Rock Pioneer Dave Bartholomew Turns 100
Dec. 24, 2018, marks Dave Bartholomew's 100 birthday.
While not a household name, the New Orleans legend helped create rock 'n' roll by working on R&B hits by such names as Smiley Lewis, Huey "Piano" Smith, Shirley and Lee, Lloyd Price and, most of all, Fats Domino.
Plans to celebrate Bartholomew's birthday with a tribute concert had to be postponed until 2019 after he was hospitalized last week due to complications stemming from medication he was taking for a urinary tract infection.
According to Offbeat Magazine, he's in good spirits. “He kept me up talking until two in the morning,” Bartholomew's son Don said. “I was ready to get out of there!”
Born in Edgard, La., on Dec. 24, 1918, (though some sources list his birth year as 1920), Bartholomew started out playing the tuba and then moved on to trumpet, taking lessons from Peter Davis, who also taught Louis Armstrong. His family moved to New Orleans while in his teens and began playing jazz professionally. In 1939, he was hired to be in Walter "Fats" Pichon's band, playing up-and-down the Mississippi River for $25 a week.
Pichon eventually turned the band over to Bartholomew, but that ended when the U.S. entered World War II, and Bartholomew joined the 196th Army Ground Forces Band, where he learned to notate music, which served him well as an arranger in the years to come.
Returning to New Orleans after the war, he soon got signed to Lew Chudd's Imperial Records as both a recording artist and A&R man. In 1949, they went to the Hideaway Club on Desire Street to hear a young pianist named Antoine "Fats" Domino. They signed him on the strength of his rendition of Champion Jack Dupree's "Junker's Blues."
Bartholomew and the young pianist rewrote the song's lyrics and recorded it at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio on Rampart Street. It took only three months for "The Fat Man" to reach No. 2 on Billboard's R&B chart and launch Domino's career.
Watch Fats Domino Perform 'The Fat Man'
Their partnership led to Domino becoming one of the most successful recording artists of the decade. Bartholomew co-wrote and produced such Domino classics of the era as "Blue Monday," "Blueberry Hill," "I'm Walkin'," "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday," "Walkin' to New Orleans," "Ain't That a Shame," "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" and "Let the Four Winds Blow."
Lewis, another New Orleans musician, recorded Bartholomew's "I Hear You Knocking" and "One Night" during this time. Shirley and Lee cut his "Let the Good Times Roll." And Bartholomew produced Price's hit recording of "Lawdy Miss Clawdy."
While Bartholomew is best known for his behind-the-scenes work in music, he released plenty of songs as a recording artist over the years. "Country Boy," which peaked at No. 14 on the R&B chart in 1950, was his biggest hit. Another of his tracks, a curious piece of social commentary from 1957 called "The Monkey," was referenced by Elvis Costello in 2004's "Monkey to Man."
Listen to Dave Bartholomew's 'The Monkey'
Another of his compositions, "My Ding-a-Ling," became a fluke hit for Chuck Berry in 1972, the rock 'n' roll legend's only song to reach No. 1. "I actually wrote that in the ’40s but nothing came of it, so I threw it in the trash can," he told Offbeat. "Then along came Chuck Berry in 1972 and he recorded the thing in London. Somebody called me and said, ‘You got the No. 1 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."
In an era when African-American musicians had trouble getting their music played on pop radio, Bartholomew's songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone and Gale Storm, among others.
Bartholomew has said attempts to create distinctions between genres were meaningless. “Rock ’n’ roll, R&B, it’s only a name," he said. "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."