Fats Domino has always occupied a special place in New Orleans' consciousness, never more so than after Hurricane Katrina.
After Hurricane Katrina, Fats Domino became an even more resonant presence in New Orleans because reports of his death were premature too. I tried to interview him at that time, as did many others, but unless you happened by his house at just the right time, he didn't do them. There was a lot of speculation about the cause of his reluctance - illness, self-consciousness, some measure of stage fright being primary among them. Whatever the case, his reluctance was so real that to get OffBeat's January 2007 cover photo of Fats, we had to ambush him in the kindest way possible when he was scheduled to go to Tipitina's for a meeting. We learned about it at the last minute and had to get photographer Greg Miles to Tipitina's in time to set up his backdrop before Domino got there. At Tip's, he was playful and funny, and even though he wasn't sure why he was posing for photos, he turned on the charisma once the lights were on.
When we organized the tribute to Fats at the 2007 Best of the Beat, we let him and his family know that if he wanted to play at any point, the piano was his, but I didn't expect him to take us up on our offer. If he could take a pass on his 2006 Jazz Fest appearance, he could live without playing the House of Blues. Instead, he sat in the VIP section in the balcony and enjoyed the show. I was told by people who watched him that he played air piano on the railing during the songs.
Over the course of the next year, I'd receive a number of calls asking for his contact information or emails announcing that he'd appear or play at one benefit or another. Everybody wanted him and everybody thought they'd get him. After all, it was for a good cause - how could he not show? I suspect that if people got in touch with Domino, he likely told them yes. In my few dealings with him, I found him genial and eager to please within limits. In none of those cases did he perform if he showed at all.
In 2007, he reluctantly played a benefit show at Tipitina's to coincide with the release of Goin' Home, an all-star collection of covers of his songs. He mowed through 11 songs in a half-hour, and he only lasted that long with some encouragement from Tipitina's staff. In a story for The Times-Picayune, Keith Spera documented Domino's promotional efforts on behalf of the album in New York, including an tentative, abbreviated version of "Blueberry Hill" one night and an accomplished, endearing one the next morning on NBC's Today Show.
I found it fascinating that people couldn't imagine why he wouldn't want to play, which probably says a lot about us and our own largely repressed rock 'n' roll dreams. When in 2009 a Texas promoter announced "The Domino Effect" - a benefit concert that would feature Fats, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Taj Mahal and more - it was hard not to read some measure of condescention into the plan, as if, "Sure you New Orleanians can't get him to play; you're New Orleanians. Stand back and let some who really does big city business show you how it's done." That show experienced concept drift almost immediately as instead of promising a performance by Fats, promotion focused on an appearance by him and bands playing his songs. The night of the show, it turned into a spotlight on him in the crowd and Little Richard playing his songs.
By the time The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chose to honor Domino and Dave Bartholomew as masters in 2010, Domino was unable to travel to Cleveland for the event. The day before it was to start, WWL's Eric Paulsen arranged for a meeting between the two men, and the video suggested that it was unlikely we'd see Domino perform again.
With all that backdrop, the appearance of Fats Domino on Treme this week was an even more unlikely gift than the last televised appearance by Sugarboy Crawford. Equally remarkable was how Domino's charisma remains.