Dave Bartholomew, the renowned record producer, arranger, bandleader, vocalist, trumpet player and songwriter who did so much to create the New Orleans R&B sound and in turn rock 'n' roll-especially his recordings with Fats Domino-died in Metairie, New Orleans, on June 23 at the grand age of 100. He was born in Edgard, Louisiana, about 40 miles up the Mississippi River from the Crescent City, on December, 24, 1918. Some sources quote 1920, but 1918 was Bartholomew's best guess in an era-and area-when birth recordkeeping was not the most precise.
The greatness of the man can be judged by three of his productions being considered as among the most important records in rock 'n roll history: Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" (1949), Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (1952) and Domino's "Blueberry Hill" (1956).
Between 1949 and 1963, in addition to Domino, Bartholomew supervised for Lew Chudd's Imperial Records of Hollywood local artists of the caliber of Tommy Ridgley, Jewel King, Archibald, Smiley Lewis, the Spiders, Bobby Mitchell, Sugar Boy Crawford, Chris Kenner, Roy Brown, Earl King, Ford "Snooks" Eaglin, Bobby Charles, Shirley & Lee (also for Aladdin), Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns, Frankie Ford and many more, along with his own band. Bartholomew applied the New Orleans R&B stamp, too, on Imperial out-of-towners such as Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton.
The A&R man assembled a crack group of studio musicians, including Lee Allen, Herb Hardesty and Red Tyler (saxophones), Ernest McLean and Justin Adams (guitars) and the king of the backbeat, Earl Palmer (drums), all driven by his red-hot trumpet. He would generously give credit to Cosimo Matassa for the quality of his engineering work in studios that were never state of the art.
In the "big easy" world of New Orleans, Bartholomew had to be a strict disciplinarian to get the best out of his fellow artists and musicians. Yet there was also a whimsical side to him when he sang songs like "An Old Cow Hand From A Blues Band," "Who Drank The Beer While I Was In The Rear" and "The Monkey," which ought to have been a hit in 1957.
I interviewed him in May 1973 when I was researching my first book, "Walking to New Orleans," and he was appearing on a joint bill with his band and Fats Domino's orchestra at the Fontainebleau Hotel in the Uptown/Carrollton area of the Crescent City in front of audiences of just a few dozen. Never one to mince words, he said bluntly, "Why do you want to know all this for? It's old history." Yet I persisted and of course he had a great story to tell - and he told it well, especially his early days in New Orleans. In a further interview in 1983, I asked - for the record - how he discovered Fats Domino, to which he retorted, "Well, John, we've gone through that a million times before," but he still came up with fresh observations.
New Orleans was elemental to his music, and the young Dave soaked up the city's vibrant music through his father Louis. "We were exploring on the big beat and I think Dixieland music is one of the things that we all derive from," he said, adding inimitably, "I'm a Catholic, there's no big beat in the Catholic service. No, I wasn't influenced by the church, I just was influenced by music on the streets of my father's band." He was fixated by Louis Armstrong's trumpet playing.
After gaining invaluable experience playing trumpet with the Claiborne Williams Orchestra, on the riverboats with Fats Pichon and in Army bands, he formed his own outfit after World War II. The confident young bandleader first recorded for De Luxe Records of New Jersey, leading to the only hit in his name, "Country Boy," No. 14 Billboard R&B in early 1950.
By then he had already been drafted by Chudd as Imperial's New Orleans A&R man, setting in train an almost continual run of hits for Fats Domino that famously also included "Ain't That A Shame," "I'm In Love Again," "Blue Monday," "I'm Walkin'," "Valley Of Tears," "I Want To Walk You Home," "Walking To New Orleans" and "My Girl Josephine." Most of the hits were credited to Domino and Bartholomew, leading to a fantastic source of income for both men for the rest of their lives. It was Bartholomew who ensured the business side was firmly in order, from which they both benefitted handsomely. What a team it was, selling more than 65 million records and earning 19 consecutive gold records, according to Bartholomew.
His songs also provided hits for Elvis Presley with "One Night" (No. 4 Billboard pop 1958) through to Dave Edmunds with "I Hear You Knocking" which made No. 1 U.K. and No. 4 U.S. in 1970; both were Smiley Lewis originals. To that list we have to add, Chuck Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling," a 1972 transatlantic No. 1. And for a majestic Domino cover, how about Little Richard's "Every Night About This Time" with the Upsetters (1962)?
The Imperial gravy train for Bartholomew and New Orleans ended in 1963 when Chudd sold his label to Liberty. The A&R man effectively retired at just 44 years of age but he had had enough of being confined to a recording studio. At the time, Cosimo still only had 3-track recording facilities, meaning that mono was Dave's domain as he adhered to his policy of "keeping it simple." He dabbled with the Trumpet and Broadmoor labels in the mid-1960s, and recorded a Dixieland jazz LP (Broadmoor, 1981) and the "New Orleans Big Beat" CD (Landslide, 1998) but preferred to play with his own band at Jazz Fest, Preservation Hall and social club dates and to tour with Fats, including Europe. In 2005, Bartholomew managed to survive Hurricane Katrina with his family and returned to New Orleans after exile.
I was fortunate to moderate Q&A sessions with him at the Ponderosa Stomp Conference in New Orleans with Dr. Ike, and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in a fabulous tribute to Fats and Dave in the American Music Masters series, both in 2010. What a privilege
Of his many accolades, he was elected into said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (but as a non-performer) also the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1998, and received a Grammy Trustees Award in 2014.
These national awards and indeed this tribute of mine don't begin to convey Dave Bartholomew's achievements in overcoming the segregated Jim Crow era of his day. Eddie Ray, the longtime Imperial promo man, placed everything in context in 2015 when he told me, "The difficulties, the time in which he was able to do the things that he did and what he meant for music in New Orleans, this guy was amazing." Or as Frankie Ford put it, in discussing his own Imperial sessions, "With Dave Bartholomew producing, what more do you want?"
Originally published Now Dig This magazine (U.K.), August 2019- John Broven
MAC REBENNAK (Doctor John)
Mac Rebennack, who made his name as Dr. John the Night Tripper, died suddenly from a heart attack on June 6 in the Northshore area of Lake Pontchartrain near Covington, Louisiana. He was born in New Orleans on November 21, but in the absence of a birth certificate debate rages as to whether it was the year of 1940 or '41.
Apart from having a storied career as Dr. John and as a New Orleans R&B and funk practitioner, he was a perennial champion of the first wave of R&B artists from his home city.
I recall fondly the interview that I conducted with him in company with Blues Unlimited editor Mike Leadbitter in May 1972 at the White House Hotel near Regent's Park, London. It was this interview, spread over two days, which provided the cornerstone of my first book, "Walking to New Orleans." Although Rebennack was at the height of his fame as Dr. John, rock star, he was not interested in talking about himself. Instead he focused on the old New Orleans studio and club scenes, discussing his heroes such as Walter "Papoose" Nelson, James Booker, Earl King and Wardell Quezergue whose work we were still piecing together at the time. Rebennack was a frequent visitor to Cosimo Matassa's fabled recording studio in the French Quarter at the peak of the 1950s R&B and rock 'n' roll eras, and was able to present lively firsthand cameos of artists and session men in a croaking Creole-based dialect.
He was raised in the New Orleans Third Ward within walking distance of Matassa's J&M and Cosimo studios, when New Orleans R&B stars such as Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and Clarence "Frogman" Henry were churning out their timeless hits. It was this music, mostly under the direction of Dave Bartholomew and Paul Gayten, which influenced the teenager as a bandleader, songwriter, musician and arranger.
The young prodigy started playing guitar in local bands such as the Dominoes and the Skyliners, with sax player Leonard James (who cut an LP with the latter group for Decca in 1957). Sometimes these combos backed Frankie Ford or Jerry Byrne on dates. Soon Rebennack was getting studio calls to sit in on sessions.
His first major songwriting credit, shared with Cosimo studio engineer Seth David, was on the all-time New Orleans rock 'n' roll classic, "Lights Out," recorded by Jerry Byrne and produced by Harold Battiste for Specialty in 1958. Soon Rebennack was snapped up as A&R man for Johnny Vincent's Ace label, which was hot with Huey "Piano" Smith, Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Ford. For Vincent, Rebennack cut "Morgus The Magnificent" in the name of Morgus and the Ghouls, also featuring Ford and Byrne, on the Vin subsidiary in 1959. The guitarist's first solo single was the hot Bo Diddley-inspired instrumental, "Storm Warning," for Matassa's Rex label in the same year.
After a fallout with Vincent, Rebennack took up A&R duties with Joe Ruffino's Ric and Ron labels, and was involved with artists such as Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas and, notably, Professor Longhair's "Go To The Mardi Gras."
Following a 1961 gun incident in defence of his band singer Ronnie Barron, Rebennack lost part of a finger and turned to the piano, with a distinct Longhair flavour, and organ. In the early 1960s, several small labels throughout South Louisiana and East Texas used Rebennack's services as producer and arranger, including Lanor, Montel, Tribe and drew-Blan.
In 1965, after a drug bust and with the old-style New Orleans R&B scene in decline, he took off for the West Coast to join several Crescent City exiles under the leadership of Harold Battiste, the former Specialty and AFO record man. It was Battiste who created the Dr. John alter ego, initially with Ronnie Barron in mind. Under the Dr. John mantle, Rebennack had his biggest hit in 1973 at No. 9 in the Billboard Hot 100 with "Right Place Wrong Time" (Atco), accompanied by the Meters and produced by Allen Toussaint. The breakthrough Dr. John album was "Gris-Gris" in 1968. "It seems amazing that we got anything done," Battiste wrote in his autobiography, "the studio was like a Mardi Gras reunion."
For the conventional New Orleans R&B fan, wary of hoodoo psychedelic excesses, the "Dr. John's Gumbo" Atco LP from 1972 was more acceptable, featuring faithful covers of such stalwart artists as James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, Huey "Piano" Smith, Longhair, Archibald and more, with an all-star band of those New Orleans exiles led by tenor saxophonist Lee Allen under the direction of Battiste.
After surviving the inevitable drug-crazed years, Rebennack continued to play regularly at home and abroad in a New Orleans funk style with his Lower 911 band driven by the second-line drummer Herman Ernest. The good doctor, who lived for many years in the New York area and was friendly with songwriter Doc Pomus, notched up many later accomplishments, including a warts-and-all autobiography with Jack Rummel, "Under a Hoodoo Moon" (1994). There was a steady stream of LP and CD releases in a variety of styles, all with a strong Crescent City influence.
Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, was the longest active survivor from the golden age of New Orleans R&B and was its primary flag-waver. "He was the biggest ambassador in New Orleans left," Dr. Ike of the Ponderosa Stomp said, with feeling.
Originally published Now Dig This magazine (U.K.), July 2019- John Broven (with thanks to Jeff Hannusch)
Art Neville is yet another New Orleans R&B pioneer that we have lost recently, along with major figures Dr. John and Dave Bartholomew. Neville, born on December 17, 1937, and raised in the Uptown and Central City neighborhoods, died in his hometown on July 22 at age 81 after being in declining health for some time.
From a noted musical family, he started out as vocalist and pianist with the Hawketts who recorded the carnival classic, "Mardi Gras Mambo," for Chess in 1955. Still a teen, he signed for Art Rupe's Specialty Records as a solo artist "about the time Larry Williams had 'Short Fat Fannie,' 'Bony Moronie,'" he told me in 1973. With Bumps Blackwell and Harold Battiste respectively producing him at Cosimo Matassa's studios in New Orleans, Neville recorded the accomplished rock 'n' rollers "Oooh-Whee Baby" (1957), "Zing Zing" and "What's Goin' On" (1958), "Cha Dooky-Doo" (1959) and more. He even played the storming piano on Jerry Byrnes' "Lights Out" (1958).
After Navy service, he scored regionally in 1962 with the slow-dance ballad, "All These Things" for Joe Banashak's Instant label. Like "Mardi Gras Mambo," it never charted nationally. "I don't know what happened," Neville said. "It could, it should have been a bigger record but I don't have no control over what's being promoted or who wants to buy it." (The Allen Toussaint song did make No. 1 country in 1976 through Joe Stampley's version.) With the New Orleans R&B era winding down after brother Aaron's massive "Tell It Like It Is" hit (Parlo) in 1967, Art finally found the fame, if not fortune, he was looking for as organist with the Meters funk group, which evolved out of the Neville Sounds. The Meters biggest hit was the instrumental "Cissy Strut" (Josie), No. 23 Billboard in 1969. The record's producer Allen Toussaint called it "a fresh approach." The oft-squabbling Meters lasted until 1977, whereupon Art formed the Neville Brothers band with Aaron, Cyril and Charles to become one of the most visible New Orleans acts over the next few decades. From 1994, Neville and original bass player George Porter made occasional appearances as the Funky Meters.
One of my favorite memories of Art Neville is seeing him play a magical R&B/rock 'n' roll set at the Blues Estafette in Utrecht, Holland, in 1993. The show was based on his Specialty recordings with a four-horn band led by Porter with Dr. John's street-beat drummer Herman Ernest. Promoter Jaap Hindricks deserved every credit for persuading a reluctant Art to perform his "golden oldies." As I wrote in Juke Blues, he needed a lyric sheet as a memory jogger, and "singing and playing the piano quite beautifully he was clearly overwhelmed by the experience as indeed were most of us." Although well into his funky routine at the time, he gave notice that evening he was a top artist in the grand New Orleans R&B tradition.
Originally published Now Dig This magazine (U.K.), September 2019- John Broven