Evel Knievel, Jon Benet Ramsey, a caveman, and a nun get into a cab. The caveman rides shotgun. In the backseat, I sit in the middle dressed as the deceased beauty queen. My boyfriend, sporting Knievel’s star-spangled jumpsuit, sits to my right. The nun with a full beard is on my left. It’s Saturday night in New Orleans and we are dressed in our Mardi Gras costumed best.
Our foursome is heading from the Victorian-lined streets of Uptown to the slab homes of St. Bernard Parish for a decidedly different take on the pomp and circumstance of a traditional Carnival ball. While the majority of New Orleanians are lying in wait for the arrival of the Endymion parade, we are headed to a Disabled American Veterans Hall. The party has a strict dress code requiring guests to go big or go bare—a daunting option given the below 50-degree temperature drop that has struck the Crescent City on the evening of Saturday, February 8, 1997. Although our attire, a flammable mix of satin, polyester, and faux fur, is far from frost-proof, we won’t be standing outside for long, unlike the revelers and float riders we left behind.
The cab driver’s route takes us high above the French Quarter via the Claiborne overpass. A route featuring postcard views of balconies embellished with lacy ironwork, terracotta ridge-capped rooftops, and the weathered, marble tombs of St. Louis Cemetery #2. As we approach the Lower Ninth Ward, our cab driver suddenly turns tour guide and mentions Fats Domino’s house is nearby. The cab driver knows the location well from making deliveries of fried chicken and gin to the legendary piano man on multiple occasions.
“Do we want to go see house?” he asks in the unmistakable “Yat” accent typifying residents of the area known as Arabi. We sit in momentary silence—each one of us individually mining our musical memory banks. Do I want to see the house belonging to the man whose music was the soundtrack to my mother’s high school dances? Do I want to see the house owned by the man who gave Richie Cunningham a thrill on Happy Days? Do I want to see the house inhabited by the man whose songs busted loose with boogie woogie, rock and roll, and soul? A unanimous chorus of “Hell yes!” fills the cab, making clear to the driver that we’re on board for a music history detour. And hoping that we might get invited inside for fried chicken and gin.
The cab stops in front of a white brick home with a black door, and a gable painted the exact same shade of a French’s yellow mustard squeeze bottle. An exterior light shines above unlit letters spelling out Fats Domino’s name and the street address in large white numbers. Our costumed crew hastily assembles a group pose, shivering and wishing Fats would appear and join us. The cab driver turned photographer takes snapshots with my disposable camera. Fats is a no-show but for a brief second or two, we all felt his presence – immortalized in a snapshot. Unlike the instant gratification guaranteed by today’s smartphones, we will endure a three-day waiting period before seeing the glossy photo memorializing the start of our night. A night that had already reached its high point before we had even arrived at our destination.
A few years later, I attended that same party with Evel Knievel, who subsequently became my husband. The party had moved to a different location that was bigger and had bartenders serving drinks instead of silver-haired veterans handing out plastic Dixie cups of beer. The new venue offered a festive landscape of colorful Mardi Gras floats and decor, but we no longer rode past Fats Domino’s house to get there.
So we began taking people there. Driving past Fats Domino’s house served as a salute to a music giant made in New Orleans. Our last visit to his house occurred in April of 2017 with friends who were attending their first Jazz Fest, held on the Fair Grounds racetrack. The race track turned festival grounds was also the setting for the first time we saw Fats Domino perform in 2001. Every song Fats played was a greatest hit—each note as essential as oxygen: blue Mondays, blue heavens, and blueberry hills accompanied by his generous grin and a mighty girth that propelled the piano across the stage in a grand finale flourish unmatched by any other act we saw that day or since.
On October 24, 2017, Fats Domino passed away at the age of 89. Such a loss is followed by a second line send-off, a uniquely New Orleans mixture of merriment and mourning. A ritual of remembrance and revelry accompanied by music and the dancing feet of family, friends, and fans. While burials tend to be in private, the second line celebration of the dearly departed is played out on the streets. When a loved one dies in my family, the funeral procession drives by the deceased’s home as a nod of recognition forever rooted in the past. From our first photo op that freezing cold Mardi Gras night to our last Jazz Fest pit stop, we had been honoring Fats all along.
Image courtesy of Dana DuTerroil