In one of his best-known recordings, Fats Domino dreamily describes “Walking to New Orleans.” A sprawling mass of fans and friends walked far more raucously to Domino’s longtime home in the Lower 9th Ward during a memorial second-line parade Wednesday evening.
Domino, a founding father of rock ’n’ roll and a charter member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, died Oct. 24 after years of declining health. He was 89.
Wednesday's procession started at the Bywater bar and music venue Vaughan’s Lounge, then proceeded across the St. Claude Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal to Domino’s former home in the Lower 9th Ward.
Police blocked vehicular traffic in both directions on St. Claude as a crowd worthy of a Mardi Gras parade lined the route.
Domino hadn’t lived at the compound at Caffin Avenue and Marais Street since it flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Following the storm, he purchased a home in a gated subdivision in Harvey, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. He died at that home.
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But the Caffin Avenue property is the one generations of New Orleanians associate with him. He built it in 1960 after a decade’s worth of million-selling hits had made him one of rock ’n’ roll’s biggest stars.
His family lived in the blonde-brick main house behind a fence of wrought-iron roses. Domino himself could often be found in the adjacent camelback shotgun house trimmed in yellow and decorated with a “Fats Domino Publishing” sign.
He remained there even after the surrounding neighborhood deteriorated, comfortable among longtime friends and acquaintances.
As news of Domino’s passing spread, the Lower 9th Ward property served as a gathering point for fans; some left tributes along the fence.
In 2015, fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Allen Toussaint was honored with a memorial service and all-star tribute concert at the Orpheum Theater. In 2016, jazz legend Pete Fountain was sent off with a funeral at St. Louis Cathedral followed by a second-line through the French Quarter.
Domino was intensely private in the later years of his life, especially as his health declined. His family seems to be following a similar philosophy. His death was kept secret for more than 24 hours, and the family has not announced any “official” memorial service or funeral.
They are reportedly finalizing plans for some sort of public event, though the funeral itself is likely to be private.
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Meanwhile, others have taken it upon themselves to communally mourn Domino.
Trumpeter James Andrews, no stranger to second-lines, organized Wednesday’s parade. It was essentially a cross between the spontaneous neighborhood second-lines for local musicians such as Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill and the massive memorial parades honoring such celebrities as David Bowie and Prince.
Domino was both a local musician and an international star, so he qualified for a memorial parade on both counts.
As the 5 p.m. starting time approached, crowds assembled around Vaughan's. Smoke from barbecue vendors drifted overhead. Entrepreneurs sold cold beer and water from wheeled ice chests. Many marchers wore blue, in honor of Domino's hits "Blueberry Hill" and "Blue Monday."
Pilar McCracken, who moved to New Orleans from Portland, Oregon, six years ago, grew up listening to Fats Domino courtesy of her parents. For the parade, she wore a blue feathered headdress and a dress she made two years ago from a domino patterned fabric. "I love dominoes in general, and vintage gaming," she said. "This seemed like the perfect event to wear it."
The Original Big Nine and the Original Pigeon Town Steppers social aid and pleasure clubs, along with a contingent of Baby Dolls attired in baby blue, led the procession.
As it turned onto Poland Avenue at Jack Dempsey's restaurant — where Domino records have long been a staple of the jukebox — Andrews and the other musicians pumped out the second-line standard "It Ain't My Fault."
The procession moved onto the Industrial Canal bridge, right past the "Danger: no pedestrians beyond this point" sign.
On the bridge, British soul and rhythm & blues musician James Hunter snapped pictures of his first second-line parade. His band used to perform Domino's "Be My Guest."
"We didn't do it full justice," Hunter said. "I'm glad we stayed (in New Orleans after performing at Voodoo Fest). It's a privilege to be here, seeing him be sent off."
The band broke into the Mardi Gras Indian standard "Let's Go Get 'em." Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, a New Orleans music star of more recent vintage, danced among the throng of marchers crossing the bridge's metal grate.
The ranks of participating musicians swelled along the route, with at least seven tubas joining in. So did a guy with a flute wrapped in lights.
The band fired up Domino's "I'm Walkin' " as the procession turned from St. Claude onto Caffin. The musicians couldn't get near the porch of the "yellow" Domino house, as the crowd was too thick.
A man danced on the roof of the main house. "That's what we do, baby!" a woman shouted.
The dirge "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" briefly quieted the crowd before "I'll Fly Away" picked up the tempo again.
Squeezed onto the porch of the house at 1208 Caffin were Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and Charmaine Neville, along with members of Domino's family. Shorty and Dr. John spoke briefly, singing Domino's praises.
Then the musicians took up their instruments for "Do Whatcha Wanna" and started the long walk back to Vaughan's, where the party was expected to continue deep into the night.
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