A longtime pillar of the New Orleans rhythm and blues community, Dave Bartholomew was a trumpeter, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, bandleader, and astute businessman.
A longtime pillar of the New Orleans rhythm and blues (R&B) community, Dave Bartholomew was a trumpeter, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, bandleader, and astute businessman. Trained as a young child by music teacher Peter Davis, the same man who mentored Louis Armstrong, Dave Bartholomew was best known for his prolific work shaping Fats Domino’s sound. He also crafted great New Orleans R&B records, including producing and arranging Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and co-writing/arranging Shirley and Lee’s “I’m Gone” and “I Hear You Knocking” by Smiley Lewis, the most powerful of all New Orleans R&B singers. He was also a successful recording artist in his own right. His biggest hit was “Country Boy,” released in 1949; his other classics include a scathing indictment of human nature titled “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” balanced by such lighthearted ditties as “Who Drank My Beer While I Was in the Rear?” and the original version of the risqué song “My Ding-a-Ling,” later popularized by Chuck Berry.
David Louis Bartholomew was born in Edgard (in St. John the Baptist Parish) on December 24, 1918, to Louis Bartholomew and Marie Roussell. His father, who played tuba with jazz clarinetist Willie Humphrey, influenced him musically. The younger Bartholomew began his career in traditional jazz, playing in the bands of pianist Joe Robichaux, trumpeter/cornetist Papa Celestin, and pianist Fats Pichon. In 1942, Bartholomew spent six weeks touring nationally in the big band of Jimmy Lunceford before the US Army drafted him. Bartholomew spent much of his military service as a performer, and also learned to write music. (Bartholomew’s time in uniform is reflected on Fats Domino’s “Korea Blues,” where he unleashed a flawless rendition of “Reveille.”)
Returning to New Orleans after World War II ended, Bartholomew joined the house band at the Dew Drop Inn, the city’s leading R&B venue. Soon Bartholomew was leading the house band at a club called the Graystone in New Orleans’s Carrollton section. There he started to assemble the cadre of players who would accompany Fats Domino. Bartholomew’s next job was in the house band at Al’s Starlight Inn, an engagement he advertised via live radio performances of the song “Shrimp and Gumbo” that was based on the musical advertisements sung by the city’s roving street vendors. As saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler told journalist John Broven, “The Dave Bartholomew Band was the band in the city as far as rhythm and blues was concerned. We played all the big dances, we played quite a few of the shows.… I think it was a good experience to work with Dave’s band because he was truly a professional.”
In 1949, Bartholomew began working as a talent scout and producer on the burgeoning R&B scene, most notably for the Los Angeles-based Imperial Records, owned by Lew Chudd. Bartholomew produced Fats Domino’s Imperial sessions from the beginning. His arrangements combined New Orleans second line rhythms with big band ensemble parts that reflected the influence of such nationally popular artists as Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford. Combined with Cosimo Matassa’s audio engineering skill, Bartholomew’s meticulous approach was a crucial factor in Domino’s success. So were the contributions of stellar studio musicians such as drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Justin Adams, and saxophonists Lee Allen, Herbert Hardesty, and Red Tyler. Bartholomew wrote Domino’s mega-hit “Blue Monday,” while he and Domino cowrote numerous hits including “Ain’t That a Shame,” “The Fat Man,” “I’m Walking,” “I’m In Love Again” and “Whole Lotta’ Loving.” Another young musician Bartholomew helped launch was pianist, singer, and songwriter Allen Toussaint, who, like his mentor, would become a major creative pillar of New Orleans R&B music. In the mid-1950s, Bartholomew hired Toussaint to play some of Fats Domino’s piano parts on a session that Domino couldn’t attend.
In contrast to Bartholomew’s success with Domino and other R&B artists such as Lloyd Price, he did not achieve similar results when producing and writing for Smiley Lewis. Lewis’s fine rendition of “Blue Monday” preceded Domino’s version but failed to take off. He had modest success with “I Hear You Knocking” until it was eclipsed by a cover version by pop singer Gale Storm. And the rousing Lewis tune “One Night of Sin” became a hit for Elvis Presley under the watered-down title “One Night With You.” “I hate to say it,” Bartholomew commented, “but poor Smiley died with a broken heart.”
Although his best-known work was in R&B, Dave Bartholomew always stayed involved with traditional jazz, with periodic forays into recording and performing. He also continued to work with Domino off and on over the decades, although their relationship, at times, was volatile. He was a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the latter honored Bartholomew and Fats Domino with an elaborate tribute concert and academic conference in November 2010. Bartholomew died in New Orleans on June 23, 2019, at the age of 100.