Dave Bartholomew proved himself to be a man of many talents: bandleader, trumpet player, songwriter, producer, arranger, talent scout, businessman, and more.
He was also a recording artist, scoring one national R&B hit (“Country Boy,” which went to #14) in 1950. However, it was in his nonperforming roles that Bartholomew had the greatest impact on popular music. One of the key architects of the New Orleans sound, Bartholomew served as a major behind-the-scenes figure in the transition from jump blues and big-band swing to rhythm & blues and rock and roll in the postwar era. In particular, he will forever be revered for his work with Fats Domino, one of the Crescent City’s greatest musicians and a true pioneer in the rock and roll revolution.
Bartholomew brought Domino to Imperial Records in 1949 and collaborated with him as a songwriter, producer and arranger until 1963 (except for a year-long business-related hiatus in 1951). The records they made together introduced the big beat of New Orleans to the world. While Bartholomew’s work with Domino dominates his resume, that charmed association is only part of the story. The list of acts that Bartholomew worked with over the decades is a who’s-who of New Orleans rhythm & blues, including Smiley Lewis, Lloyd Price, Shirley & Lee, Earl King, Roy Brown, Huey "Piano" Smith, Chris Kenner, Robert Parker, Frankie Ford, James Booker, Jewel King, Bobby Mitchell, James “"Sugar Boy"” Crawford, Pee Wee Crayton and Tommy Ridgley. Beyond his work with Domino, two of the biggest records in which he played a major role were Smiley Lewis’s "I Hear You Knockin’" (written by Bartholomew) and Lloyd Price’s "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (with Domino on piano), which was the top R&B hit of 1952.
Dave Bartholomew was born in Edgard, Louisiana, on Christmas Eve, 1920. He learned to play tuba and trumpet as a youngster and performed in bands with much older musicians while in his teens. He played trumpet on a Mississippi riverboat in Fats Pinchon’s band, becoming the bandleader when Pinchon left. Disciplined and talented, Bartholomew learned how to score and arrange music during an stint in World War II. After the war he returned to New Orleans and formed his own band, which became one of the most popular in the city. Its members included such local legends as drummer Earl Palmer and sax players Lee Allen, Herbert Hardesty and Red Tyler. The emphasis was on horns; there were four saxes in the band, which rocked and stomped behind Bartholomew, who played trumpet and sang. As music historian Robert Palmer noted, this outfit served as “a model for early rock ‘n’ roll bands the world over.”
In 1949 Bartholomew cut his fourth single, “Country Boy,” which would become a national hit on the DeLuxe label. That same year, he met Lew Chudd, owner of Imperial Records, while playing at a popular Houston nightclub. Chudd hired Bartholomew as an A&R man, giving him free rein to find and record talent. At Bartholomew’s suggestion, they checked out Fats Domino at New Orleans’ Hideaway Club, where he’d become one of the city’s hottest attractions. It turned out to be a fortuitous evening for all concerned, as Chudd signed Domino and Bartholomew became his producer and collaborator.
With Domino and others, Bartholomew oversaw a string of classic recordings that brought the sound of New Orleans to the teenage rock and roll audience, especially in the latter half of the Fifties. “I never had a budget,” Bartholomew told writer Adam Block. “Any talent I saw, I could record. I worked for Lew Chudd for 13 years, and no matter what I wanted to do, he never once second-guessed me.” In addition to working prolifically for Imperial, Bartholomew also occasionally produced sessions for artists on Specialty, Aladdin and other labels.
Right out of the box, he scored on Imperial with Jewel King’s “3 x 7 = 21,” a #4 R&B hit. On its heels came “The Fat Man.” It was the first of literally scores of hits for Fats Domino, who became an iconic Fifties rock and roller under Bartholomew’s tutelage. He didn’t just produce Domino all the way into the early Sixties; in many cases, he had a hand in writing the songs as well. Many of Domino’s best-known numbers, along with numerous album and EP cuts and B sides, bore a Domino-Bartholomew songwriting credit. Some of the classics among them are “The Fat Man,” “All By Myself,” “Ain’t It a Shame” (a.k.a. “Ain’t That a Shame”), “Blue Monday” (written solely by Bartholomew), “I’m in Love Again,” “I’m Walkin’,” “The Big Beat,” “Walking to New Orleans” (cowritten by the duo with Bobby Charles) and “Let the Four Winds Blow.”
“Ain’t It a Shame,” in particular, was a turning point, as Bartholomew deliberately moved Domino away from the rough, bluesy feel of his prior records with a bit of sweetening. “We had to sweeten the lead up so we could sell it,” Bartholomew noted, “but we still kept the rough background. And ‘Ain’t It a Shame’ went over to white.” In other words, it brought the white, teenage audience into the fold, and Domino and Bartholomew never looked back. Their records both bridged and transcended genres. Bartholomew has noted that Domino went beyond R&B to encompass elements of pop, country and Dixieland jazz.
“Fats has a tendency to sing C&W,” Bartholomew noted in a 2001 interview with Goldmine’s Bill Dahl, “[and] he’s got Dixieland with a beat, which is a little different thing.” Moreover, the two men occasionally picked pop standards for Domino to cover, revamping the arrangements to give them a modern feel (as with “Blueberry Hill,” Domino’s biggest hit). Expanding his sound beyond blues and R&B allowed Domino to appeal to diverse audiences, from young rock and roll fans to older listeners who preferred jazz, country and pop. And yet because it was built on a solid musical footing, their music proved impervious to fads and remained well-liked across the decades.
The complementary chemistry between Bartholomew and Domino was another key to their success. Bartholomew was focused and disciplined, goading his musicians to work productively, while Domino was more spontaneous, laid-back and playful. “Many times I think Fats’ very salvation was Dave being able to be stern enough and rigid enough to insist on things getting done,” Cosimo Matassa told writer Rick Coleman. “He was adamant as he could be about the discipline of the players.”
Bartholomew referred to himself as a slave driver, but his unfailing commitment to the music was borne out by the quality and consistency of the records he produced. For this he is celebrated as one of New Orleans’ most significant musical figures, having played a major role in shaping the rhythmic orientation of that city into a sound everyone would come to know and love as rock and roll.