Yes, Dave Bartholomew Was Fats’s Wingman — and a Whole Lot More
Dave Bartholomew appears in most rock ’n’ roll history as an important chapter in the Fats Domino story.
Bartholomew died Sunday in New Orleans. His family said he turned 100 last Christmas Eve. Other accounts have said he was 98. Most of us would be happy to reach either of those numbers, but perhaps in this case it symbolizes history’s difficulty in precisely positioning a man who, everyone agrees, shaped major parts of what became known as rock ’n’ roll.
The Domino connection provides the easiest starting point. One day in late 1949 Bartholomew brought Lew Chudd, owner of Imperial Records, to catch Domino playing piano in Billy Diamond’s band at the low-rent Hideaway club in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Chudd liked the raw energy of Domino’s playing, thinking that was where post-war popular music just might be going.
Good guess. Chudd signed him and Bartholomew went to work, assembling an amazing band that included drummer Earl Palmer and finding eight songs for Domino to record.
On Dec. 10, 1949, Domino cut “The Fat Man,” a compilation of familiar and mildly suggestive blues lyrics with the propulsive rhythm that would soon help give rock ’n’ roll the informal tag “the big beat.”
Bartholomew and the band he assembled would remain Domino’s foundation for the next 15 years, during which time Domino cut hundreds of records and dozens of hits with barely a weak moment.
That’s where Bartholomew becomes more than an add-on to the Fats Domino story. Cosimo Matassa, who owned the studio where Domino recorded, is quoted in Rick Ackerman’s Domino biography Blue Monday as saying Bartholomew kept everything focused — a critical role in the early days, when songs had to be done straight through because nothing could be fixed later.
He built a reputation as a first-rate producer, which led over the years to working on countless other R&B records like Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
When Elvis Presley wanted to signal that he hadn’t forgotten where his music came from, he scrapped his innocuous hit version of “One Night With You” and went back to “One Night (Of Sin),” a Smiley Lewis song for grownups, written and produced by Dave Bartholomew.
Nor was Bartholomew simply a smart producer, polishing the work of others.
He was a musician, a trumpet player who had his own band in the 1930s and had signed to join Jimmy Lunceford when he got drafted into World War II. After the war he formed more bands and was making a nice respectable living when Lew Chudd came knocking and offered more.
Bartholomew had battled to that point from a hardscrabble childhood in which his father Louis left Dave and his three sisters to be raised by their mother, a housekeeper and seamstress.
Louis was a barber and a musician, and it was on visits to the barber shop that young Dave caught the music bug. Before he was a teenager he was playing in one of his father’s bands and, more importantly, had been informally adopted by a barber shop customer named Peter Davis.
Davis, who earlier in life had taught another young man named Louis Armstrong to play trumpet at the Municipal Boys’ Home, saw promise in young Dave despite his economically challenged circumstances.
“If you learn how to play music,” he’s quoted in Ackerman’s book, “at least you’ll know how to do something.”
Young blacks — or any blacks — didn’t have much of a shot at anything in the Depression-era South. Nor did their challenges abate in the post-Depression era South.
After Lew Chudd hired Bartholomew, Chudd would have lunch meetings with white music business people and Bartholomew could not attend because restaurants wouldn’t seat black customers.
The only real answer to all that, Bartholomew said in an interview years later, was to produce something — in his case, music — that was successful. Once green entered the equation, black mattered somewhat less.
It’s also worth remembering that when Bartholomew started working with Domino, Bartholomew was the bigger name. When Domino first went on the road with Bartholomew, Fats was the guy who played on-stage during the band’s intermission. When he graduated into the regular show, he got $50 of the $350 paid to the band.
Success for a traveling road band in the Chitlin’ Circuit days, of course, was relative. The band members all crammed themselves into Bartholomew’s Ford station wagon, which kept overheating. They slept four to a room in cheap motels. If the show ran late and the stores were closed, or wouldn’t serve blacks, they broke into Domino’s stash of tuna fish.
Bartholomew accepted this as part of a world in which those who succeeded hustled every possible angle — extending, for him, into te forbidden turf of radio.
To understand Southern radio in the 1940s, consider the case of Vernon Winslow, an art instructor at all-black Dillard University.
Winslow suggested to small, struggling New Orleans station WJMR that there could be an audience for this new Negro rhythm music.
The station agreed. Then when Winslow went in to discuss it, station manager Stanley Ray told him the station couldn’t possibly hire a Negro announcer (he didn’t say “Negro”). Instead, Winslow was invited to pick the music for a white announcer who would speak in a “black” voice.
With no options, Winslow said okay. He also created a name for this front man: Poppa Stoppa, which sounded street-hip.
Winslow finally did get on the air, using the name Dr. Daddy-O, and WJMR gave Bartholomew a regular slot to play music and plug his weekend gig at Al’s Starlight Inn.
Bartholomew’s own recording career peaked with a song called “Country Boy,” which sold more than 100,000 copies. Most of his best songs, as well as his most successful, went to Domino — including “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blue Monday,” both of which they co-wrote.
For better or worse, Bartholomew’s best-known recording today might be “My Ding-a-Ling,” which Bartholomew recorded in 1952 and became Chuck Berry’s only №1 hit 20 years later.
Berry also claimed to have written it. With all due respect to Berry’s genius, bet on Bartholomew with this one.
He wrote it as a party novelty, he said years later, but it became a minor hit for him on the King label and inspired Chudd to order a copycat version for Imperial (Toy Bell” by the Bees).
In any case, Domino and Bartholomew made a brilliant team. Bartholomew liked simple, clean, direct music. Get in, sing it, get out. Domino delivered. Domino may have been The Fat Man, but there was no fat on his records, and that was Dave Bartholomew’s doing.
Outside the studio, they also seemed to have a cordial relationship, marked by mutual compliments.
Still, as in any long-term artistic relationship, there were points of contention. Ackerman notes that in the earliest days, Domino resented getting only a modest percentage of the band’s take, at the same time Bartholomew wasn’t always happy that this young piano player was getting so much of the attention.
Years later, asked how his relationship with Domino worked, Bartholomew said, “It’s 50–50. We each do half the work. And Fats gets 90% of the credit.”
His tone suggested this was simply a fact, not the genesis of any deep disaffection.
Whatever the nuances, Bartholomew and Domino will always be linked in rock ’n’ roll history, and that’s not a bad thing for either.
But just as Fats Domino stands on his own, so should Dave Bartholomew, who reached the top by the simple trick of being good.