Monday, November 17, 2008


Fats Domino lost his sprawling yellow-and-white house during Hurricane Katrina and with it, the keepsakes of an extraordinary career that took him from New Orleans honky-tonks to become a worldwide hit maker.

When Katrina swamped his Lower 9th Ward neighborhood and 80 percent of his hometown with floodwater, Mr. Domino lost his home, three pianos, dozens of gold and platinum records and other memorabilia.

So, when the 80-year-old singer took the stage at a popular New Orleans club for the first time after the 2005 storm, fans cheered and cried as he bopped the upbeat strains of “I’m Walkin’” and crooned “Ain’t That a Shame,” along with a host of other hits.

Footage from that appearance in May 2007, his first and last since Katrina, is the basis of a new documentary, “Fats Domino: Walkin’ Back to New Orleans,” that will air on public broadcasting stations over the next few years.

Songs from the performance are interwoven with interviews from Mr. Domino’s friends and fellow musicians, including Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Randy Newman and Allen Toussaint. The roughly hourlong film is narrated by actor John Goodman, who has strong connections to the city.

“They did a good job,” Mr. Domino said softly during a recent invitation-only showing of the film in New Orleans.

“It turned out real nice, and I’m real grateful they did that for me,” he said as he sat among friends, swapping stories and nibbling on crawfish minipies.

Before the screening, reissues of his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Hall of Fame awards for “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill” were presented to Mr. Domino. They were among memorabilia lost or destroyed in Katrina’s flooding.

Mr. Domino’s return to the stage at Tipitina’s music club in 2007 is a highlight in what otherwise has been a rough few years. Besides losing his home and almost all of his belongings, he misses his wife, Rosemary, who died in April. The couple had been married for more than 50 years.

“He’s missing her,” said Charisse Smith, Mr. Domino’s 35-year-old granddaughter, who was among those to get a first look at the film. “My grandmother was there for him every day, all day. Her presence is definitely missed.”

For many, Mr. Domino’s performance was a hopeful sign in the city’s painstaking recovery.

“It was an amazing night,” recalled Mary von Kurnatowski, co-founder of the Tipitina’s Foundation, the nonprofit organization affiliated with the club.

Mr. Domino now lives in the New Orleans suburb of Harvey but often visits his publishing house, an extension of his old home in the Lower 9. The studio, a classic shotgun double built in the 1930s, was rebuilt after Katrina by the Tipitina’s Foundation. It is one of a few refurbished structures in the neighborhood.

Though surrounded by blocks of abandoned homes and overgrown lots, “he loves to go and visit that house,” Miss von Kurnatowski said. “He has tremendous memories of decades using that building, of musicians he’s worked with, and of time spent there with his family.”

Footage of Mr. Domino walking through his gutted home is included in the documentary, along with a recording session with Robert Plant during the making of the album “Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino,” which was recorded last year.

The documentary chronicles Mr. Domino’s career - including his bouts of performance anxiety in recent years - and snapshots of his start in music, including a photo of him with trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, who helped him cut his first single, “The Fat Man,” in 1949.

For many, Mr. Domino’s determination to stay in New Orleans is inspirational.

“Fats embodies everything good about New Orleans,” said his friend David Lind. “He’s warm, fun-loving, spiritual, creative and humble. You don’t get more New Orleans than that.”

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