History is made every moment, but often we miss significant moments because at the time the events seem to be commonplace and nothing special. Dave Bartholomew is the progenitor of New Orleans rhythm and blues as a national force. For too long, Dave Bartholomew’s phenomenal and seminal contributions to New Orleans music have been ignored and overlooked.
Most discussions of New Orleans R&B producers focus on Allen Toussaint, who is a full generation younger than Dave Bartholomew. Although Toussaint’s accomplishments are impressive and important, historical accuracy requires us to acknowledge that producer/composer Dave Bartholomew is the true sire of New Orleans R&B.
Use whatever criterion you choose—whether it’s hit records produced, written, or arranged—there’s no one even close to Dave Bartholomew’s awesome accomplishments. His active BMI catalog of compositions runs to 415 songs. For Imperial Records alone, Dave Bartholomew productions have sold over 190 million records. I know the numbers look like exaggerations or typos, but it’s true. Dave Bartholomew is a monster producer.
In his own words, check out the Dave Bartholomew story.
When were you born and when did you start playing music?
I was born on December 24, 1920 and I started playing when I was around 10 years old. I was born in Edgard, Louisiana, but my parents brought me to New Orleans as a child. I don’t remember Edgard, all I know is I woke up one morning and I was in New Orleans. My father had a barber shop on Thalia and Galvez. That’s where the Calliope Project is now.
My music teacher used to hang out in my father’s barbershop. He said, “Louis,” (my father’s name was Louis) “One day I’m going to take that child and make him something.” That was the great Mr. Peter Davis, the same man who had taught Louis Armstrong. So, I went to him for music. I thought he was the meanest man in the world because if you missed a note, he’d slap your face.
The main thing he put emphasis on was that you must learn to read music. In those days you had to read if you wanted to get into bands like Joe Robicheaux or Papa Celestin. All these guys had big bands. Up the river in Donaldsonville you had the great Claiborne Williams band. I played in all those bands. I played first trumpet and “get-off” [solos].
Eventually, in 1939 or ’40 I graduated to the Fats Pichon band, which was a lesson in itself. Although I was still a young kid, by then I had worked with Papa Celestin, I had worked with Joe Robicheaux up at the Rhythm Club, which was at Derbigny and Jackson Avenue. It was a very fine club, it would have been considered modern by today’s standards. After that I played all over touring with these bands and then I migrated to Claiborne Williams’ band and I lived like a king.
The Claiborne Williams band was considered a society band. They played for nothing but whites. We were all around Baton Rouge, New Iberia, Lafayette, Opelousas, Lake Charles and into Texas. The band was very popular and I was making nice money with them, especially considering the times. But then Fats Pichon needed someone to play trumpet and he called me. My good friend Bill Casimere told me that I should do it because Fats Pichon had the Steamboat Capitol. The Capitol was the boat before the President.
Came out of St. Louis with the Streckfus Brothers, who owned all the boats. So I said, yeah, fine. Mr. Claiborne was sorry to see me leave, but I had heard about New York, Chicago and so on and I wanted to see some of the big cities. So they had an audition, but I said I wasn’t worried about that because I know I can make it. I made it in the band and I was living good. I said no more grits and grease for breakfast! We stayed on that boat for four years.
Why was working with Fats Pichon a lesson?
Because on the boat you played all types of music. You played 2/4, 6/8, you played waltzes, you played all types, especially when you got to Minnesota you played things in 2/4. During those times you had to play that because that’s what people came on the boat to hear. Every set you had different types of music: jazz, swing, waltzes…you name it. Fats Pichon was really a teacher but you had to have it to play in his band. We had rehearsal every morning and if you couldn’t read you’d be in bad shape and they would ship you home. At the end of my fourth year, Fats Pichon said he was going to retire from the boat. He was going to stay in New Orleans. He turned the band over to me but we didn’t do too much with the band.
Why did he turn the band over to you when you had only been there four years and I’m sure there were others who had been in the band much longer?
He turned it over to me because he said I’d always had that leadership. When I got in the band I would tell the fellas different things about how to play and so forth. I didn’t know if it was sinking in. In the meantime Jimmy Lunceford was coming to town. At that time, Lunceford’s was considered the greatest band in the world. It was in 1942, and I had just gotten married. I had heard that Lunceford needed a trumpet player. I thought I was pretty good, but not enough to make it in that band. Lunceford was paying $15 a night. At that time my mother was working for $7 a week. I knew all the trumpets had to make all those altissimo notes. You had to play both up and down, so I went to a rehearsal, made the band and stayed with it for two or three months, went to Texas with the band and got drafted and that was the end of that. Ended up in the army. But you know, that $105 a week made me feel like I was rich.
Did you play in the army band?
I played first trumpet in the 196th Army Band. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. They called me “Iron” because I was so powerful and I would never get tired. When I came out of the army I started playing at the Dew Drop Inn with Buddy Charles [the father of Irving Charles, who plays bass with Fats Domino]. So a man walks in and says, “I’m building a club called the Greystone and I would like to have a band.” I said, “I’m playing with Mr. Charles.” He said, “No, I want you.” I told him I don’t have a band. He said, “No Bartholomew, I got to have you. I don’t want nobody else.” “You get your own band!” This came out of the clear blue sky. So, I went to Mr. Hall, whom I had played with in the Papa Celestin band. He was an elegant man and I always respected him, musically and every other way. He said, “Look, if you want a band, first you’ve got to make your rules and obey them yourself.” I said yes. So that’s how I started my first band. That was somewhere near the end of ’47 or the first of ’48. And once we got started, we never looked back.
At that time, I was playing a growling trumpet.
If I could make a million notes—that was my thing. In those days everything was segregated and the blacks went to Booker Washington Auditorium. I was playing in front of Duke Ellington. Cootie Williams was playing his plunger. Man, women were throwing their pocketbooks, and the crowd was going wild. I was sitting in the audience and I said, oh yeah. So I picked up the plunger. I went to Cootie Williams and asked how you do it—you don’t just pick it up and start in. Mr. Williams showed me and was very nice to me. So the next time on the next show, I came out with my plunger. The people went wild and started following me everywhere. That’s when I said: this is for me! That’s how I started playing the plunger.
How did you get started as a composer?
Well, we were playing in Houston and I had written down all these different little riffs; some of them were rhythm and blues, some were bouncy-type things and we were drawing people from everywhere. So one time Lew [Chudd, founder] from Imperial Records walks in and says, what are those things you’re playing? I said, those are just some original little ditties I had put together. So Lew said, I never did hear things like that before. I really like that. I think I want you to work for me. I thought he was just talking, but sure enough three weeks later, in early December 1949, he comes to town.
The first guy we went to see was Antoine “Fats” Domino who was playing down on the highway. He was killing them. I didn’t know Fats before that, but I went in and introduced myself. Lew was with me. The rest is history. We brought Fats in the studio and recorded “The Fat Man”—million seller. During the same night, I recorded a young lady named Jewel King. She did a thing called “Three Times Seven” and that was a million seller too. After that, we never looked back with Fats, but Jewel King’s husband was Jack Scott; he was a musician and said I was making too much money. I was accused of getting extra royalty checks. When you’re successful, somebody will always say yeah, he stole the song, or he did this or that. I had too much talent to steal anything and I had too much respect to try and steal anything from anybody.
All I did was listen to people. If I like what they had, I would record them and tell them their record would be out in six weeks. Lew respected everything I said. In six weeks the record would be out. If I said I would service 4,000 jockeys, I serviced 4,000 jockeys. And everything I’d tell my artists I’d put in a contract and send off to California. They got paid and I got paid.
You were the first to consistently put New Orleans music on the charts, as far as rhythm and blues goes. At the time, did you know you were starting something?
No, in fact let me tell you how I came up with my trademark sound [sings a riff]. That really comes from a rumba. I always believed in trying different things. Cosimo Matassa said I was crazy. We’d get in the studio and I would get a piece of pasteboard and I would tape up the drumhead. Well, I didn’t think I was getting a sharp enough sound so I turned the drum over and let the drummer play on the same side with the snare. If I didn’t like the sound of the tenor player, I might put him off in the corner so I could get a different sound.
Keep in mind, we didn’t have a board to work with like we have now. I would just keep trying different things until I got the sound I wanted. If I didn’t like the beat I would tell Earl Palmer, look, just try a different type of beat. He would say, “Look, what do you want?” I’d say, “I don’t know what I want. I want to hear something different.” So we were recording “Country Boy,” and I said we’re going to play it as a shuffle but I don’t want the bass to play the bass line, I want the reeds to play that. The guys said, “Now we know you’ve lost your mind.” I told Frank Fields, the bass player who plays at Preservation Hall now, “I want you to play a walking four while the reeds play the bass line,” and I said, “Earl, I want you to play a shuffle, but not on the cymbal. I want to feel like you’re riding a horse.”
And then I was the first one in the studio to use two guitars. I said I want one on the beat and one off the beat. When I brought two guitars in the studio the fellas said, “We’ve got a guitar player already.” I said, “I know, but I want two.” But after that, everybody all over the world started using two guitars. Quincy Jones, for instance, came down here and recorded a lot of beats and things and took it back to California. The whole world took it from us.
Another thing, did you know that Fats Domino’s music is almost Dixieland? It just doesn’t have the trombones. Nobody else really understood what I was doing, but I knew what I was doing. I was taking the music off the streets and putting it behind Fats Domino. I had figured out how to use New Orleans music.
That’s arranging, but how did you write all those songs?
I really don’t know. Fats and I did a lot of collaborating together. He would come up with some things and I would come up with some things and we’d finish them together. For instance, “Blueberry Hill” was an old song recorded by the late Louis Armstrong, at least ten years before we even thought about it. Fats said he wanted to record “Blueberry Hill”. His brother-in-law, who was our bus driver and was also a guitar player, knew the song. He sang it to Fats.
Everyone was young and we had just gotten to Hollywood, which is where we cut the song. One of the saxophone players said he didn’t like the introduction and was trying to tell Fats it was wrong (it was a variation on a second line theme). I said, “I don’t see anything wrong with it, we’ll keep it.” When we got to the middle of the song I said, “I don’t like what Fats is playing there, it sounds so empty.”
So I scribbled down a riff. I was just covering up an empty spot. But now, everybody who plays “Blueberry Hill” has to have that part in the middle. If it doesn’t come up in the middle, then it’s not “Blueberry Hill.” I didn’t know I was creating something. The original record actually stops in the middle. Fats forgot the words, but the engineer spliced it together after Fats picked up from where he left off.
Afterwards, Lew was waiting for me and invited me to dinner. He said, “Whatcha got?” I said, “Nothing.” He and I both were sad. After dinner, I went on back to the hotel and then we came on back home. He called me three weeks later. He said, what are we going to put out? I said, I don’t know. He said, well, I think I’m going to put out “Blueberry Hill.” I said, “Man, you’re crazy. That’s a nothing song.” Two weeks later, Lew called me and said, “From now on, you keep making those nothing songs.” We had just shipped three million. That was unheard of during that time period. He said, “Go downtown and pick out any kind of car you want for your bonus.” I went out and got the biggest Eldorado Cadillac I could find.
I’ve heard from Little Richard and a bunch of the other guys that they never got paid. Well, Fats and I got paid. Even though we didn’t get paid what we should’ve got paid. I think Lew was a little more fair than the rest of the guys. But anyway, I worked and produced a lot of New Orleans artists. Shirley and Lee, Lloyd Price, I can’t even name them all now.
What’s your favorite song?
“Blue Monday,” because it tells a story. We were in Kansas City that Monday, and it looked like nobody was going to work. Kansas City was a swinging place—all the clubs were open in the middle of the day. This is somewhere back around 1952. I couldn’t believe it, so we were coming home. I just came up with the song. “Oh how I hate blue Monday, got to work like a slave”—actually, the song is just the opposite of what I’d just seen.
So, in essence, you would write about what you saw and you would rearrange New Orleans music?
That’s right. You see, as a producer, I was on a fixed salary. No matter how much the record sold, I just got a weekly check. But as a songwriter, I would get royalties. So I was always trying to write something.
I was in Hollywood in 1968, after Lew had sold Imperial Records, and he told me you have no idea how many million records you’ve sold. He said, “Altogether, you’ve sold 119 million records. You’ve got the greatest track record of all.” Fats and I were in the Guiness Book as being the greatest sellers before the Beatles. We also had a large number of non-New Orleans artists record our music—Pat Boone even jumped on our train. Also Gail Storm, Dorothy Collins, Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley—he recorded two of my songs.
All I can say is that I’ve had a real good life and I’ve been very fortunate. I have to credit the people of New Orleans and the musicians, the old-timers and everyone, because that’s where I got it from. I actually took the ideas of the old-timers and put it together behind Fats and a few other people. That’s how I made my music.