December, 24, 1918, Edgard, Louisiana
June 23, 2019, New Orleans, Louisiana
Without Dave Bartholomew’s production, songs and band, Fats Domino would’ve never guaranteed New Orleans’ spot on the eternal map of rock ’n’ roll. And with his own “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” Bartholomew created a classic snippet of social consciousness, more relevant than ever. Dave Bartholomew is only the third living artist ever deemed a “Master Of Louisiana Music” by OffBeat’s editors and writers.
Every once in a great while, the stars completely align in American musical history. Every once in a greater while, those stars are aligned by a single individual. Sam Phillips, Johnny Otis and Berry Gordy are a few of these rarified rock ‘n’ roll revolutionaries, without whose accomplishments entire genres would never have come to fruition and, hence, music would not be what it is today. Similarly, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the New Orleans musical canon without the impact of Dave Bartholomew. His devastating influence has charted the course of the city’s jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul and funk sounds for well over 50 years. His most commercially successful venture may have been with Fats Domino—for whom he wrote and produced well over a hundred sides and an endless stream of hits from 1949 to 1963—but this 14-year partnership was merely a single chapter in a career that produced an avalanche of timeless classics by virtually every talented R&B musician that crossed the threshhold of Cosimo’s Matassa’s recording studio from the late ’40s through the early ’60s.
During these years, Bartholomew penned and produced an inestimable number of records for first class R&B ringers like Smiley Lewis, Sugarboy Crawford, Bobby Mitchell, Pee Wee Crayton, Archibald, James Wayne, Roy Brown, Cousin Joe, the Hawks, Snooks Eaglin, Bobby Charles, Little Sonny Jones, Shirley and Lee, Jewel King, Billy Tate, Frankie Ford and Earl King, as well as many lesser known but equally talented artists such as Ruth Durand, Al Reed, the Bees, Blazer Boy, Boo Breeding and Earl Curry. Likewise, James Booker, Tommy Ridgley, Guitar Slim, Chris Kenner and Bobby Marchan all cut their initial sides with him before moving onto careers that would eventually place them among the Crescent City’s musical elite.
Bartholomew’s presence in the studio was all-encompassing: he often found the singers himself, and the band blasting away behind them was almost always his own. So were an arresting number of the songs, which often blended country and western chord changes with a driving backbeat, tripleting piano, rocking saxophones and deceptively simple guitar lines. Solos, generally taken by either sax or guitar, were loaded with feeling and seemed programmed to snap the listener to attention. Bartholomew had first hinted at this emerging formula, which quickly became known as “the New Orleans Sound,” on his 1949 hit “Country Boy” and he liberally built upon it until it was ingrained in the city’s very soil.
All that said, it’s safe to say that without Bartholomew’s songwriting, musicianship, A&R and production skills—and just as importantly, his relationships with strong independent record companies like DeLuxe, Aladdin, Specialty and above all Imperial Records—New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll and R&B as we know it today wouldn’t exist.
A sweeping statement indeed, until one considers a world in which there are no Fats Domino or Smiley Lewis records to define one of the most stratospheric periods in all music. No “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “One Night” or “Witchcraft” for Elvis Presley to cover—and more importantly, no original versions by Lloyd Price, Lewis and the Spiders. Likewise, no Archibald pounding the 88s on “Stack-A-Lee” so Price could turn it into “Stagger Lee;” no Earl King singing “Trick Bag” or “Come On,” so Robert Palmer and Jimi Hendrix could have hits with them and no Chris Kenner belting out “Sick and Tired” so it could become an underground phenomenon. No Sugar Boy Crawford with “Morning Star,” Snooks Eaglin with “That Certain Door” or Tommy Ridgley with “Shrewsbury Blues.” No Bobby Mitchell with “I Try So Hard,” “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday” and “Nothing Sweet As You.” No Shirley and Lee with “Feel So Good.” No opportunity for out-of-towners like Pee Wee Crayton, Johnny Fuller, Big Joe Turner and Amos Milburn to drop in at Cosimo’s, front Bartholomew’s band for a session and lay down some of the finest recordings of their careers.
Perhaps most of all, there would be none of the songs that Dave himself sang: the driving “Ain’t Gonna Do It,” the lilting “Would You,” the rocking “Four Winds,” the hilarious “Who Drank My Beer While I Was In The Rear,” the lascivious “My Ding-A-Ling,” the ominous “The Monkey.” No aural snapshots of old New Orleans like “Shrimp and Gumbo,” “Carnival Day,” and “Gert Town Blues.” No rocked-up mambo and jazz like “Oh Cubanas” or “The Saints’ Boogie.” No resigned back alley blues like “Snatchin’ Back.” And certainly no “Basin Street Breakdown,” with its cranked-up, overdriven one note guitar riff that endlessly wails throughout almost the entire song while the sharp horn arrangements swing like mad behind it. The list could, and does, go on and on.
HOMEWORK AND THE HIGHER ECHELONS
Even before he was producing records, Bartholomew was leading a crack band that has long been considered the finest in the city. Besides introducing the world to men like drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonists Herbert Hardesty, Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Clarence Hall and Joe Harris, guitarists Ernest McLean and Justin Adams, bassists Frank Fields and Chuck Badie and pianists Edward Frank and Salvador Doucette, the well-disciplined unit also served as a breeding ground for many of the city’s most legendary vocalists. In addition to R&B men like Tommy Ridgley and Little Sonny Jones, when questioned about his legendary ’60s funk productions Eddie Bo recalled that many of the featured singers—such as David Robinson of “I’m A Carpenter” fame—were brought to his attention through their work with the Bartholomew band.
First formed nearly 60 years ago, Dave still leads his group with the powerful trumpet playing and precision discipline that he learned as a sideman beginning in the early ’30s. Born just up river from New Orleans in Edgard, Louisiana on Christmas Eve, 1920, Bartholomew began perfecting his trumpet skills at an early age under the direction of music teacher Peter Davis, who had previously taught Louis Armstrong. “Peter Davis got me out of my father’s barbershop when I was about 12-years-old,” Bartholomew remembers. “I never was a second line musician because when I came up it was all big orchestras. I started with Papa Celestin when I was 14-years-old. I was instrumental with Toots Johnson over in Baton Rouge, Marshall Lawrence in Reserve and the late, great Claiborne Williams in Donaldsonville. I also worked with the great Clyde Kerr. Clyde was one of my teachers who really prepared me for the higher echelons of Joe Robichaux, Fats Pichon and so many others.
“I did my homework, especially when I got with Fats Pichon on the bandstand,” Bartholomew continues. “Fats had the best job in New Orleans, so quite naturally we were all inclined to play with him. It was on the steamer Capitol. Once you got to Fats you could play with almost anybody. He played all types of music and it changed almost every week. When you’d get to St. Paul, Minnesota, you were playing music in a 2/4 tempo, it wasn’t like it is now. Every fourth number was a waltz. It was professional. You got off at 12 o’clock and at ten o’clock the next morning you were on the bandstand, so you had to have it. That was really a learning experience within itself; learning different tempos and learning about different types of music. It was hard but I was dedicated because I had to be. I didn’t have nobody to help me, man, so I had to be somebody, what, I didn’t know! I didn’t have a father, man, he was a father on paper. Like some of these guys, ‘Father lives across town,’ that type of thing. Well, I went through that and I was on my own when I was real young. But that was instrumental in making me practice, practice, practice and learn to do it right.
“After I was with Fats for three years, he decided that he was not going back on the boat anymore; he was working at the Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. So for the time being they said, ‘Well, Dave, you lead the band.’ We had a couple of little gigs around town at the time. I did lead the band for a while, but most of the cats were from out of town so it didn’t last long, maybe nine or ten gigs. We called it the Imperial Playboys. Where’d we get the name from? Damned if I know.”
3 X 7 = 21
In the early ’40s, Bartholomew got a job playing with Jimmy Lunceford. “Jimmy Lunceford’s band was one of the greatest bands in the world at that time,” he remembers. “I wasn’t working any place at the time and Lunceford came in town, went to the Union and said he needed a trumpet player. I said ‘Not me. I know you’re not talking about me.’ Man, at that time I was so afraid of what was going on, with all the great musicians around town I said, ‘That’s too heavy for me.’ So I was talking to my music teacher, Mr. Peter Davis, who taught the late Louis Armstrong and also yours truly. And he said, ‘Dave, you’ve done your homework.’ So sure enough, I went to rehearsal—it was at the Rhythm Club on Derbigny and Jackson Avenue—and I made the band. I had to make it because I had been used to working around New Orleans for five, six, seven, eight dollars a night and that was 15!”
Dave’s newfound good fortune was interrupted by his draft notice but the Army’s 196 AGF band reaffirmed the musical discipline that he would later pass on to others. While in the service he also met lifelong friend Abraham Malone who taught him to write and arrange music. “Abe was very helpful to me,” notes Dave. “One night we were in Little Rock, Arkansas and he said, ‘Bartholomew, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m not doing anything.’ He said, ‘I wrote a chart out for you. You can play but you can’t write.’ I said, ‘That’s true, but can’t we do it later?’ He said, ‘No, we’re gonna do it now.’ He said, ‘You can always play, but you’ve got to learn something else.’ And he was right.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” says Bartholomew of the events that led up to him forming the first band of his own. The place was New Orleans premier black night club, the Dew Drop Inn.
“When I got out of the service, I had my soldier’s suit on and I went to the Dew Drop. My step-brother was with me and I think we had maybe two quarters between us, that type of thing. By being a musician, I didn’t have to pay for anything, so I’m jammin’. While I was jammin’ a guy comes in the place and says, ‘I like the way you play. I would like for you to sit and have a drink with me.’ He was a white guy at a black club. At that time they had the bands in the back, I’m guessing it was late ’46 or early ’47. I was always one that never cared too much about drinking so I said, ‘I’ll have a Coke with you.’ I sat down and I said to myself, ‘This guy’s showing off, he’s fulla shit.’ But I needed somebody to help me because I had two quarters in my pocket! His name was Sam Simoneaux.”
THE GRAYSTONES AND THE BRONZE PEACOCK
Simoneaux told Bartholomew of his plans to open a night club. “He said, ‘Bartholomew, I want you to come to my place, I’m going to call you.’ At that time I didn’t even have a phone, they’d have to call me at the grocery store, ‘Bartholomew! Telephone!’ He said, ‘I think my club’s gonna be ready soon. In the meantime, I was playin’ around town with different unorganized bands, just hustlin’. And glad to be hustlin’. I played everywhere. I remember one place I was playin’ the cook said, ‘You play so good Bartholomew, I ain’t got nothin’ to give you but I’m gonna give you a chicken!’
“So sure enough he opened a club, the Graystone, and about maybe a month or two months later he had music stands up there with my initials on them: D.B. Union scale at the time was something like eight dollars a man and 12 dollars for the leader but he said, ‘I ain’t gonna start you with nothing like that. You’re gonna get 30 dollars a night for you and 18 for your men.’ I said, ‘Lord have mercy, the man come from God! I’m rich!’ The Graystone was a beautiful place, everything was professional. A beautiful bandstand, microphones, everything. And that was my beginning. I was always in the right place at the right time. I was the youngest musician in the band but we started and we never looked back.”
It wasn’t long before Bartholomew’s first recording session took place, when De Luxe Records’ Dave Braun came down from Linden, New Jersey and corralled the band into Cosimo’s studio. The result, “She’s Got Great Big Eyes (And Great Big Thighs)” backed with “Bum Mae” didn’t hit, but Dave’s next record, 1949’s “Country Boy”—which he’d revisit over the years several times on his own as well as with versions he produced on the Spiders and Pee Wee Crayton—was a national hit, clocking in at 100,000 copies. In between the time that he waxed his initial discs, Bartholomew first crossed paths with Lew Chudd, a California businessman who’d recently begun issuing Mexican records on his recently minted Imperial label.
“The late Don Robey had a club in Houston, the Bronze Peacock,” Bartholomew recalls. “He’d come to town and he heard about me so we went to Houston. We went in there for three weeks but stayed there ’round about four or five months. They just didn’t want us to go home, the band was so new. So here comes Lou Chudd from Imperial Record Company. He sat there about three or four nights before he said anything to me but he was making notes. I was playing a lot of instrumental things I’d written in the Army and Louis Jordan was very popular so I’d started singing. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Do you think you can get somebody to put a nickel on one of your records?’ I said, ‘I’ll try.’ At that time he wanted me as an artist but when we found Fats Domino at the Hideaway Club and I became instrumental in writing and doing those things he’d have me make records and he’d put ’em in the dust pile, in the garage. He wouldn’t push me. I found that out later.”
THE MONKEY SPEAKS HIS MIND
Chudd was mistaken in his failure to promote Bartholomew—as were King and Specialty Records, who also issued sides on him during this time—because although Dave was invaluable as an all around catalyst for the many artists he produced, his own Imperial sides like “Ain’t Gonna Do It,” “Shrimp and Gumbo” and “Would You’ were superb. Nineteen-fifty-seven’s “The Monkey,” a stern observation of the evil inherent in human nature, is widely considered his masterpiece. With lyrics recited over a small band accompaniment framed by Justin Adams’ sparsely hypnotic guitar, the song’s menacing simplicity has been called everything from rockabilly to the first example of hip-hop to the blueprint for the still-to-emerge Jamaican ska style. As Bunny Matthews wrote in these pages a few years back: “The basic premise of ‘The Monkey’ is that Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection is faulty because no self-respecting monkey could possibly evolve into a creature as cruel, heartless, adulterous, murderous, and felonious as a human being. To the accompaniment of a distorted electric guitar, Bartholomew spits out his lyrics in disgust.” Matthews goes on to state that Bartholomew “Sounds like God,” an accurate description to his stunning approach:
“Now, three monkeys sat in a coconut tree, discussing things as they are said to be,
Said one to the other, now listen you two, there’s a certain rumor that can’t be true:
That man descended from our noble race, the very idea is a big disgrace.
No monkey ever deserted his wife, starved her baby and ruined her life,
Yeeeaaahhh…the monkey speaks his mind.”
The wise monk’s conclusion is equally chilling: “Yes, man descended, the worthless bum, but brothers, from us he did not come.”
Bartholomew reveals that the inspiration for the song came from a tract handed to him in an airport. “I came off a Delta Airlines plane one night, I think I was coming through Dallas, Texas, rushing to change planes. I was by myself. I might have been coming from the Imperial Record Company because I always changed planes in Dallas; they didn’t have any through flights at that time. I was signing a couple of autographs for some people and a woman was hanging around the airport. She gave me a note and said, ‘Take this.’ Then she gave me another one. When I got on the plane I looked at it and it said ‘The Monkey Speaks His Mind.’ I started reading it and said, ‘This makes an awful lot of sense.’ And it makes more sense today than it did then. Because, man, the way people are carrying on right now—the monkey says, ‘Don’t equate me with that son-of-a-bitch, I don’t have nothing to do with him.’ One of those type of things. And the other note she gave me said, ‘If you meet me and forget me, you have lost nothing, but if you forget God, you have lost everything.’”
What would the monkey say if he were to speak his mind today? “Right now he would say, ‘Yes, indeed, I really mean everything I said back then.’ Because things are all messed up right now, they really are. You leave your house now and you don’t know if you’re coming back.”
As for his arresting accomplishments with Imperial Records, Bartholomew has his favorite artists, like Smiley Lewis, and his favorite songs, like “Someday,” “One Night” and “Blue Monday.” But by and large, he’s humble about his role in putting the New Orleans sound on the map.
“I wouldn’t say it was me, we had musicians going in the right direction. People ask me, ‘Why would you use Lee Allen on this solo and Herbert (Hardesty) on the other one?’ Well, Lee was more gut-bucket and Herbert was more or less country and western—or ‘professional’—and that’s the sound I was looking for. In other words, I was selling crossover records. I wasn’t thinking about me, I was thinking about sales. I lived 3,000 miles or more from Los Angeles. If I didn’t send Lou something he could sell, he wouldn’t send me a check. But I always prided myself on having the best musicians. If I can’t have the best musicians I’d rather not play.”