Antoine "Fats" Domino loved the Lower 9th Ward and the Lower 9th Ward loved him. Last night the neighborhood paid tribute to the Fat Man, as his first recording was called - the man who never moved away.
Fats grew up in a Creole family that moved to the Lower 9th Ward shortly before he was born. On that historic day in 1928, the midwife was his grandmother, who had been born in slavery. He went to the segregated Macarty School until he was in 4th grade, when he left to work on an ice truck. Right around then, his brother-in-law taught him to play the piano. The houses where he'd deliver the ice all had old upright pianos and Fats wouldn't come out after he dropped off a 50-pound bag. He'd be at the piano, playing the Junker's Blues. "Back then I used to play everybody's records," Fats said in 2004. "I used to hear 'em, listen at 'em five, six, seven, eight times and I could play it just like the record."
After the ice truck he worked at a factory making bed springs until 1949, when Dave Bartholomew brought a Hollywood record man to see him play at the Hideway on Desire Street, who signed him on the spot. They recorded at Cosimo Matassa's legendary studio at 840 N. Rampart Street, one of the places where rock 'n' roll was born. (After its heyday, Cosimo went back to running his family's corner grocery store. His studio is now a laundromat.)
Whenever Fats came back home after touring, he'd go to the neighborhood bars - black and white. They all had pianos too, and he'd just sit down and play. Around the world he was a star - Elvis called him "The Real King of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Ain't That a Shame" was the first song John Lennon learned to play - but here he was part of the community. Here he was the father of eight children - four boys and four girls - who lived in a one-story home on Caffin Avenue. Our community organizer, Ms. Galethea, went to St. David's Catholic School with his oldest daughter, Antoinette. She talks about how, when they had their grade school dances, Fats played.
Fats represented what so many people cherish about this place, why so many people are still trying to come back. Family. Music. Relationships that go back to childhood. Home. Not just a building, but a whole web of connections, of stories and places and memories and friends that go back generations, in fact.
And last night they came from their homes in exile and their homes down the street to pay tribute to the man they loved. It was a grand street party outside his place. The police blocked off the roads. Entrepreneurs sold beer from rolling coolers. Dr. John and Charmaine Neville were on the front porch with the family. People shared stories of how all the children's names began with A (and then they'd try to recite them), of the gifts to St. David's, of how Fats would buy drinks for everyone at the bar when he was in town.
After Hurricane Katrina, which Fats weathered in his one-story home because his family didn't want to leave, his health began to fail and he moved across the river to live with one of his daughters. Last night, as his old neighbors danced on Caffin Avenue in his honor, a huge sound truck floated his music across the crowd. He was back in the neighborhood he loved and one last time, he sang to them: "I'm walking to New Orleans. . . Yes, I'm going back home to stay."