Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Award: Dave Bartholomew

Dave Bartholomew: Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Award

Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Saturday, November 13, 2010 may have been the greatest night of Dave Bartholomew’s life.

And that’s saying something.

He has lived over 90 years (Ancestry.com records suggest that he may have, in fact, reached 91 on December 20), and he has played the grand musical spectrum of American popular music—from early jazz (which his father Louis help pioneer in the bands of Kid Ory and others in the 1920s, and which Bartholomew has occasionally played at Preservation Hall), through swing (probably his personal favorite music), and on to bebop, pop, jump blues, rhythm & blues, and rock ’n’ roll; additionally, his sons have recorded modern R&B and hip-hop.

Bartholomew has seen many great nights. Though he has never come close to the fame of his most legendary protégé Fats Domino, he has enjoyed an incredible array of career highlights, which he has always reveled in, basking in the attention rightfully given a master entertainer.

As the story often goes of great men, Bartholomew had very humble roots. The fact that he came from a broken family seemed to have been the supreme motivation in his life, as his father played music and cut hair in a barber shop virtually oblivious to his son and daughters, whom Dave’s mother Marie struggled to support as a domestic and seamstress. Bartholomew’s strong sense of self—his big ego, as it were—and his quest for musical perfection was not only a valuable survival mechanism but also apparently part of his drive for the kind of attention that his father had denied him.

By his teens, Bartholomew played trumpet with many of the major bandleaders in New Orleans—Papa Celestin, Joe Robichaux, Claiborne Williams and Fats Pichon. Just before he was drafted in 1942, he even joined the band of one of his idols, Jimmy Lunceford.

Bartholomew returned home in 1945 and became a first-rate bandleader with an incredible eye for talent, hiring the likes of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Earl Palmer, immaculate guitarist Ernest McLean, rock steady bassist Frank Fields, and legendary saxophonists Lee Allen, Herbert Hardesty and Alvin “Red” Tyler. Paul Gayten and Roy Brown were the best known rhythm & blues musicians from New Orleans in the late 1940s, but after Dave recorded Fats Domino for Imperial Records at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio and began their incredible string of hits together in 1950, Bartholomew became the preeminent musical force in the city. Ever since then, for the larger part of a century, Dave Bartholomew has defined the role of a great bandleader, songwriter and producer in New Orleans.

And that’s saying something.

Anyone who has only heard his hits with Domino should run out to buy Bartholomew’s many other classics—the incredibly underrated Smiley Lewis recordings, which arguably equal or even surpass many of Fats’ recordings during the same time period; the historic early Lloyd Price and Shirley & Lee hits; the Spiders’ earthy take on the vocal group sound; Bartholomew’s blues classics with Lewis, Joe Turner, Smilin’ (Cousin) Joe, Tommy Ridgley, Pee Wee Crayton and T-Bone Walker; his novel rock ’n’ roll experimentations with Sugar Boy Crawford, Huey Smith and Roy Brown; his gritty “teen” records with Bobby Charles and Frankie Ford; and his groundbreaking proto-funk recordings with Chris Kenner, Earl King and Snooks Eaglin. Bartholomew produced several masterpieces of his own—“Country Boy,” “Shrimp and Gumbo,” “Carnival Day,” “My Ding-a-Ling,” “Who Drank My Beer (While I Was in the Rear),” “That’s How You Got Killed Before,” “Would You,” and, of course, the mind-bending funk of “The Monkey (Speaks His Mind).”

Bartholomew always recognized the talent in young musicians. Domino was a teenager when he began sitting in Dave’s band, as was pianist Salvador Doucette, not to mention Shirley & Lee, Lloyd Price and James Booker. Bartholomew even introduced his eventual successor, Allen Toussaint, to the studio in 1957 as a young session pianist on some of Domino’s recordings.

Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino

But it is with Antoine “Fats” Domino that Dave Bartholomew will always be linked. Together they changed the course of popular music, adding heavy rhythms never heard before in the hit parade and redefining “pop” hits, starting with “The Fat Man,” recorded in late 1949, and hitting like a comet with “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955 and thereafter with musical bombshells like “I’m in Love Again,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Blue Monday,” “I’m Walkin’,” “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” “I Want to Walk You Home,” “I’m Ready,” “Be My Guest,” “Walking to New Orleans” and “Let the Four Winds Blow.” As Bartholomew has often pointed out, he and Fats almost never wrote songs together. In fact, Fats often came up with the rough ideas for hit songs, but Dave always finished them, as he was the one who notated them musically, arranged them and produced them.

With all of the emphasis on Bartholomew’s great recordings, it is often forgotten that he continued to lead one of the top bands in New Orleans for decades, slacking off on regular local performances only as he joined Domino’s band as bandleader periodically in the 1970s and 1980s.

“We had a lot of fun,” Bartholomew says of the time. “We were young, and we were real popular, and everything was real fine. All over the world. We were appreciated everywhere we’ve gone, and especially in Europe. But we got a standing ovation all over the United States, too.”

Always the great bandleader, Bartholomew emphasized that practice makes perfect with the literally hundreds of musicians he has tutored over the decades.

After his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the accolades began rolling in, with recognition from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Two years ago, Allen Toussaint paid tribute to his mentor by financing a magnificent tribute to Bartholomew at the Roosevelt Hotel with the likes of Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, Leroy Jones, Clarence Henry, James Andrews, Al Johnson, John Boutte, Walter Washington, Deacon John and Jean Knight.

Two months ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland presented a gala tribute to Dave and Domino, in the 15th annual Music Masters tribute—the first time that the series has paid tribute to two musicians at the same time.

The line-up that night was as impressive as any New Orleans-based concert, with emcee Wendell Pierce from Treme (the HBO show on which Bartholomew made his nonagenarian acting debut) and NAACP chairman Julian Bond giving spoken testimony. Lloyd Price, the Dixie Cups, Irma Thomas, Robert Parker, the Rebirth Brass Band, Theresa Anderson, Jon Cleary, Toots and the Maytals and the “house band” Dr. John & the Lower 9-11 (featuring Ernest McLean, who joined Bartholomew’s band in 1947) performed versions of his songs, primarily Fats Domino hits of course. Bartholomew himself got into the act with his trumpet (along with another of his legendary musicians, saxophonist Herbert Hardesty) performing immaculate versions of the blues “How Could You Do That,” the funky rocker “The Monkey,” and the swing era ballad “Tenderly.”

Appropriately, Bartholomew’s best friend, Cosimo Matassa, who has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was in the audience. He was also at the conference, which included fellow octogenarians Herbert Hardesty, Ernest McLean and Imperial Records promotion man Eddie Ray. Even 94-year-old Billy Diamond, the bandleader/bass player/road manager who gave Antoine Domino his nickname “Fats” 62 years ago, was there. The young pups on the podium were septuagenarians Lloyd Price and drummer Bob French.

Noticeably absent, however, was the Fat Man, and thus the spotlight fell largely on Bartholomew. Raising his trumpet into the spotlight, he was in his glory.

“Fats and I recorded a long, long time ago,” said a remarkably subdued Bartholomew. “And we’re lucky to still be living today to hear this [concert]. And he will enjoy when he sees the film on it. And we’re both gonna enjoy it together. And we’re gonna pop some wine together.”