Sitting at a keyboard in the bedroom of his post-Katrina home in this New Orleans suburb, a smiling Fats Domino joked, laughed and tenderly sang to a handful of close friends.
“Never thought my heart could be so yearny ... Gotta take that sentimental journey, sentimental journey home,” he sang Thursday afternoon, swaying gently as longtime friend Herbert Hardesty, who’s shared the stage with Domino for 50-plus years, chimed in.
Though Hardesty has been playing his saxophone at gigs with other musicians since Hurricane Katrina, including New Orleans bluesman Dr. John, he couldn’t wait to reunite with Domino for Sunday’s closing of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Domino, too, is excited — even nervous — about his first performance since Katrina struck last August.
“I’m ready,” said the 78-year-old Hall of Fame performer, chuckling as he joked about the possibility of passing out on stage. “God gave me the gift ... Yeah, I’m ready to play.”
In his spacious new home in a gated community, Domino seemed most comfortable in his bedroom. Though large with high ceilings and filled mostly with new furniture, the room had personal touches and a cozy feel. Friends plopped on his king-size, four-poster bed, the sheets and blankets unmade.
“Herb’s making me a book,” Domino said, noting that Hardesty has photos of Domino with Nat “King” Cole and other celebrities — treasures to a man who’s experienced so much loss.
Not home, but 'close enough'
The Mississippi River now divides Domino’s newfound home from the one he was forced to flee when Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city. He lived for a time in a New Orleans hotel. Harvey isn’t home, Domino says, but “it’s close enough.”
As he chatted with friends — among them Hardesty, Hardesty’s wife and daughter Adonica Domino, one of his eight children — Domino pointed out the few pieces of salvaged furniture among the new, including chairs that surrounded an upstairs bar in the Ninth Ward home he shared with his wife of almost 60 years, Rosemary. They’d lived in the house since 1960.
Noticeably thinner since being evacuated from the house, Domino said the past few months haven’t been easy. He’s still trying to get situated in his new home, still moving furniture around.
In one room sits a black baby grand donated by the Baldwin piano company. The walls are empty except for two framed gold records — one for “Rosemary,” the other for “Blue Monday.” The records were refurbished by the Louisiana State Museum. Another 23 gold records and eight platinum records are being reissued to replace the ones destroyed in the flood.
Domino’s classic New Orleans R&B sound and relaxed piano style led him to sell more records than any other black musician of the 1950s. His long list of national hits, mostly spanning from the mid ’50s to the early ’60s, includes “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Whole Lotta Loving” and “Blue Monday.”
Grounded in his hometown, hits like “Walking to New Orleans” and “Jambalaya” resonate with New Orleans natives. Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis has said he can’t think of a better way to close this year’s festival than with a performance by Fats.
Good to have a piano again
Sitting at the new piano on a black leather bench, tapping the keys, Domino said it’s good to have a piano in the house again. Since being evacuated, he’d been playing on a keyboard he bought while on hiatus in Texas.
“I always had a piano,” he said. “All of them sound good to me.”
Back in March, a recovery crew with the Louisiana State Museum pulled an electric Wurlitzer keyboard and what was left of his black Steinway baby grand and white Steinway grand from Domino’s flooded home. They’ll be refurbished and returned to the family, though they may not be playable. For now, Domino is loaning the baby grand to the museum for inclusion in its traveling exhibit about hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The 81-year-old Hardesty, a New Orleans native, has been living in Las Vegas since his home flooded. He and Domino met as teenagers in the mid-1940s and together recorded a number of hits, including “Blue Monday,” “I’m Walking,” “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Let the Four Winds Blow.”
“Each song has a meaning, a memory,” Hardesty said. “When we get on that stage, we’re happy.”
Sipping from a bottle of Heineken between songs, Domino lulled friends with emotional verses of “Valley of Tears”: “I want you to take me where I belong, where hearts have been broken with a kiss and a song...”
Even as he rehearsed with Hardesty, Domino wouldn’t give away Sunday’s playlist.
“Whatever comes to me,” he said, “that’s what I’ll play.”