he then said: “What’s the matter, David? You’ve never seen me play the piano before?”
Just a few of my multitude of memories of Fats Domino. I hope that each of you has a few of your own and that they continue to bring you joy.