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The Music Diaries | Dave Bartholomew: A standout among December-born musicians

Published:Friday | December 30, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Dave Bartholomew
Fats Domino

December 25 is perhaps the most important date on the calendar. It was the day Christ was born and it is celebrated worldwide. It also marks the birth date of the Music Diaries in 2011, something that the column is proud to be associated with. From a musical perspective however, very few if any outstanding entertainer or recording artiste could lay a claim to being born on December 25, although there were several who were born during the month.

Those born in December that comes readily to mind include, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, Billy Paul, Jessie Belvin, Louis Prima, Dionne Warwick, Skeeter Davis, Little Richard, Betty Wright, Donna Summer, Britney Spears and others -quite an impressive list.

Dave Bartholomew belong to this impressive list and came closest to sharing a birthday with Christ as well, when he saw the light of day on Christmas Eve 1918. Still alive, he has the most remarkable record in the entire history of Rhythm and Blues, as he looks towards completing his century. Bartholomew wore the 'hats' of trumpeter, bandleader, songwriter, businessman, music arranger, record producer, talent scout, vocalist and rapper -more than any other individual in the history of the entertainment business. His rap on the recording, The Monkey Speaks His Mind, remains one of the earliest pieces of musical rapping ever executed by man. It rebukes man, and rebuts the notion that he descended from monkeys. Bartholomew was adamant about his conviction as he rapped on behalf of monkeys, that:

"There's a certain rumour that can't be true

That man descended from our noble race

But their idea is a big disgrace

No monkey ever deserted his wife

Nor their baby, and ruin their life".

Bartholomew has been cited by musicologists as a prime figure in the transition of jump blues and swing to R&B, and the main catalyst in the creation of Rock and Roll, which by extension, had a profound influence on the development of early Jamaican music.

Born in Edgard Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans -the cradle of Rhythm and Blues, Bartholomew's father moved his family to nearby New Orleans, just in time for Dave's High School days. Bartholomew learnt the trumpet shortly after leaving High School and by 1933 he was playing in local jazz and brass bands before joining the U.S., army in World War II and began developing his writing and music arrangement skills with the army's band. In 1945 he formed his own band in New Orleans -an ensemble with some of the most talented musicians in the city. They became increasingly popular with local nightclubs, as they rocked and stomped behind Bartholomew's singing and trumpet arrangements. On one of those gigs Bartholomew met Lew Chudd, owner of Imperial Records and a deal was later struck for him to become Imperial's A&R man with free access to find and record talent, while doing his own recordings.

Bartholomew's earliest set of recordings were however, done for the Deluxe Record label and included his vocal R&B and national hit Country Boy in 1949 and the gospel-tingled, When The Saints Go Marching In, while, Who Drank My Beer While I Was In The Rear, became a favourite with the hardcore blues fanatics. The bawdy, My Ding-a-Ling, made popular by the rock and roll star Chuck Berry, was also written and first recorded by Bartholomew in 1952.

But it was Bartholomew's off-the-stage roles that had the greatest impact on popular music. Almost single-handed, he produced, arranged, and provided musical backing with his band for the majority of New Orleans R&B Imperial Records' recording sessions in the 1950s, sometimes writing or co-writing songs, while conducting his own career. Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Shirley and Lee, Jewel King, Frankie Ford, Huey 'Piano' Smith, and Gene and Eunice, all benefited immensely from Bartholomew's virtuosity between 1949 and 1954. His band also had several outstanding instrumental recordings during that period. Bartholomew produced, arranged and backed Imperial's first national hit, 3X7=21 by the female, Jewel King in 1949 and co-wrote and arranged Fats Domino first hit The Fat Man that same year. The latter recording climbed to number two on the R&B charts and sold over a million copies, kick-starting Domino's illustrious career.

Bartholomew will forever be remembered for his work with Domino - the true pioneer in the Rock and Roll revolution. He brought Domino to Imperial Records in 1947 and collaborated with him as a songwriter, arranger and producer on almost every hit recording Domino did. The records they did together, effectively introduced the big beat of New Orleans to the world. Other hits that Bartholomew wrote, co-wrote, arranged, produced and backed for Domino included Ain't That A Shame, Blue Monday, I'm Walking, My Girl Josephine, Country Boy, Sick And Tired, I'm In Love Again, Going To The River, Valley Of Tears and Blueberry Hill.

With Domino and others, Bartholomew created a string of recordings that brought the sound of New Orleans to both black and white teenage audiences in the late 1950s. One such recording was Domino's Walking To New Orleans in which Bartholomew introduced a string section, never before heard in Rock and Roll. It effectively created a crossover into the pop genre and gave the impression that a rich orchestral session was in progress, as Domino sings:

"This time I'm walking to New Orleans

I'm walking to New Orleans

I'm gonna need two pair a shoes

When I get through walking these blues

When I get back to New Orleans".

Additionally, Bartholomew rewrote and produced Shirley and Lee's breakthrough hit, I'm Gone, in 1952 and later arranged their biggest hit, Let The Good Times Roll, in 1956.

In addition to working for Imperial, Bartholomew produced sessions for artistes on Speciality, Aladdin and other labels. He produced Lloyd Price's biggest hit, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, for Speciality Records in 1952, and in 1955 he co-wrote for Imperial Records Smiley Lewis' biggest hits, I Hear You Knocking and One Night Of Sin (later covered by Elvis Presley).