THE fact that Fats Domino in 1957 played 355 shows in America, travelling 13,000 miles, was misleading. He never left New Orleans, or rather New Orleans never left him. The fact that he was praised by Elvis Presley as the real king of rock ’n’ roll, named as chief inspiration by Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, John Lennon and Neil Young, and hailed as the man who started a cultural revolution deemed so dangerous, in some parts of America, that bottles flew and fights started, was pretty mystifying to him. When the rage took off in the early 1950s, he had been playing that music in the honky-tonks and bars of the Big Easy for fully 15 years.

He was New Awlins through and through, beginning with his girth and the rolling, languid gait it gave him. Both showed such a love of red beans, gumbo and jambalaya that he couldn’t find food worth eating anywhere else, but took his own pots, pans and hot sauce to cook them up wherever he was. One of his stunts was to play standing and, with his belly, gradually push his piano into the wings. At 21, when he was playing at the Hideaway Club on Desire Street for $3 a week, he already weighed 200lb. His first big hit, cut in 1949 after Dave Bartholemew, a talent scout, had discovered him, was “The Fat Man”. But fat men had fun. All the Creole girls loved him, he sang, on Rampart and Canal. And together “women and a bad life/They’re carryin’ this soul away.”

There was never any question of leaving. He was born in the Lower Ninth Ward, the youngest of eight children of Creole labourers, and would have stayed put there if Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had not destroyed his house. The house got fancier with his success, but he had no wish to move with the well-to-do. He was satisfied to stay where he had first heard radio songs and copied them for hours on the family’s beaten old upright; on the same streets where, once rid of school, he delivered ice to the people without refrigerators, stopping in their houses, if they had pianos, and practising again. He had a good ear for catching notes, he felt then. He never dreamed of much more.

It happened because of the way he sang and played, so full of joy that everyone just had to dance. Once he started those big fingers diving flat and fast to the keys and that right leg stamping to the beat, once he beamed that thousand-watt smile to the audience on every phrase, no one could stay still. What he thought he was playing was rhythm and blues, though there was not much blue about it: only he, on “Ain’t That a Shame”, could make “my tears fell like rain” sound like the best thing that had happened all week. But that R&B was also saturated with his home town, from the romping, rolling, accelerating beat to flavours of Mardi Gras bands, Cajun chank-a-chank, Latin rhythms and his own patois. He added his special groove, right-hand triplets on every beat, a hook white folks seemed to like; the drummer gave the back-beat, the horns made bass riffs, and out of that rich pot au feu rock ’n’ roll somehow emerged. Between 1950 and 1963 he had more hits than Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly combined.

His songs were not often original. Even “Blueberry Hill”, his biggest hit, which sold 5m copies, had been done before by Louis Armstrong. But he thought they would fit him fine, so he sang them in his own style. As he borrowed, so he was borrowed from; it didn’t matter to him, even when white crooners in those segregated times covered his songs and sold more of them. Rock ’n’ roll was the first music that crossed from black to white worlds, from the “race” Billboard chart to the pop one, but he was no civil-rights campaigner. He let others do that, far too shy to speak out much. (“If you ’scuse me, I’ll just go back to practisin’, OK?”) He stuck to what he did best, music that made people happy.

It made him happy, too. He could now buy two Cadillacs and a Rolls-Royce in one afternoon, and enough jewellery to light up a stage: a star-shaped diamond watch bigger than a silver dollar, diamond clips for his silk ties and chunky gold-and-diamond rings for every finger. He travelled with 30 suits and 200 pairs of shoes, especially fancy two-tones to thump the beat. His only long spells out of New Orleans were spent in Las Vegas, where he wasted $2m on the slots before he was cured. He could have saved it for his wife and his eight children, but whatever went up had to come down some way. He still had more than enough. As he sang on his favourite disc, “Blue Monday” (referring, though, to Saturday), “Got my money and my honey/And I’m out on the stand to play.”

Red-bean stew

After 1963 the hits dried up, eclipsed by Beatlemania. He kept performing for decades, though, buoyed up by the homage of those who stormed past him. High honours came, and he sometimes left New Orleans to fetch them, but not often. In his clubhouse annexe in the Lower Ninth, next to his house with his name in lights outside and marble and chandeliers inside, he would cook up red-bean stew for the neighbours, then invite them in to eat, have a few little beers and watch a Saints game. When Katrina trashed it all, including 20 gold discs and his grand pianos, “I ain’t missed nothing, to tell you the truth.” It sounded like another Fats number, to be sung on a cloud of joy.