Fats Domino broke into soft song as he stepped slowly through his gutted house in the city’s flood-ravaged 9th Ward on Friday. Sometimes the Hall of Fame piano man murmured a line of his familiar lyrics.
At other moments, he just seemed to be thinking out loud, with a tune.
“Why such bad luck fall on me?” the 79-year-old sang, looking out a rear window into the neighborhood where he was born in 1928.
In between melodies, he said repeatedly that it’s time to come home.
“I’m ready,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to leave.”
Domino — whose real name is Antoine and who is known in New Orleans nearly as much for his reclusiveness as for hits such as “Blueberry Hill,” “Blue Monday” and “Ain’t That a Shame” — rode out Hurricane Katrina in the 9th Ward, where the Aug. 29, 2005 storm did some of its worst damage. His family and agent had reported him missing and learned days later that he had survived when they saw a photo in The Times-Picayune that showed him stepping off a rescuer’s boat.
Domino, who had been back to see the 9th Ward at least once before Friday, said he had no doubt he would eventually return for good. Workers are rebuilding his home, which is expected to be restored by summer.
For many in the heavily devastated neighborhood, which some have said shouldn’t be rebuilt, Domino’s return is a sign of hope.
“This is not about just getting one guy back in his house. It really is symbolic of this city coming back,” said Bill Taylor, director of the Tipitina’s Foundation, which is paying to repair the home Domino has lived in for decades. “There is hope down here now.”
Surrounded by blocks of abandoned homes — many untouched since Katrina — Domino’s house was buzzing with workers. Outside, they scraped away rust from the black iron fence that surrounds the home and gave it a fresh coat of paint.
Inside, they tried to decide how to replace the air conditioning system and electrical circuits.
Sitting in what used to be his pink entertainment room on a bench from the front porch, Domino recalled memories of his life in the 9th Ward — cutting grass for the neighbors, cooking red beans and rice for family and friends.
“It don’t take a lot to be happy,” he said with a smile.
The foundation, which helped scores of musicians after the storm find housing and new instruments, will spend upward of $100,000 restoring Domino’s home.
The foundation is working with Elton John, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, B.B. King and others who will record a tribute album of Domino’s songs to benefit the foundation. Roughly 25 percent of the proceeds will go toward Domino’s home, Taylor said.
Not just any house
The back end of a pink 1959 Cadillac that for years sat in the living area of his home and served as a couch is being restored. Plans also call for bringing back many original details, including pink walls to match the car. A mirrored glass balcony and brass railing, which were not damaged during Katrina, also will be kept.
After Katrina, Domino was taken to the Superdome, then by bus with other evacuees to Louisiana State University’s basketball arena in Baton Rouge, where he reunited with his family. They left the arena and spent two days at the off-campus apartment of Tigers quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who knew a friend of Domino’s family.
Domino spent some time in a New Orleans hotel after that before moving into a gated community full of newly constructed homes in suburban Harvey.
James Elder, the man in charge of construction at Domino’s home, expects the home to be finished by summer. Elder said the house’s studs still have to be rid of mold before workers can put in new insulation and drywall, all of which should be done in the next few weeks.
“He could have moved anywhere in his life and career, and this is where he chose to stay,” Elder said. “We’re going to try to put it back to what is was, as close as possible.”