Dave Bartholomew, the New Orleans trumpeter, songwriter, bandleader, producer and arranger, has died; his son, Don Bartholomew, confirmed the news to NPR. He was 100.
Best known for collaborating on an extraordinary string of hits with Fats Domino between 1949 and 1963 – amassing more than one hundred entries on the pop and R&B charts during that span of time – Bartholomew was one of the primary architects of the sound now known as rock and roll.
David Louis Bartholomew was born on Christmas Eve 1918 in Edgard, La., the seat of St. John the Baptist Parish, located about forty miles northwest of New Orleans proper. Some of the first live music Bartholomew heard came from the bands aboard showboats that docked at Caire’s Landing in Edgard, as they steamed up and down the Mississippi River. But there was plenty of music at home, too: His father, Louis, was a bass and tuba player who performed with jazz clarinetist Willie Humphrey. In the 2016 documentary The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock n’Roll, Bartholomew recalled gathering with friends and relatives around his neighborhood’s single radio to listen to Louis Armstrong, with whom he’d soon share a formative city, after his father moved the family to New Orleans while Dave was still a child, opening a barbershop in the uptown part of the city.
According to John Broven’s 1974 history Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans, local jazz bands would advertise upcoming gigs by playing on the backs of flatbed trucks that cruised through the streets; young Dave was among the gaggle of neighborhood kids who would trail along after, listening to songs like “Tiger Rag” and “Milneburg Joys.” It was hearing Armstrong’s recordings that made him choose the trumpet as his instrument — and in fact, one of his first music teachers was Peter Davis, the band instructor who changed Armstrong’s life by introducing him to the cornet when the young star was incarcerated at the Colored Waif’s Home in 1913. It was a perfect synchronicity: Bartholomew would become as important to the evolution of rock and roll as Armstrong was to jazz.
By time he was a teenager in the ’30s, Dave and his horn were landing gigs playing traditional jazz, in bands led by Oscar “Papa” Celestin and Joe Robichaux. In pianist Fats Pichon’s ensemble, he performed on the riverboat Capitol, riding upriver all the way to St. Paul and back again to New Orleans. It was that gig, he told UPI reporter John Swenson in 1988, at his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, that taught him how to lead a band; when Pichon took a solo gig in 1941, Bartholomew took over until he was drafted into the Army in 1942, where he learned to write and arrange music in an Army band.
Impresario Lew Chudd was one of the wheeling-and-dealing “record men” who emerged on the new frontier of the independent recording industry after World War II. His Los Angeles-based label, Imperial Records, was only a couple of years old when he caught Dave Bartholomew’s band for the first time at the hot Houston nightspot the Bronze Peacock. It was their sound that inspired Chudd to start looking for rhythm and blues talent in New Orleans to record for Imperial, and in Dave, he found a valuable partner. New Jersey-based DeLuxe Records had been the first of the indies to mine New Orleans for its deep vein of talent after the war; Dave had had a hit recording “Country Boy” for them, and had scouted more likely acts for the label. In 1949, he signed on to do the same for Imperial. One of the very first acts he took Chudd to see, in a Ninth Ward nightclub called the Hideaway, was a promising young pianist called Antoine “Fats” Domino, Jr. Fats and Dave had a hit right out of the gate for Imperial with “The Fat Man,” a reworking of the prewar piano blues “Junker’s Blues.” The record spent three weeks in the top ten of Billboard’s R&B chart, heralding what would be almost 15 years of hitmaking for the pair – and, with its pounding rhythm, a new sound called rock and roll.
“The Fat Man” was recorded in the back of recent Tulane dropout Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Music Shop on Rampart and Dumaine, a jukebox and coin-operated machine business that had gradually morphed into a record store and then a studio. J&M was poised to become ground zero for the evolution of rock and roll, and Dave Bartholomew was no small part of that. His band became the house ensemble at J&M, backing a laundry list of early rock and R&B greats, including Lloyd Price, Earl King, Smiley Lewis, T-Bone Walker, Frankie Ford, Roy Brown and countless others. Members of the studio band backed Little Richard on the piano-pounder’s career-defining 1954 New Orleans sessions for Specialty Records; in Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans, Dr. John opined that “it was the New Orleans sound that got Little Richard across.”
Dave, who also broadcast a radio program out of the record shop for the local station WJMR, served as in-house producer, arranger and writer for J&M, developing a reputation as a tough and exacting taskmaster – while, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wrote in its official bio, “shaping the rhythmic orientation of that city into a sound everyone would come to know and love as rock and roll.”
Bartholomew was inducted into the Rock Hall as a non-performer in 1991, five years after his protégé and partner Fats Domino joined its initial class of honorees. In 2010, the Rock Hall dedicated its annual American Music Masters celebration to both men, the first time it had so acknowledged a creative collaboration of that nature. But the “non-performer” label had stung, Bartholomew told UPI’s Swenson back in ’88 – and perhaps for good reason. His legacy as a musician and bandleader was inextricable from his influence as an architect of American music. In the late ’40s “the Dave Bartholomew Band was the band in the city as far as rhythm and blues was concerned,” sax player Alvin “Red” Tyler explained to Broven.
It’s true that by the time rock and roll was here to stay, Bartholomew was too busy writing and producing to work much with his own horn. “He had reached a level that other people wouldn’t call Dave up and say ‘Hey, man, do you want to make up a session?’ ” Tyler told Broven. “…because he would probably say ‘No, man, I don’t have time.’ ” But the sides he did record for himself in the ’50s were masterful and diverse, from the clattering Caribbean rhythms of “Shrimp and Gumbo” to the goofy novelty “My Ding-A-Ling” (which Chuck Berry unearthed for a 1972 hit) to the singular grinding blues “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” a strange fable that questions whether humans, with all their sin, are truly superior among the primates, and which showcases his bellowing, stentorian baritone. (Elvis Costello paid tribute to the tune on his 2004 album The Delivery Man, name-checking Bartholomew on the track “Monkey to Man.”)
Ears open and eye perennially on the bottom line, Bartholomew, who appeared in his first rap video – a song called “Born in the Country,” a collaboration with his son, New Orleans hip-hop producer Don B and grandson, the rapper Supa Dezzy – in 2011, stayed up to date on the successes of New Orleans artists well into the 21st century, no matter the genre. During an interview on New Orleans’ community radio station WWOZ in 2008, the DJ attempted to flatter him – misguidedly, as it turned out – by suggesting that the latest generation of local stars, like Lil Wayne, didn’t measure up to the work of Bartholomew’s generation. Listeners could practically hear Bartholomew’s eyes widen in disdain as he informed the jockey that his fellow New Orleanian had sold millions of copies; he knew exactly how many singles the younger artist had on the Billboard charts that very week.