Walking to New Orleans

Keith Magill / Editor, Houma Courier, Thibodaux Daily Comet
Fats Domino

As a boy growing up in New Orleans, I imagined Fats Domino as a musical icon who always was and always would be, woven into the city's fabric like Bourbon Street, the Mississippi River and red beans and rice.

During his heyday in the 1950s and early 60s, he was what New Orleans sounded like, a musical pioneer who brought rock 'n' roll to the rest of the world the same way Louis Armstrong had done with jazz in the decades before.

Domino's death last week at 89, like his contribution to rock 'n' roll, touched people around the globe, including me.

His music's popular appeal had waned by the time I was old enough to understand what I was listening to. Like many American soul, rock 'n' roll and blues masters, the Beatles and the British Invasion that followed had pushed Domino out of the popular mainstream.

Nonetheless, to those of us who loved New Orleans and its music, Domino loomed large.

I don't remember the first time I heard "Blueberry Hill," "Ain't That A Shame," "I'm Walkin," or the dozens of other songs that had become rock 'n' roll standards by time they reached my ears, but I'm pretty sure it was on an AM transistor radio. I also heard it on the bus to and from school, especially around Mardi Gras. Later, when I grew old enough to throw my own Mardi Gras parties, my mix tapes always included one or two of Fats' rollicking, tunes.

There was a reason for that: Fats was fun. His music was simple and catchy and as unpretentious as the singer and piano player who performed it. It was down home, joyous, exuberant: a celebration that could have emerged from only one place on Earth, Domino's beloved New Orleans.

Back then, people bought 45 rpm records and played them on portable turntables that came with dinky built-in speakers. There was mono, no stereo. There was AM, no FM.

Domino's records still sound muffled and tinny, recorded on equipment that served its purpose at the time but yields substandard results by today's standards.

I remember the first time I saw Domino perform at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. The power that blasted off the stage; he was accompanied by one of the biggest and baddest horn sections I've ever seen; hit me in the chest. The songs came across louder and clearer than anything I've heard on his records.

The story of Domino's rescue from his Ninth Ward home after Hurricane Katrina still astonishes and inspires me. A Coast Guard boat carried him and his wife from their flooded home and took them to the Superdome. They ended up at a Baton Rouge shelter before friends took them in. All the while, rumors circulated that he had died in the storm.

One of the things I respect most about Domino is that he never left New Orleans. Like a lot of other superstars, he could have left long ago for a home in Hollywood or Malibu, and nobody, including me, would have held it against him. But he loved New Orleans and, in my heart, I know New Orleans loves him.

I know what it means to miss New Orleans and the place I now call home: Houma-Thibodaux, Terrebonne and Lafourche. I left twice to work at newspapers in other parts of the country, and homesickness is one of the reasons I came back.

I remember in the late 1980s lying on a mattress inside my garage apartment in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a boom box played a cassette tape of "Fats Domino's Greatest Hits." That night, I felt more deeply than ever the nostalgia Fats was trying to deliver in "Walking to New Orleans." And I'm better for having listened.

Executive Editor Keith Magill can be reached at 857-2201 or Follow him on Twitter: @CourierEditor.