Described as a pioneer, an innovator, a genius, and a slave driver in the recording studio, Dave Bartholomew died at a suburban hospital June 23, 2019. He was 100.
Forever linked to Fats Domino’s legacy, Bartholomew was indeed the man who “invented the big beat.” A producer, arranger, songwriter, performer, bandleader, business entrepreneur and family man, Bartholomew’s awards and accolades included being inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, receiving a Grammy Trustee Award in 2014, and in 2010 receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from OffBeat. In 1983, he claimed his BMI songwriting catalog contained over 4,000 songs, nearly all of which produced quarterly income.
“No Dave, no rock and roll,” said Lloyd Price, a fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee whose first hit, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” was produced by Bartholomew. “What can I tell you about Dave? He was the man who changed my world, my life, and in doing so changed the world of music forever. I was 16 when I first met him, he was in my hometown [Kenner, Louisiana] and I stole in the dance and stood by the stage. I begged him to let me sing. He wouldn’t, but the next time I saw him he did, and the world has never been the same. ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ made us all dance.”
Bartholomew was born December 24, 1918, and raised upriver in Edgard, Louisiana. His father, Louis, a barber by trade, also played tuba in several Dixieland bands. The family moved to New Orleans by the time Bartholomew was ready for high school. “When my dad had a job, they would ride around on the back of trucks and play, to advertise,” said Bartholomew. “That’s how I got interested in playing.”
With marching bands popular in New Orleans, Bartholomew chose the trumpet, and he was lucky enough to be taught by Peter Davis, the same man who taught Louis Armstrong. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Bartholomew was drafted, and joined the AFG 196 band. It was there he learned how to arrange music. After the war, he formed his own band (recruiting Earl Palmer, Red Tyler, Frank Fields, Ernest McLean and Salvador Doucette), which quickly became a top attraction in New Orleans.
Bartholomew’s first recordings appeared on the De Luxe label (located in Linden, New Jersey) and included “Country Boy,” which reached top 10 on the R&B charts.However, a chance meeting at a club in Houston with Imperial Records owner Lew Chudd from Los Angeles, who was scouting talent at the time, would change Bartholomew’s life and the direction of popular music.
“Lew was selling records to Mexicans then,” recalled Bartholomew. “He said he was interested in selling rhythm and blues records too. He liked my band and said, ‘How’d you like a job?’ So in December of ’49 we drew up the contracts.”
Not long after, Bartholomew discovered Fats Domino at the Hideaway Club on Desire Street, and signed him to an Imperial contract. They collaborated on The Fatman, which initially Bartholomew wasn’t satisfied with.
“Fats’ piano was too loud and it didn’t fit right,” said Bartholomew. “But there was nothing we could do, we were working with one track. It was a mistake, but we sent the record out anyway.”
As they say, the rest is history. The Fatman sold over a million records, an incredible amount back then for an R&B disc. Together, they had an incredibly successful run of hits over the next 15 years: “Ain’t That A Shame,” “Blue Monday,” “I’m Walkin’,” “Goin’ To the River,” “Whole Lot of Love,” “Be My Guest”—the list goes on and on. Domino and Bartholomew would account for selling over 65 million records on Imperial eventually.
In addition to working with Domino, Bartholomew also produced hits for Lloyd Price, Shirley and Lee, Smiley Lewis, Bobby Mitchell, Jewel King, Chris Kenner, Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, and the Spiders. He also produced himself, and accounted for several popular New Orleans hits including “The Monkey” and “Would You.”
By the early 1960s, the music industry radically changed, especially in New Orleans. Most of the indie labels folded, left the city, or sold out, including Imperial. Bartholomew had offers to work in New York and on the West Coast, but he preferred to remain in New Orleans. A shrewd businessman, Bartholomew invested in rental property and was able to raise a family comfortably with royalties generated by his songwriting. He often toured with Domino, which took them around the world for decades.
“With Fats, I’m following my livelihood around,” said Bartholomew. “That’s my material out there.”
However, Bartholomew and Domino’s relationship somewhat soured in the 1990s, before reconciling over a decade later. He remained a Dixieland fan and for several years you could see and hear him playing his trumpet at Preservation Hall every Sunday night.
Bartholomew is survived by his wife of over 50 years, the former Rhea Douse, eight children, and over 20 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.