Fats Domino didn’t like doing TV interviews, but he did like TV interviewers. He was especially fond of WWL-TV morning show co-host Eric Paulsen.
They first met when Paulsen and a cameraman stalked Domino at the airport many years ago. Domino, on his way out of town in a full-length mink coat, declined the impromptu interview, as he did most such requests.
But over the years, Paulsen persisted. Finally, Domino agreed to talk ahead of his 76th birthday celebration, in 2004. That interview initiated a friendship that continued until Domino’s death in October at age 89.
And that friendship informs “Fats Domino: Eric Paulsen Remembers,” a 30-minute special to air on WWL-TV at 6:30 p.m. Monday, on what would have been Domino's 90th birthday.
It is a different sort of Domino documentary, focusing not on recording dates and chart positions but on the man Paulsen came to know later in life.
“The Dominos treated me like family,” Paulsen said this week. “They’re just nice people. Over the years, I’d go to his house and we’d sit in the bedroom and he’d play piano.”
The newscaster and the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer hit it off at their first interview in 2004, conducted at Domino’s longtime home on Caffin Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward. As Domino played “Blueberry Hill” on piano, Paulsen ad-libbed, “I found my thrill/on Angela Hill” -- a joking reference to the iconic WWL news anchor.
“He just roared laughing,” Paulsen recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, I can’t sing that.’”
The newsman considers that 2004 interview to be among the most significant of his long television career. Domino “was very cognizant. He didn’t start fading away until after Hurricane Katrina. He was just right on, happy, full of life, just fun.”
As Paulsen was leaving, he admired a photo of Domino in a yellow jacket in front of his Cadillac couch. A few days later, Paulsen received a package from Domino containing a signed copy of the photo.
Then Domino called to see if Paulsen wanted to get a drink. They rode in Paulsen’s Jeep and parked on the St. Claude Avenue neutral ground outside Mor’s Bar.
“It was one of those neat New Orleans experiences,” Paulsen said.
Many more excursions followed. Domino invited him to ride along to a concert on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At Domino’s insistence, they drove with the windows down, despite the summertime heat. “We talked the whole way there,” Paulsen said.
The newsman attended Domino’s birthday parties; Domino hung out at Paulsen’s house.
Along the way, Paulsen transitioned from covering the story, to being part of the story.
On Sunday, May 7, 2006, Domino was scheduled to close out the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival after Hurricane Katrina. Paulsen was among the friends who picked up Domino at his post-Katrina home in Harvey. But Domino, who suffered from extreme performance anxiety, complained that he didn’t feel well. So Paulsen, retired federal judge Steve Ellis, and Ellis’s wife Haydee drove him to Ochsner Medical Center.
Tests came back negative, but Domino insisted he didn’t feel able to perform; he wanted to go home. Instead, Paulsen steered his black Jeep to the Fair Grounds, where Domino offered a brief apology to fans from the Acura Stage.
A year later, on May 19, 2007, Paulsen watched from the wings at Tipitina’s as Domino performed what turned out to be his final public concert. After only four songs, Fats got up from his seat at the piano and tried to leave. Paulsen intercepted him, gently explained that the fans would like to hear a few more, and suggested “Blue Monday.” The reluctant star played “Blue Monday,” then six more songs.
In 2010, Paulsen arranged for Domino’s long-estranged producer and co-writer, Dave Bartholomew, to visit Domino at home in Harvey. The two New Orleans music legends rekindled their relationship.
“After a bunch of negotiations, we got them together,” Paulsen said. “What was so cool about that was that not only did it bring Fats and Dave together, but it brought the two families together. They communicate all the time now.”
The loyalty worked both ways. On the morning of Oct. 25, one of Domino’s daughters, Adonica, denied to another reporter that her father had died the previous day so that Paulsen could break the sad news to the world.
Paulsen is determined to keep celebrating Domino’s tremendous legacy. He successfully lobbied Community Visions Unlimited to decorate a utility box outside the Starbucks at the intersection of Freret and Jefferson with an image of Domino. The artist based the painting on a photo Paulsen took during a Domino show on the Gulf Coast.
Behind the scenes, he is quietly building support for another, even grander tribute: renaming the former Lee Circle as Fats Domino Circle.
“I would love that. Fats is, other than Louis Armstrong, the greatest international musical ambassador this city has ever seen. Those are the two names people all over the world know.
“My ultimate dream would be, if you call that Fats Domino Circle, then in the middle you have plaques or statues for Louis Prima, Professor Longhair, Pete Fountain, Mahalia Jackson, Allen Toussaint, just make that a whole music circle. People would come to see that.”
Public celebrations aside, he has plenty of cherished personal memories. In July, Domino called him to sing “Happy Birthday.” The dash cam in Paulsen’s Jeep recorded the audio of the call, “which was the coolest thing ever. That was the last time I talked to him.”