Dave Bartholomew, the producer, arranger, composer, trumpet player and bandleader who had a major hand in the shaping of New Orleans rhythm and blues and early rock ’n’ roll, died Sunday in New Orleans. He was 100.
His death was confirmed by his son Ron.
An influential figure who worked mainly behind the scenes, Bartholomew was best known for the hits he produced for and wrote with Fats Domino, including “Ain’t That a Shame” (originally released under the name “Ain’t It a Shame”) and “Blue Monday.”
Under Bartholomew’s direction, Domino placed 65 singles on the Billboard pop chart from 1955 to 1964. Among rock ’n’ roll singers, only Elvis Presley had more during that period.
Bartholomew’s musical reach extended well beyond his collaborations with Domino. He also produced and arranged signature hits by Lloyd Price (“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”), Shirley and Lee (“Let the Good Times Roll”) and Smiley Lewis (“I Hear You Knocking”).
“My Ding-a-Ling,” Chuck Berry’s only No.1 pop single, was an adaptation of “Little Girl Sing Ding-a-Ling,” a recording Bartholomew made under his own name in 1952. Elton John, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams Jr. and Cheap Trick, among many others, have recorded material associated with Bartholomew.
“His importance cannot be overstated,” Dr. Ira Padnos, a practicing anesthesiologist and the founder of the Ponderosa Stomp, a national touring revue and foundation that recognizes and promotes the work of American roots music pioneers, said in an interview for this obituary in 2010.
“Dave was one of rock ’n’ roll’s first great producers,” Padnos said. “And he created what might have been the first rock ’n’ roll record with ‘The Fat Man,’” a hit for Domino in 1949. “There was nothing else like it at the time. He put a heavy backbeat behind an old blues tune, and it became rock ’n’ roll.”
That “big beat,” as it came to be known, was supplied by drummer Earl Palmer, one of several unerringly funky musicians whom Bartholomew recruited to work in his band. (Others included saxophonists Lee Allen and Alvin (Red) Tyler.)
Besides appearing on his sessions, this tight ensemble played on Little Richard’s volcanic mid-50s hits “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.” It also backed Sam Cooke, with a young Allen Toussaint on piano, during his 1960 tour of the United States.
Fusing Mardi Gras parade rhythms, jump blues, big-band jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop, Bartholomew and his band created a Crescent City groove that became as enduring a part of rock ’n’ roll vernacular as Bo Diddley’s “shave-and-a-haircut” beat and Berry’s “ringin’ a bell” guitar.
No less remarkable was the fact that Bartholomew, a Black man, achieved such prominence working in the Jim Crow South. “He was operating in a very segregated environment,” John Broven, author of “Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans,” said in an interview. “You had to be somebody special to rise to the top.”
Dave Bartholomew was born Dec. 24, 1918, in Edgard, Louisiana. (Some sources say the year was 1920, but the family said 1918 is correct.) The son of a jazz trumpet player, he grew up in a musical home and learned to play the tuba before moving on to trumpet.
He earned the nickname Leather Lungs for his ability to hold a note, and by the time he was a teenager he had spent time in a number of the region’s most popular bands, including those led by Joe Robicheaux and Papa Celestin. He later worked briefly with Jimmie Lunceford’s big band, and with a military band while serving in the Army, where he began writing and arranging music.
After serving in World War II he formed his own group, which appeared in New Orleans night spots like the Club Tijuana and the Dew Drop Inn, before meeting the record mogul Lew Chudd, who signed Bartholomew to his label, Imperial.
Bartholomew was working for the label as a talent scout when he first heard Domino perform, at the Hideaway Club in New Orleans. “The Fat Man,” the first single the two men made together, became a national hit and offered early proof of Bartholomew’s astute mix of commercial and artistic instincts.
“He was smart enough to know you couldn’t get a song named ‘Junker Blues’ played on the radio,” Padnos explained, referring to the drug-themed song on which “The Fat Man” was based, “so he came up with ‘The Fat Man’ instead. With Fats he wrote stuff that was accessible enough that the kids would buy it.”
The genial, steady-rolling arrangements Bartholomew wrote for Domino all but ensured the mainstream appeal of his music. The records Bartholomew released under his own name had more of a Caribbean or Afro-Cuban feel than his collaborations with Domino and the other youth-oriented performers whose sessions he produced. With titles like “Shrimp and Gumbo” and “Carnival Day,” these recordings were evocative of local New Orleans culture.
A broad cross section of Bartholomew’s music, including his work with renowned blues musicians like T-Bone Walker and Roy Brown, was presented in “The Spirit of New Orleans: The Genius of Dave Bartholomew,” a two-CD set released by Capitol Records in 1993.
Bartholomew’s name was linked to steadily fewer hit records as the 1960s gave way to the ’70s, but he remained active into his 80s. His 1998 studio album, “New Orleans Big Beat” (Landslide), featured “Jazz Fest in New Orleans,” which became the unofficial anthem of the city’s annual Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He was given a Trustees Award, for lifetime achievement, by the Recording Academy in 2014.
Survivors include his wife, Rhea (Douse) Bartholomew; his daughters, Diane Wilson and Jacqueline Temple; his sons, Dave Jr., Don and Ron; three stepchildren, Alvin LaBeaud, Darrell LaBeaud and Deborah Hubbard; a sister, Thelma Cooper; 25 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.
Bartholomew’s compositions have been included on the soundtracks of music-themed movies like “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956) and “American Graffiti” (1973). A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
That he was inducted in the “nonperformer” category was appropriate but perhaps misleading, Broven said. In addition to being “the one who organized all the musicians and whipped everyone into shape in the studio,” he noted, “he was a great musician himself, a red-hot trumpeter.”