An unlikely star given his shy demeanor, Antoine “Fats” Domino sold more records in the 1950s than any artist except Elvis Presley. Sixty-five million records between 1950 and 1963.
Domino’s songs, national hits and New Orleans classics, include “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” “I’m Walkin’ ” and the poignant Bobby Charles-penned song that entered the Top 10 in 1960, “Walking to New Orleans.”
Domino, 87, is retired from performing since 2007. Producer Dave Bartholomew, Domino’s collaborator for so many hits, is 96. “Walking to New Orleans,” a new theatrical production based on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees’ work, opens this week at the Carver Theater.
Vince Caruso, a co-creator of “Walking to New Orleans,” wanted to do something to acknowledge Domino’s and Bartholomew’s contributions to music for years.
“If people are alive, sometimes they don’t get the recognition or the reverence they get after they’ve passed on,” Caruso said. “But we’re talking about two guys who changed the face of music. It’s mindboggling to see what they’ve done. I don’t think it’ll ever be repeated.”
Caruso, a New Orleans native who’s had careers in television and technology, co-created “Walking to New Orleans” with local actor Lucky Johnson and one of Bartholomew’s sons, Don.
Caruso first talked with Don Bartholomew about creating a show based on his father’s and Domino’s work about six years ago. The turning point for Caruso in going forward with the show came when The Recording Academy, the organization that presents the Grammy Awards, awarded its Trustees Award to Bartholomew in 2012.
“Then, when I approached Lucky Johnson with it, everything seemed to come together,” Caruso said. “He was the missing piece.”
Johnson, whose acting credits include “Contraband” with Mark Wahlberg, “2 Guns” with Denzel Washington and HBO’s “Treme,” is the writer-director of “Walking to New Orleans.” He’s also a filmmaker and first cousin to Tyler Perry.
“It’s definitely long overdue,” Johnson said of the tribute show. “They’re not just legends, they’re living legends.”
In “Walking to New Orleans,” Al “Lil Fats” Jackson, a singer-pianist from Bridge City, and New Orleans singer-trumpeter Shamarr Allen portray Domino and Bartholomew.
“I couldn’t see anyone else playing Fats better,” Johnson said. “It reminds me of Jamie Foxx in ‘Ray.’ It’s just a Godsend, because this is a guy who looks and sounds like Fats and has made a career out of doing Fats’ music.”
Allen is also one of Johnson’s acting students.
“Shamarr is a phenomenal player known all over the world, and now he can show his acting ability,” Johnson said.
In addition to 14 songs performed by Jackson, Allen and a seven-piece band, the show’s storyline will touch on the discrimination that Domino, Bartholomew and other black musicians faced in the Jim Crow era.
“They could star in the place where they performing, but they would have to go through the back door,” Caruso said. “You can’t really look at the history of what they went through without having some of that in there.”
Like so many New Orleans residents, Johnson and Caruso grew up with the Domino-Bartholomew catalog, even though years had passed since the songs were hits.
“My mom and my auntie would always play that music at the parties, family reunions and barbecues,” Johnson said. “ ‘I’m Walkin’ ’ still resonates in my soul. I remember being a young kid and hearing my mom and them play ‘I’m Walkin’ ’ and ‘Blueberry Hill’ over and over again, along with all of the other great artists of that time.”
“When Mr. Dave and Fats Domino got together, it was lightning in a bottle,” Caruso said. “Mr. Dave brought out the best in Fats Domino. Fats Domino took everything that Mr. Dave had and made it work. There’s something about those songs. They just make you feel good.”