Fats Domino died last weekend in Harvey, Louisiana. Over the course of his lifetime, Mr. Domino sold 60 million records and had more hits than any artist of his era, except Elvis. “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” and “Walking To New Orleans” are just three of those hits, which is why, when he died on October 24 at 89 years old, he was remembered as a pioneer of American rock and roll and nothing short of a musical legend.
Perhaps no one would agree with that sentiment more than Joe Lauro — documentarian, film archivist, front man for the New Orleans-inspired band the HooDoo Loungers, and former Shelter Island resident.
Mr. Lauro lives in Sag Harbor now and runs his company, Historic Films Archive, out of Greenport. Earlier this week while driving across Shelter Island on his way to work, Mr. Lauro spoke to the Reporter about his relationship with Mr. Domino, the subject of his documentary “The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll,” which had its broadcast premiere in February 2016 on the PBS series “American Masters.”
“He was 89, which is a good age for a rock and roller,” Mr. Lauro said. “He was a very private man, a basic guy who loved his home. Until Katrina he lived in the same neighborhood he grew up in. He spent 60 years on the road and he couldn’t wait to get back home.”
Mr. Lauro shot part of the documentary in Fats’ childhood home — a double shotgun house — in a poor neighborhood located in New Orleans’ 9th Ward.
“He had a modern house from around 1960 next door and a passageway that connected the two,” Mr. Lauro explained. “His wife lived in the big house and he lived in the double shotgun. To get to the kitchen, you walked through his bedroom.”
Mr. Lauro recalled that during his visits, there were always people coming and going from the house, which was full of music. But that ended when Hurricane Katrina flooded the area in 2005. Though the house was rebuilt, nobody moved back to the old neighborhood.
“So Fats never lived in the house again,” said Mr. Lauro. “He kept the publishing company there, but he lived with his daughter, Adonica, and she took care of him.”
While Mr. Lauro said Mr. Domino was an easy guy to talk to, he added that he was a hard guy to nail down — especially when Mr. Lauro approached him with the idea of making a documentary about his life.
“He didn’t quite understand the concept of the documentary; at first he said ‘I don’t want anyone documenting me,’” Mr. Lauro said. “It took a couple years and some good friends who convinced him it was a good idea.”
In the years that followed, Mr. Lauro visited Fats Domino four times in total — three of which were during the making of the film. He admits that getting him to open up about his life and career wasn’t always easy.
“The first time I went just to talk, I came with friends and hung out in the 9th Ward pre-Katrina. Then when the film had a green light, I interviewed him and got footage of him playing,” said Mr. Lauro. “Fats was very shy, but he played with the same people from 1949 to the end of his career. His partner Dave Bartholomew, and sax player Herb Hardesty, me, and other players he liked were all going over there.”
“We had Jon Cleary with us, who opened up the Sag Harbor Music Festival last month,” said Mr. Lauro. “He loved Jon, and we got him playing some slamming boogey woogie on Fats’ piano, and Fats comes out. He loved that music all his life.”
That day, Mr. Lauro was able to film Mr. Domino playing bits of his own songs at the piano and telling some of his stories.
But by the time Mr. Lauro got to him, Mr. Domino had forgotten a lot of things, admitted Mr. Lauro who supplemented his own footage with interviews conducted by earlier biographers.
Fortunately, Mr. Lauro also came across a treasure trove of musical footage in the form of a 1962 concert by Mr. Domino and his band filmed at the Antibes Jazz Festival in southern France.
Though it took several years and lots of work to complete the film, ultimately, Mr. Lauro admits the documentary was a labor of love.
“When you take on these films, this is not like going to someone for a million dollars,” Mr. Lauro said. “I’m not going to spend three years doing this if I’m not totally inspired and influenced by the subject — and he influenced me.
“A lot of times, these old guys change their sound and get modern musicians, but Fats wasn’t like that. He used old timers, the guys played his style exactly,” he added. “In 2007 you were hearing what you could’ve heard in 1964. He had the same sax guy — that to me is extraordinary.
“Our music in America is the greatest thing we offer the world. It should be honored and preserved,” he said. “Fats knew that and kept his sound intact. It was a great experience.”