Dave Bartholomew celebrates his 100th birthday on Christmas Eve, just as New Orleans fetes its own 300th anniversary, a synchronicity that underscores Bartholomew’s indelible imprint on the music and culture of the Crescent City and the world beyond. Over a career that tracks the history of New Orleans music, Bartholomew studied trumpet with Peter Davis, the same teacher who taught his idol Louis Armstrong many years before; played traditional jazz on riverboats with the Walter “Fats” Pichon band; joined the swing era Jimmy Lunceford big band in 1942 until he was drafted; was featured as “America’s Hottest Trumpet Player” at the Dew Drop Inn after leaving the army in 1945; led the city’s hottest band in 1948–49; and became the architect of the “New Orleans Sound” engineered by Cosimo Matassa at his racially integrated J&M studio on Rampart and Dumaine.
Bartholomew made history when he brought his band into J&M on December 10, 1949 to record the first single for Imperial Records by Antoine “Fats” Domino, “The Fat Man.” Bartholomew was Imperial’s talent scout in New Orleans, and label owner Lew Chudd gave him free reign to record anyone he liked. Along with Domino, whose career he guided through all its biggest successes, Bartholomew made records for Imperial at J&M with Tommy Ridgley, Joe Turner, Jewel King, Shirley & Lee, T-Bone Walker, Smiley Lewis, Little (James) Booker, Pee Wee Crayton, the Hawks, Bobby Mitchell and the Toppers, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Roy Brown, Chris Kenner, Earl King, and Ford “Lil Snooks” Eaglin. Other sessions featured Bartholomew’s band but are not credited to him because he was under contract to Chudd.
Bartholomew was more than just a player, singer, bandleader and songwriter. He was a composer and arranger who understood how to craft a song to fit the artist and get the best out of all the players in his band. He could write out the sheet music but many of the people he worked with didn’t want to read charts so Bartholomew had to compose head arrangements, explaining and sometimes singing the parts to them. In Rick Coleman’s excellent biography of Fats Domino, Matassa calls Bartholomew “a stern taskmaster” who challenged his band members to play fresh and unique parts.
At his home in New Orleans, the now-retired Bartholomew looks back on his accomplishments with fondness as the royalties keep rolling in. Bartholomew has been in semi-retirement for nearly 30 years, following the release of his classic album New Orleans Big Beat. I first met Dave the year that album was released, 1988, when he came to New York with his son Don B. for his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Dave cut an impressive figure, loquacious and genial, self-reflective and inclined to gloss over unhappy memories. He completely dismissed well-documented difficulties with Imperial Records chief Lew Chudd and Fats Domino. The one point of anger surfaced when he mentioned the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s ignorant induction as a “non-performing” member. We had a long chat in the hotel coffee shop, but I was only able to use a couple of quotes for the news story I was writing for United Press International. Here are some of the other things Bartholomew had to say that day.
“I started on the boat with Fats Pichon. I played in St. Louis; St. Paul, Minnesota. We came home, working for 25 dollars a week. But this was in 1939, ’40. It was a good living. Playing with Fats Pichon was an education within itself because he stressed leadership. He stressed musicianship. So when Fats quit the band to go on his own, he turned the band over to me. I said ‘I don’t know if I can lead no band.’ He said ‘You got the leadership.’
I went into the service. We’d go to different camps, play for the troops in Little Rock, Arkansas; Louisville, Kentucky. I survived because I was playing music. I used to sleep with my horn. I was based in Georgia. Buffalo Brigade. There was a guy, Abraham Malone, he was in the 196 AFG band with me. He said, ‘You’re a hell of a trumpet player. I’m gonna teach you how to write music.’
When I got out of the service I was working in the Dew Drop club, you heard about that. Then come this guy, Sam Cimino, he come in and says ‘I want you to lead a band at my new club.’ I told him I was working for Mr. Charles [Buddy Charles was the Dew Drop bandleader]. He said ‘No! I want you to lead your own band.’ I was making 8 dollars a night at the Dew Drop. Lee Allen was in the band. So Lee and I got talking. This was 1946. So we rehearsed. We were playing traditional New Orleans stuff and also swing. So we went over to the new club and we never looked back.
I did so many songs with so many people, all in New Orleans, that I can’t remember them all. It was a wonderful time. Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, T-Bone Walker, I was running the whole thing. I didn’t have to get an okay from anyone else. I sold millions and millions and millions of records. I wasn’t getting millions, I was getting thousands because I didn’t own any of the publishing back then. I wrote the songs, but I was working for Lew Chudd then. You’ve got to keep in mind when we first started I didn’t know anything about publishing. I was just looking for a job so I could take care of my family. Down in Louisiana we would make a record so it would get played and we could expose ourselves and make money and people would know us. I was a talent scout for the whole country. I could have recorded anywhere I wanted but I recorded in New Orleans. I made a few records on my own that made a little bit of noise—‘Country Boy,’ ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ and a few little things like that. ‘My Ding-a-Ling,’ I actually wrote that in the ’40s but nothing came of it so I threw it in the trash can. Then along came Chuck Berry in 1972 and he recorded the thing in London. Somebody called me and said ‘You got the number one tune in London.’ I said ‘What is it?’ ‘My Ding-a-Ling.’ You got to be kidding. The last time I saw it was in the trash can. But all in all I did all right. My band was very popular. It was a household name for many, many years. I had a radio show on WJMR comin’ out of Cosimo Matassa’s record store on Rampart Street. It was a tremendous success. Everyone wanted to come in and play with Dave Bartholomew. We had tunes, we were knockin’ them out.”
Tell me how you met Chudd.
“I was working for Don Robey in Houston in 1949. $175 a week, which was good money. My band got 125 dollars and a place to stay and meals. My band would open up with my theme song, then we would play whatever was in the Top Ten because the people were familiar with that. In walks Lew Chudd and he said ‘I like what you’re doing.’ So Lew heard that. He came to see me in New Orleans. We found Fats Domino. We never looked back with Fats. We recorded at Cosimo’s because that was the only New Orleans studio you could record in. That was it or nothing at all. Cosimo moved to another place a couple of years later but the sound that he got in the little back room, that was the sound—that was the original.
Cosimo never had a [mixing] board. It was just work and work and work. Sometimes I would go into the studio at 10 o’clock in the morning, then 2 o’clock the next morning we’re still there. My rhythm section was my foundation. If I didn’t have that foundation none of it would stand.
But Cosimo never had a board. My son Don in our studio now he got a 64-track board. So I did the work. The guy who put his name on my check was Lew Chudd. If I didn’t produce hits, I knew I would be fired. I would put it together and sometimes Cosimo would get into it. He would place the microphones, he would place the rhythm section. My rhythm section, he called it the foundation. I wasn’t successful 100 percent of the time but I was successful 90 percent of the time. I don’t like no bullshit. They used to call me the Gestapo on the bandstand. It was all business in the studio. You know how musicians get to hemmin’ and hawin’. I said there would be no jamming on my sessions. I want you to concentrate on the music. If one thing went wrong we had to do it again. I get tired thinking about it sittin’ here right now. Sometimes we would do a song 25, 30 times, 40 times. Sometimes I would get the sweats because I was working so hard. There wasn’t nobody else who would do it but me. One thing they knew about me, they could depend on me.”
Did other labels ask you to cut records for them?
“They sure did. Atlantic approached me. King Records offered me a lot of money to leave Lew. But I’d been with Lew and even though we had our differences I knew where I stood. Lew was better than the average guy. Lew was set in his ways but if he said he’d do something he would do it. A lot of those other guys weren’t like that.”
What about the Little Richard sessions?
“My band cut those. I had an exclusive with Lew so I couldn’t do it. That’s my band on there—Frank Fields, Herbert Hardesty, that’s my band. Bumps Blackwell brought him in, Earl Palmer was on drums, that was my band.
A lot of my stuff got covered. I wrote the whole catalog for the late Smiley Lewis. He was a friend of my father. He was a little older than me. I wrote ‘I Hear You Knocking’ for him. Gale Storm covered that and was very successful. Elvis Presley recorded another Smiley Lewis song. He called it ‘One Night With You.’ I called it ‘One Night of Sin.’ I was in Mobile, Alabama where I met some schoolteachers. One of them said ‘I’ve always been true to my husband.’ So I thought what would it be like to have one night of sin? That stayed with me so I wrote that.
‘Blue Monday.’ Comin’ out of Kansas City. We didn’t get paid. Lawd I was crying. So we played on a Saturday night and we took the door. Then on Monday night we were chillin’ on Vine Street and it was jumping. So I said I got an idea for a song. People are having a good time on a Monday evening. They wasn’t caring about nothin’. So what happened, when I got back in my automobile I wrote ‘Blue Monday.’ Cut it with Smiley Lewis. Did 700,000. A few years later I cut it with Fats Domino. It’s still sellin’.
Cosimo was instrumental in doing some things for Warner Brothers. They wanted something for the movie The Big Beat. They called me on the telephone. I was working in Jackson, Mississippi at a country club and I had a tape recorder in the car. My driver was the disc jockey Dr. Jazz. I wanted to do something jazzy based on the blues. I realized we was dealing with the whites so I had to have something with a sweet beat and a boogie background (he sings the theme) then I would just carry it out like I was doing a blues thing. We slid in on that.
‘Blueberry Hill.’ It took us from about two in the morning to seven that night to make that one cut. I had to put a new bridge in. If I had actually known the right changes I wouldn’t have put that in. I sent it in and said I’m not too sure about it. They had to splice two versions, you can hear it if you listen close. They put it out and it sells like three million in two days. 30 years later and it’s still selling.”
You are one of the inventors of rock ’n’ roll.
“Rock ’n’ roll, R&B, it’s only a name. We started rock ’n’ roll. They just changed the name. Alan Freed was the one who changed the name. We played his shows. From 10 in the morning to midnight every day. Kids would come from all over the world. And Fats was the headliner for everything. We played for Dick Clark in Philadelphia. Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, all of those shows. Put all that together and it’s a really good life.
The thing that bothers me is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When they finally inducted me they inducted me as a non-performer!
I can laugh about it all because I’ve had a good life. I did what I did and I didn’t throw away everything I got. I’ve got my sons, they making all kinds of music comin’ out of New Orleans. I don’t like that rap music but when I started they didn’t like what I was doing either.
When I left Fats about 12 years ago I just didn’t want to get involved in that road stuff no more. When you’re 25, 30 years old that’s fine. I don’t wanna go through that shit no more.
The world has changed since I started making records in 1949. You get a big band, you got a good singer up front, you can do your own thing. But let’s do it the way we’re supposed to do it. Give me some accents! Anybody can play it off the paper. Give me those accents.
I’ve done everything. I have a track record a mile long. I’ve worked for 40 years to get here. Some guys do it in one year. Then what? You get Quincy Jones to come in and do your shit for you.
I didn’t need nobody. I did it myself. But I helped everybody. Nobody come out of New Orleans the last 30 years that I didn’t help. I brought Allen Toussaint in. It was never released but we cut him. And Fats Domino. He was one of the greatest artists of all time.
I did every god damn thing! I wrote the music. I played the music. I put the band together. I recorded the music. I mastered it. It took me 40 years to get here. Who knows where I’ll be when I’m 100? It might take me another 100 years to do it again.”