Goin’ by Fats’ House

Happy New Year! As promised, what follows is my account of meeting Fats Domino…

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One of the first rock ‘n’ roll records that I recall hearing was “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. I was blessed to have grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, when Top 40 radio was a wonderful mix of rockabilly, soul, rock, doo-wop, country & western, and r&b. It made for some exotic blocks of music — Everly Brothers followed by Barbara George giving way to Ferrante & Teicher and then Rick Nelson — but it was never boring. If you didn’t like a song, you just waited. You’d hear something you would like before too long. It was Fats, however, more than anyone else, who spoke to me. I had a friend (and he’s still a friend) whose older sister, LM,  had one of the best record collections I’d ever seen or heard at that point in time, and it included all sorts of Fats Domino 45s, many of which I’d never heard up until that point. We spent hours listening to them, particularly the ‘B’ sides, which were rarely played on the radio. I remember leaving his house one afternoon, my friend and me and another guy singing Fats’ infectious “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” We were 10 years old at the time. We all got old, but the songs never did.

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Fast forward to 1999. 45s had become a novelty, confined to limited pressing collector item releases. What were called “car phones” were being replaced by “cell phones” and “cell phones” didn’t have cameras or GPS or maps yet. The first iPhone would be released in eight years. Something called “google” was about a year old and something else called “wifi” was slowly making its way into the lexicon. Primitive times. November of that year found me in New Orleans on business. It was during this particular visit that I had lunch with a local musician who we’ll call J and whose extended family had for three generations been an integral part of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. While we ate a couple of coma-inducing po’boys we talked about the city’s history. He looked somewhat askance at me a couple of times from across the table, expressing wonder at how a middle-aged white guy “not from around here” knew so much about his family and their musical contributions. The wonder turned to amazement when I took him back to my hotel room and played him some CDs of New Orleans music I had brought with me — iPods were two years away — which included recordings his relatives had played on but that he had never heard. We talked a bit more and were almost wrapping up when he said, “Hey, what are doing this afternoon? You got a car? You wanna go by Fats’ house?”

My answers were “nothing,” “yes,” and “hell yes.” It was a trip I had wanted to make on previous visits but given that the New Orleans street system — designed, apparently, by a spider on LSD — was daunting,  I had over the course of a few visits only slowly started to venture into the city’s neighborhoods and out of the French Quarter. So, yes, if J wanted to direct me to Fats Domino’s house — deep, deep in the ‘hood known as the lower Ninth Ward — I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. After a sinus-clearing trip on the freeway with J’s occasionally helpful guidance (“left…no…no, right…no…left…NO, RIGHT! RIGHT! RIGHT!”) through a heavy thunderstorm, we wound up driving down Caffin Street and approaching its intersection with Marais Street I saw what I was sure was the house in question on the right. It appeared to be a shotgun-style duplex, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, with the words “Fats Domino Publishing” spelled out in lights on the front of the house.

When J had asked if I wanted to “go by Fat’s house” I assumed that he meant drive “by,” as opposed to “stopping.” And going in.  As we were um, driving by, however, J said, “Pull over there” pointing to a portion of the driveway which was in front of the house outside of the fence. I did. He got out of the car, then looked at me funny as I remained in the car, still not fully comprehending what was happening. He said, “C’mon!” and I did, turning off the engine and then stumbling a bit as I followed him. My brain and my body hadn’t quite synced up with the concept that I was walking into Fats Domino’s house. J in the meantime had negotiated the fence gate as the front door of the house opened. And there stood Fats.

I have often described myself as being too short for my weight (as opposed to weighing too much for my height) and such was certainly true of Fats. He had the appearance, as he stood there smiling shyly, of being compressed. Still very substantial at 5’4” and over 200 pounds, he nonetheless gave the impression of being possessed of a certain physical frailty. J introduced me as his “manager” (I wasn’t) and I shook hands with Fats (even as I write those words, I still can’t quite believe it) as he ushered us into his house. Please note: we were in Fats’ house, which was a combination annex and office. His HOUSE, actually, was next door, a huge place on Marais Street where he and his family (and several large automobiles) resided. The world-famous Cadillac Couch, however — a three seater fashioned from the tail-end of a Cadillac — was in the annex. Fats waved me over to it, saying something. I at that point in time was very unfamiliar with the New Orleans patois (which varies from neighborhood to neighborhood) and will confess that I couldn’t understand what he was saying. When I continued to stand there, however, he laughed and said, “Siddown!” I did. Carefully. He and J sat and talked for a bit — I couldn’t follow the conversation, but it was something about one of J’s relatives — and after about ten minutes they finished up their business. As we got up to leave, Fats shot me a smile and walked over to a beautiful piano, where he sat down, and then played and sang the introduction and opening verse of “Blueberry Hill.” It would be an understatement to say that he still had the magic. His voice was strong and his playing was complex, confident and flawless. It was if a switch had been flipped on inside of him when he sat down, releasing the muse entrapped from the reserved, seemingly infirm man with whom I had spent the past several minutes.  All I could think was, “I wish that LM were here.”

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When Fats stopped playing I started to clap but he ducked his head shyly again and waved me off. J said to him, “Why don’t you give him one of those Christmas records?” and he did, handing me a copy of a disc titled Christmas Is a Special Day.  I thought later that I should have asked Fats to autograph it. I was still catching up, however, with what was going on and where I was, standing next to a man whose work I had been listening to for over five decades.  I had no way of otherwise memorializing it either — no camera or camera phone —  but that was okay. We said our goodbyes and I walked out of the “house” (as opposed to the “HOUSE”) into a world which was much different than it had been just a half-hour before.

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The world almost twenty years on from that day is also much different. One constant, however, is that Fats’ music remains timeless. His first single, “The Fat Man,” is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Listening to it seventy years after its release one can hear Fats and the assembled musicians, under the direction of bandleader Dave Bartholomew, galloping into a previously uncharted musical territory. Then there is “I’m Walkin,” which, sixty years after its release, was licensed for a FitBit commercial. It’s a perfect pairing, given that one can’t sit still while listening to it. And of course there’s…but I need to be quiet and go away. I’ve prattled on too long. Anyway, that’s my brush with stardom. I’ve met a number of my idols since that time, but my meeting with Fats is in a class by itself.

Your turn now. Have you had any meetings with a major and famous influence in your life that you would like to talk about? I am going to attempt to stay uncharacteristically silent while you inform us, but I can’t promise anything. Thank you.

 

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

31 thoughts on “Goin’ by Fats’ House

  1. Joe, what a treasured gift your friend J gave you.

    In 1989 or ’90, my husband and I were in Vegas. Fats and Jerry Lee Lewis were appearing together in the showroom of one of the big hotels. My husband knows how to get things done and we wound up seated next to the stage in a booth beside Jerry Lee’s wife and manager (that’s another story for private conversation). Jerry Lee was good but Fats was incredible. His band was the most professional bunch of musicians we’d ever seen, never missed a note, perfectly synched, amazing talent coupled with focused discipline.

    Fats didn’t need the strobe lights, pyrotechnics, and laser special effects adopted by contemporary entertainers. He and his band shone all by themselves. A night to remember.

    • Debbie, thanks for sharing that experience. I never met Jerry Lee, but I know several people who had, um, encounters with him. Fats was one of the very few people that Jerry Lee never had a bad word for.
      Everyone…Debbie’s new book INSTRUMENT OF THE DEVIL just dropped and you should buy and read it. Absolutely.

  2. Lucky you. I was almost lucky in 2014. We were in New Orleans doing a Habitat for Humanity build when we saw a flyer that said Fats was going to be in one of those impromptu parades at 3:00 in the French Quarter. We went to the cafe where it was to end, but he did not show. We met his family, who said he was feeling too weak to participate. We also got to meet Kermit Ruffins (Treme). But no Fats. I’m jealous.

    • Nancy, Fats throughout his career was plagued with terminal shyness. I think he would have been bigger than Elvis or anyone if he’s been able to overcome it. Kermit, btw, is a great guy with a generous heart. Anyone who wants an authentic New Orleans experience needs to check out Kermit Ruffin’s Mother-In-Law Lounge on North Claiborne. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Love your story, Joe! I felt the excitement of every step you took that day. What a fun memory. I’ve never met any of MY idols. The closest I came to a “star” was a WWF wrestler I dated years ago. When I met Jimmy “Superfly” Snuker I had never heard of him. Then again, wrestling was never my thing. But others sure knew him. I doubt we had one meal that didn’t get interrupted by fans.

    • And Sue, I love yours. I’m glad that you lived to tell the tale! Re: getting interrupted, it’s amazing how rude people can sometimes be. My younger daughter was in New York having lunch when John Travolta walked in with his family and people were taking flash pictures of them while they were eating. Travolta just ignored them but, I mean, people, get a life! Thanks for the story. BTW, does your husband mind when your meals out with him are interrupted by your fans?

  4. In 1969 I was serving in the Air Force, stationed at Kelly AFB, San Antonio, Texas. I was sitting in the Kansas City Airport, through with my leave and waiting for my flight.Two men in suits and cowboy hats sat down in the seats next to me, the only seats available. Turned out they were Homer and Jethro, a pair of country music comedians who recorded albums of song parodies and stand-up routines. They were my folks’ favorite artists and I had grown up listening to their albums. We talked about my service for a while, then about the concert circuit they were on. Jethro told me about his son who was also stationed at Kelly, who worked in the base recreation center. He told me I could check out guitars and amps and play all day if I wanted. When I got back to base I did look up Jethro’s son. He picked me out a great rig and I jammed with about half a dozen other guitarists on several occasions. We played Blueberry Hill and lot of other jazz/rock hits from that era.
    But my favorite part was meeting the men from those albums. They were classy gentlemen eager to talk with a young serviceman.

    • DAve, you may not believe this but Homer and Jethro were my favorites when I was little. I loved their version of “How Much Is That Doggy (Hounddog) in the Window?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hy_HjQLqANU
      It was the first 45 I ever owned (my parents had to buy it for me as I was only three at the time). Do you remember the radio commercials they did for Kellogg’s Cornflakes? They’d tell a series of really bad jokes and after each one they’d sing, “Ewww! That’s corny! Corny as Kellogg Corn Flakes!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fH9wpjy7lZ0 Thanks for the reminder and the terrific story.

  5. Count me in as another Fats fan. How cool, Joe.

    I had a childhood friend who lived in a gated community in the San Fernando Valley. His next door neighbor: Don Drysdale. He took me over one evening and knocked on this enormous front door. Big D answered. He looked ten feet tall. Craig introduced me, and Drysdale shook my hand (or, rather, my hand disappeared into his massive paw). He had some photos by the door (we weren’t the only drop-bys, apparently) and he autographed one for me. I have it in a scrapbook, right next to my autographed photo of Sandy Koufax.

    • What a terrific story, Jim! If you remember The Donna Reed Show, Drysdale was on at least two of those (one with Willie Mays, which upped the cool factor). He looked BIG on those shows and I can only imagine how you felt meeting him as a youngster. Great story! Next time you’ll have to tell us how you got that autograph of Sandy Koufax. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I’ve had up close and personals with Queen Elizabeth, Sting, Baryshnikov, and Michael Jordan. But I have to relate this pitiful tale…

    The husband and I went to see Bob Seger at South Florida’s infamously ratty Sportatorium decades ago. Great concert! We stopped at our favorite dive for take-out pizza and lo, the guy waiting at the counter in front of us was Bob. All alone, still wearing his ratty concert togs.

    We hung back, whispering, trying not to point. But my husband couldn’t stand it. He sidled up and said, too loudly, “you’re Bob Seger!”

    To which Bob Seger said, “No, I’m not.”

    We took our pizza and slunked out into the night.

    File this under the definition of “How to Be Not Cool..”

    • Kris, that’s hilarious! Bob Seger in the mid-1960s used to regularly play a club called The Bistro in Columbus near the Ohio State (so did another guy named Johnny Cougar, now known as John Mellencamp). Seger was much more gregarious back then. He went from doing small club to stadiums and although it took years to happen the dramatic rise in his popularity was sudden. I think it spooked him. He last I heard was still living out in the woods in rural Michigan.
      However…I think your husband was just fine. “Not cool” would have been asking to have your pizza box autographed, insisting on paying for his, and then acting all p.o.ed when he wouldn’t sit down with you and eat it. THAT’s not cool! Thanks for the story.

      • Last I heard, Bob built a 30,000 sq ft mansion in Orchard Lake Mi (near Bloomfield Hills) and surrounded it with a big wall. Also has a condo in Naples, FL.

        Hey, he’s entitled…

        • You bet! Before he signed the contract with Capitol he was with Cameo-Parkway (Chubby Checker, Orlons, Bobby Rydell, etc.) and was out on tour. They got to the motel where they were supposed to stay…no reservations. Seger calls the record label…the number was out of service. The label had gone out of business and left them stranded. Yeah, things worked out, but they might not have. I hope he enjoys every square foot of both places.

          You should send have a pizza delivered to the Naples residence, Kris.

  7. Because of a friend, I knew The Kingsmen in their post-Louie, Louie/Jolly Green Giant days when they were trying to get something big going again. For rock musicians, the guys were pretty mild. And genuinely nice.

    • Laurie, great story, and there’s a tie-in here with mine. The self-same LM with the terrific record collection was, then as now, as sweet as could be inside and out. She went to a Kingsmen concert around the time that they were riding their string of hits — “Louie, Louie,” “Money,” “Jolly Green Giant,” etc. — and wound up getting a ride home from Barry Curtis and Lynn Easton. This was HUGE stuff for our little neighborhood back then. They were as you reported, too, nice guys, very respectful, etc. Thanks for reminding me.

      • My friend took Barry’s place in the band. Then when Barry came back from Vietnam, Steve stayed with the group. When the guys came to KC it was always a hoot hanging out with them. I have some nice memories of those times — too many to relate.

  8. WOW. Thanks for sharing. Those special moments in life are a treasure. As I was reading, I was reminded to be amazed at the power music has to link people together. Even on a minor scope–I had never heard the song “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday” and looked it up, and heard the phrase “real gone cat” which I had never heard until the Statler Brothers song “Do You Remember These” came out. And of course when I think of Blueberry Hill I think of Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. LOL! And those are just minor examples of people being linked together by music.

    And that’s where it connects with writing too. Most of the time when we talk about writing books, we just generally talk about publishing books as the goal. But to me, the highest goal is writing characters in such a way that something about them–something they do, say, or are associated with, becomes an automatic replay in the reader’s mind like the instant thought of “Fats Domino-Blueberry Hill-Richie Cunningham”. It’s not as easy to do with the written word as it is with visual media, but it can be done.

    Awesome story and awesome memories for a lifetime. It gave me the chills just reading it. Thank you for sharing it.

  9. Yes, I do remember those. My favorite songs from them are “The Battle of Kookamonga” and “Heartbreak Motel”. But looking at their pictures on your Youtube link, I realize that Homer was the one with the son. Never could keep them straight.

  10. We are about the same age, Joe.

    I enjoy your story here so much. I was a Rock ‘n’ Roller , but I was more a fan on the Doo Wop side–Doo Wop being a later designation–than I was on the Rock ‘n’ Roll side. (People sometimes argue with me that so-called Rock ‘n’ Roll was strictly the music of Elvis and Buddy and those guys. I simply direct them to the YouTube recordings where the Platters, Little Anthony and the Imperials–who people like to argue sang Northern Soul and not Doo Wop, and I dare them to tell me the difference– and other singers and groups wearing ties and suits, are introduced as being part of Rock ‘n’ Roll.)

    The house I grew up in was about four blocks from Audio Recorders in Phoenix, Arizona. AR is the place where Duane Eddy recorded his music, discovering his twangy sound in the building. (He even played as side man on Donnie Owens’ record, Need You, played for several weeks on afternoon American Bandstand.) Many local and regional and a few national hits were recorded at AR. And I know now that many of the guys I used to see out on 7th Street making their ways to Laquita Jo’s for lunch at odd hours in the afternoons were musicians and engineers and producers. My own Sunday School teacher, the OTHER Frank Porter, the refrigeration salesman, not the DJ, owned a small record company with a couple of regional hits.

    Those were great days, my friend. They’ll never return, but they’ll never end.

  11. Jim, I’m with you. Little Anthony & the Imperials were freakin’ Doo Wop and Doo Wop is absolutely a part of the rock ‘n’ roll canon. Don’t get me started. I just erased several paragraphs laying out the argument which is a topic for another place and time. Re: Duane Eddy…The Man. No Duane Eddy = no surf music, which means no Dick Dale, no Beach Boys…

    Donnie Owens, if I recall, was a member of Eddy’s band, the Rockin’ Rebels, correct? That would explain Eddy playing on “Need You,” which sixty years on remains terrific.

    One question — and wow, your Sunday School teacher was Frank Porter? Very cool — was the name of your teacher’s label Porter Records? The reason that I ask is that it was my understanding that Porter Records in Phoenix was owned by the dj Frank Porter. There is a collection of those sides released on a German CD (by the famous Bear Family label) named, by amazing coincidence, The Porter Records Story. If you happen to know the name of the label that your Frank Porter owned, could you let me know? I have a passion for those regional labels that never had national hits but still helped to shape popular music.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing and stopping by, Jim, and especially for reminding me of
    “Need You.”

  12. I grew up in LA/Hollywood/Beverly Hills and met a lot of celebrities. Jayne Mansfield’s daughter rode our school bus. Liza Minelli went to public school for about 3 weeks and sat in front of me in Jr. High Science class. France Nuyen lives across the street from my mom. However my favorite memory is being in a Publix in Orlando, and hearing someone asking the butcher for a Tri-Tip, a cut nonexistent in central Florida. I perked up, figuring that person must also be from California, and then the voice registered. It was Beaver’s mom, Barbara Billingsley. I had to go over and say hello and explain that she wasn’t going to find a Tri-Tip in Orlando. She was very gracious. I went home, emailed my brother (a chef) to ask what a Tri-Tip really was, and he told me, and I wrote to Ms. Billinglsey in care of Universal Studios where they were making the new Leave it To Beaver. She wrote back (snail mail), thanking me.
    I mean, come on. You HAVE to help Beaver’s mom, right?

  13. Terry, that’s a great story about meeting Ms. Billingsley. And you handled it with such class. I probably would have said, “Oh, good morning, Mrs. Cleaver!” as if no one ever said that to her, ever, offstage.

    I’ve got a story similar to yours of having Liza Minelli sitting in front of you in class (gosharootie!). Beverly D’Angelo, of the National Lampoon Vacation movies, was my first girlfriend. In kindergarten. I never saw her again until fifty years later in Manhattan, when I saw her on the other side of Broadway at 54th. I thought about doing a Dr. Zhivago — running across the street and having a heart attack, unnoticed behind her — and then thought to heck with it and kept walking. Anyway, thanks for sharing those great stories!

  14. Joe, thank you for sharing your unexpected experience with Fats Domino. I still have and cherish most of his 45 records–till death do us part.
    Many years ago, I met Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., the main speaker at a business conference I attended. He was the daring, outrageous imposter and wrote the book, “Catch Me If You Can.” A movie was made of his life. I had an opportunity to speak with him and receive an autographed copy of his book. He took the time to write me a personal note and it’s a favorite keepsake in my library.

  15. Frances, that must be quite a collection you have. Those Fats’ 45s are treasured by collectors. I actually liked the B sides better on some of them, and the A sides were terrific, always.

    Thanks for sharing your story about meeting Frank W. Abagnate, Jr. Are you sure that it was really him? (just kidding).

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