The modest, wood-frame house at 1616 N. Galvez St. looks pretty much like all its neighbors, but the front door leads to a dynastic kingdom inside. Walk through the sparsely furnished living room and you come to the office of Bang-N-Records and the Bartholomew Boyz, where the sons and grandsons of New Orleans music pioneer Dave Bartholomew are still making records. The walls are lined with visual representations of the past 60 years of New Orleans music, from ’50s and ’60s album covers of Dave Bartholomew productions to large-scale posters of hip-hop artists produced by Dave’s son Don, better known as Don B.
On this particular weekday night, Don B. is hunkered down at the back of the house in the production studio. Looking unruffled in his dark aviator sunglasses, Don B. sits at his computer keyboard, wearing headphones and oblivious to the party swirling around him as he concentrates on his work.
The room is filled with people laughing, smoking and generally keeping spirits lively, including Don B.’s sons Don Bartholomew, Jr. (Supa Dezzy), Blake Bartholomew (TrakkaBeats) and Chris McGee (Sup Crew Y.C.), and Bang-N-Records rapper Altonio (Ace B.) Jackson, but Don B. is all business, his hands flying across the keyboard as he lays down beats for the track he was concentrating on. You couldn’t hear what he was playing, only the flat percussive sound of his fingers triggering the rhythms he was crafting.
Eventually, Don B. pulled off the headphones and joined the party with a laugh.
“Now it’s perfect,” he says with satisfaction, like a point guard nailing a three-pointer and casually turning back up court.
Don B. was reflecting on lessons about perfection that are part of his upbringing. After all, those lessons came from the master, his father Dave Bartholomew.
Of all the patriarchs of all the musical families that make up the fabric of New Orleans’ unique culture, Dave Bartholomew may well have amassed the most impressive legacy. His catalog of achievements is nothing short of staggering, a recorded treasure trove that is a true cornerstone of American music, from the extraordinary output of figures like Bobby Mitchell and Smiley Lewis through the ingenious creation of such memorable singles as “The Monkey” and the Lloyd Price smash “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” to the jaw-dropping list of hits crafted for Fats Domino. Bartholomew’s own unit, a supercharged Cadillac of big-band R&B, was a Jazz Fest institution right up until Katrina scattered its elements to the winds.
Dave Bartholomew was a shrewd businessman and a taskmaster in the studio as well as on stage, but he was also a visionary who encouraged his son Don to pursue his own way in music without following in his footsteps. When I first met Dave in the ’80s as a reporter for United Press International, he immediately introduced me to his young son, proudly proclaiming that Don was a hip-hop producer.
Now Don B. has returned the favor as he prepares a release of his father’s music, The Lost Files, finishing up recently discovered demo tapes of sessions that were thought to be destroyed in Katrina. Don B. has assembled a group of contemporary New Orleans artists to complete these sessions, including Cyril Neville, Glen David Andrews, Wanda Rouzan, John Boutte, Deacon John, James Andrews, Delfeayo Marsalis, Charles Moore, Darren Thomas, Warner Williams and Donald Ramsey. At the same time, Don has encouraged his own sons to continue the tradition by working with the family’s production company, the Bartholomew Boyz. Dave Bartholomew’s grandsons are continuing the tradition, creating beats, making mix tapes and shooting videos of a variety of 21st-century urban music.
“My next project is what I’m calling The Dave Bartholomew Lost Files,” says Don B. “It’s 12 songs that my dad did as demos and never released. So I’ve got these demos with James Black, Bunchy Johnson, Wardell Quezergue, Chuck Carbo, Edwin Frank, Irvin Charles and Warren Bell. They were songs intended for a Fats Domino project that never got off the ground, new songs that have never been released written by my dad. I wanted the right people to sing the songs. Like Deacon John sings a song called ‘Backstreet Woman’ about a woman he’s seeing on the side, his ‘Backstreet Woman’—she’s kind of a stalker, knockin’ on his door.
“I’m keeping the basics of what Dave laid down, but definitely updating it to 2014 style. Instead of programming it, I used all real instruments, a real horn section, bass, guitars. The only thing I programmed is drums, but the way I program it sounds like live drums. No one could tell the difference.
“I use drum programs because it takes so much time to get the right drum sound for the part and, to be honest, the drummer that I would want to use is Bunchy or Smokey Johnson and I can’t use either one of them, so it’s left to me to program it to sound like Smokey.
It’s a lot of work, but if I program it I can be sure I’ve got the tempos right, the transitions right and it’s always in the pocket. And I want it to sound new, not retro, so that people today can appreciate it.
People who like old-school will relate to it because it has the lyric and rhythmic quality of custom R&B, but contemporary listeners will like it because it has a fresh sound.
“I was riding with my dad yesterday and playing some of the demos for him in the car. He said, ‘We really had our stuff together back then.’”
The 2005 flood following Katrina was a disaster for the Bartholomew family, which lost its homes, its studio and countless personal and professional possessions in the inundation. Like many members of his generation, Dave Bartholomew’s career was effectively ended by the turmoil produced by the flood and subsequent dislocation. Don B. had been a successful hip-hop producer before the flood, making cutting-edge New Orleans bounce records with Master P, Lil Wayne, Mystikal, Mia X, Souljah Slim, Curren$y, Birdman, Magnolia Shorty, Mannie Fresh and Cheeky Blakk; his business was also wiped out. But he and his brother Ronald, who runs the legal end of the family business, were determined to rebuild the Bartholomew brand.
“People don’t really know what it is to be displaced,” says Don B. “I don’t know how many trips I made back and forth between Dallas and Houston to New Orleans. There was nobody in the city. Before Katrina, I was making like $1,500 a week, but after I was doing nothing. Before, the studio was always full, making rap, R&B and gospel records. I had so much work I had to hire an engineer to help me out. When I first came back, I was making money in Memphis, Houston and Dallas, but not New Orleans. I’d be producing New Orleans artists, but in other cities, and the studio was damaged; it had mold and needed to be renovated. So I was really doing mobile work at that point, going from place to place and my son Don would travel with me.”
Katrina did have a silver lining for the Bartholomew family. Don B. had been trying in vain to get his sons involved in making music, but they were never interested until they were forced to move from New Orleans.
“It was my senior year in high school,” says Don, Jr., “so I ended up in a new school where I didn’t know nobody. They told me I had no credits and wanted me to go back to 9th grade. They made me re-do high school. I just wanted to go back home. That’s when I started taking the music seriously, when [Don B.] came home from one of these trips with a keyboard.
“That was a real difficult year for him,” says Don B., “but somehow it got him focused on music. I had been trying to get him and his brother interested in music before Katrina, but they wanted to do whatever teenagers do, hang out and play football. My son Blake, I think once Don got it, it took hold. He saw his older brother doing it and that got him into it. So in that sense, Katrina helped them out getting into music. After Katrina, when they moved to other cities, it gave them time to get into music because they didn’t know nobody there to hang with. So what are you gonna do with your spare time? ‘I’m gonna start making beats.’ When I moved back home in ’07, my son was living in Dallas with my dad. Three days later, he’s like, ‘I’m coming back—can I stay with you?’
“After we renovated and came back home, that’s when he started working a lot. A lot of the people that was movin’ back home was his age, so that was a natural thing for him. I think that was an incentive for him to get better and be in the studio a lot. I wasn’t working so much, but suddenly he was bringing in new people, a whole new generation. With my generation, most of the people was moved out of town. So now I had to either get with it or let him do what he do. So we kind of did both. After they found out through him that we were doing music again, we started building this word-of-mouth thing. People were coming home slowly, but surely, or they would call ahead to book time when they were in town. By 2010, 2011, it was back to normal. At first, nobody had money to make music; they were too busy fixing their homes or scraping money together to come back. We was the only house on the block that was functional. I had everybody living there. We had 10 people living there and the studio going at the same time, so you can imagine what that was like. Everybody wanted to come back so I gave them a place to stay.”
So now a third generation of Bartholomews is working with the post-Katrina influx of new artists, applying the same principles Don B. learned from the patriarch.
“I remember when I first started playing stuff for my daddy, he said, ‘Boy, I don’t know what that is, it’s got no chords,’” says Don B. “But he never discouraged me, so I just kept doing it. He said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll figure it out. Just keep working.’ And that’s what happened. And I told my sons the same thing. Now I don’t gotta tell them nothin’. They’re doing things that surprise me. Two of my sons debuted projects—Supa Dezzy dropped SMD, which has some very talented artists on there like Ace B., who plays Lil Calliope in the HBO series Treme; and TrakkaBeats has an all-instrumental project entitled Frankenstone—both can be downloaded for free from Datpiff.com.”
Meanwhile, Don B. was realizing an unrecognized talent for acting as he graduated from being the hip-hop advisor on Treme to playing himself in a major role in Treme as Davis McAlary’s producer. Around the same time, he discovered the lost files.
“I found it all on a cassette,” explains Don B. “When I came back from Katrina, my dad had a bunch of cassettes in his office. Some of ’em got wet. I went through them and I salvaged what I could. I started listening to it and I found these. He didn’t know it was there; he thought it was gone, that he’d lost them, that’s why I’m calling it The Dave Bartholomew Lost Files. The stuff is 35 years old.”
If you go into the Bartholomew studio complex today, you’re likely to hear three generations of Bartholomew family music at one sitting—Dave’s music being refitted for contemporary use by Don B., and Supa Dezzy, TrakkaBeats and SupCrew YC sprouting the soundtrack to life in 2014 New Orleans. Don B.’s brother Ronald Bartholomew sums up the family motto: “We have two jobs here. We have a job to continue to create music. We love music. But our number one job here is protecting a legacy.”