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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Dave Bartholomew: An appreciation

Dave Bartholomew performs his classic Fats Domino hit "I'm Walkin'"

Dave Bartholomew, one of the architects of New Orleans rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, died June 23 at 100. The producer, arranger, composer, trumpet player and bandleader was best known for the classic hits he produced for and wrote with Fats Domino, including “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blue Monday,” and “The Fat Man,” Domino’s signature hit from 1949 that some consider to be the first rock ’n’ roll record.

A member of both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, Bartholomew also produced and arranged in New Orleans much-covered hits like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” for Lloyd Price, “Let the Good Times Roll” for Shirley and Lee, and “I Hear You Knocking” (which he also wrote) for Smiley Lewis, among many others.

“Dave Bartholomew was the unsung hero of New Orleans rhythm and blues, the creative ringmaster behind those great records by the stars of all of that wonderful music,” says Mike Stoller, with the late Jerry Leiber, partner in the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame songwriting/production team Leiber and Stoller. “When you hear Fats Domino or Lloyd Price, and countless others, you’re also hearing the songs, the arrangements, and the genius of Dave Bartholomew.”

In a statement, Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow noted that Bartholomew was a Recording Academy Trustees Award recipient as well as a “multi-talented bandleader, composer, arranger, and record producer.”

“A rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, Bartholomew's innovative approach to his craft helped define the New Orleans sound and establish the metropolis as one of our nation's great music cities,” said Portnow. “He achieved profound success from his partnership with fellow New Orleans-native Fats Domino, producing and co-writing several chart-topping hits, including ‘Ain’t That a Shame,’ ‘I’m Walkin’,’ and ‘Let the Four Winds Blow’ [and] has eternally influenced rock ‘n’ roll music.”

In New Orleans, Steve Picou, co-founder of Louisiana Music Hall of Fame rock band Bas Clas and former assistant director of the Louisiana Music Commission, recalls the U.S. Postal Service’s first-day-of-issue ceremony for the Louis Armstrong stamp, held in New Orleans in September, 1995.

“One of the incredible shows was a triple-bill at the legendary Blue Room in the Roosevelt Hotel--then called The Fairmont--featuring Nicholas Payton, Doc Cheatham and Dave Bartholomew,” says Picou. “It was my first time seeing Dave in person, and he was big, brash, loud, brassy, and a classic New Orleans showman who plunged into the audience to cajole and encourage everyone to not only have fun, but participate. His performance was intense and inspiring. It was one of those moments that made you feel like New Orleans was the nuclear womb of the musical universe and you were being irradiated with the kind of magic that arose from the depths of the earth, channeled through the soul of a bold Southern black man whose soul bore the power of generations. It was one of the most exciting musical moments of my life.”

Aaron Fuchs, the New York-based president of Tuff City Records and vintage New Orleans R&B-heavy sister label Night Train Records, calls Bartholomew “a towering figure.”

“If you’re a New Orleans obsessive like me, time is just a parade of great music down there,” says Fuchs. “Stars shine and stars thin, and the more music you listen to, the more excellent music by Bartholomew you hear. Most of us got plugged into it when Fats went pop, but Bartholomew gave us a substantial run-up with artists like Smiley Lewis.”

Fuchs singles out Lewis, the R&B singer-guitarist whose Bartholomew-delivered recordings like “Blue Monday” and “I Hear You Knocking” were overshadowed by Domino’s pop versions.

“Lewis never had a pop hit, but ‘I Hear you Knocking’ was covered by Domino, and ‘One Night’ [an R&B hit for Lewis written by Bartholomew] was a big pop hit for Elvis Presley. [Reissue label] Bear Family managed to easily compile a three-CD box set of Lewis material.”

Thus, opines Fuchs, Bartholomew “recorded a ton of music and a barrage of releases,” and in so doing took care of Lewis, even though bigger pop stars were more successful with his contributions.

Rockin’ John McDonald, a rock ‘n’ roll authority who has hosted the “I Like It Like That” oldies show Saturday night on Madison, Wis. listener-sponsored radio station WORT-FM since its inception in 1975, likewise cites Bear Family when assessing Bartholomew’s work.

“I can only echo what everyone else says about Bartholomew in discovering Fats Domino and writing and producing his records—and a lot of others,” says McDonald, who regularly plays Domino songs and others associated with Bartholomew, and recently devoted a full two-hour show to Domino.

“I was flipping through the liner notes to a Bear Family box set of Fats where Dave was quoted saying, ‘We recorded what I consider a whole lot of nothing, but a whole bunch of great stuff as well.’”

Enough great stuff to fill a new 12-disc Bear Family Domino set due Oct. 4.

“He and Fats co-wrote ‘The Fat Man,’ which in my humble opinion is still the first rock ‘n’ roll record,” says McDonald. “I’ll go berserk when the new box comes out!”



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