"The singers get all the attention," Dave Bartholomew says a little wistfully over the phone from his New Orleans home. "The arrangers and composers — they get left out. It’s like spilled milk. We just have to forget about it." Bartholomew is one of the most important figures in the history of New Orleans R&B. But most of the people who’ve heard his records have never heard his name. He’s been a trumpeter, pianist, songwriter, singer, arranger, producer, and A&R man, and his songs became massive hits for Elvis Presley ("One Night"), Chuck Berry ("My Ding-A-Ling"), and Dave Edmunds ("I Hear You Knocking"); they’ve been covered by Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and dozens of others. His very first session as a talent scout and bandleader for Imperial Records (in late 1949) yielded Jewel King’s huge R&B hit "3 x 7 = 21" and the earliest recordings by Tommy Ridgley, later famous as New Orleans’s "King of the Stroll." But after a single minor hit in 1950 with "Country Boy," the records Bartholomew made under his own name never showed up on the charts during his decade-plus tenure with Imperial.
"I never did get a lot of airplay," the 81-year-old notes. "I was more like a producer and a back-up bandleader. I hate to talk about the guy, because he passed away a few years ago, but I was told that Imperial Records’ owner, Lew Chudd, didn’t want me to have hits, so he wasn’t pushing my stuff, no kind of way." Imperial’s management may not have wanted Bartholomew to concentrate too much on his solo career because of the fruits of his second session for the label, when he led the band for another one of his discoveries: a cheerful singer/pianist who called himself Fats Domino. Starting with that day’s recording of "The Fat Man," the Domino/Bartholomew team scored more than 70 chart hits over the next 13 years — 11 in 1957 alone.
One hundred songs from Domino’s Imperial era are collected in a new boxed set, Walking to New Orleans (EMI/Capitol); and when I listened to the evolution of Domino’s sound, I was amazed to discover how much his hits are Bartholomew’s show. Fats’ amiable, enthusiastic delivery can sell any tune, and he’s a nimble and creative pianist (though he gets to show off less after the key-scorching early instrumental "Swanee River Hop"). But the tracks from a couple of years without Bartholomew are far less durable, and the arrangements are the heart of the team’s records. From deep blues ("Blue Monday") to standards ("What’s the Reason I’m Not Pleasing You") to straight rock and roll ("I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday"), they’re densely organized but lighter than air, played with pinpoint precision. "Most people said I was very domineering in the studio — I was the Gestapo!", Bartholomew jokes. "I was strictly business."
If Domino’s hits are the signature sound of their time, Bartholomew’s own recordings are a little bit ahead of it. The ones that are collected, along with some of his notable productions for other singers like Shirley & Lee and Smiley Lewis, as The Big Beat of Dave Bartholomew (EMI/Capitol) include some remarkable formal experiments: the proto-rap of "The Monkey," the raw second-line parade rhythms of "Four Winds," the all-beat clippety-clop of "Shrimp and Gumbo."
Most of his hits and misses for other artists, though, eventually became grist for the Domino mill. Anything and everything could be a hit for Fats in those years. Bartholomew remembers the recording of Domino’s classic "Blueberry Hill": "We went all over town trying to find sheet music for the song, because it was 25 or 30 years old. Fats’ brother-in-law was a banjo player, he knew a little bit about it, but we got to the bridge and we got lost. We figured when we got to the bridge, we’d just cut it. When Lew told me he’d released ‘Blueberry Hill,’ I said, ‘Put it off the market, that’s the biggest flop in the world!’ He said, ‘Keep on making flops like that and I’ll go downtown and get you a brand new Cadillac.’ "
But Domino also often ended up with all the credit. "Late that year, we were playing on Broadway, next door to Birdland. In come these guys — the original writers of ‘Blueberry Hill’! They were saying, ‘Oh, Fats, Fats.’ I’m the one who had all the trials and tribulations getting this goddamn record out. I got my ass kicked — and 50 years later, they have yet to say, ‘Thank you, Dave.’ "