Long before we got hammered by Hurricane Katrina, Cleveland beat out New Orleans as the site for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No one paid me to say this, but it’s a good thing Cleveland won. The Rock Hall, as Clevelanders call their glass-and-steel pyramid to the music, is a world-class act. Never imagined Cleveland for your stolen weekend to restoke the eros? The Rock Hall beckons.
The wealth of New Orleans lies in a culture that most civic boosters (I except Mayor Mitch on this one) equate with a one-dimensional notion of tourism. Eat our food, dance to our music, leave a big tip. Architecture? The roots culture on which tourism came to rely springs from a neighborhood fabric of rare social diversity and music-making families. As post-flood New Orleans fawns in the public lens as a recovery queen, the reality is that since that day in 1949 when Dave Bartholomew produced “The Fat Man,” the city has wrecked acres of fine architecture and landmarks to put up dismal buildings and the Interstate 10 North Claiborne overpass.
Cleveland, a rustbelt city with serious urban decay, had the Yankee ingenuity to see the Rock Hall as a billion-dollar pump for which we in the urban tropics can only dream.
The wail and wit of up-tempo blues that made teenagers across postwar America rock against conformity had many origins whence sprang a range of pop iconography arrayed along the Rock Hall walls – guitars, costumes, Springsteen’s song notebooks, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner’s nervous letters to a zonked-out Hunter S. Thompson and more. An auditorium with a large screen runs a reel of footage of the artists you still hear on oldies radio as a soundtrack to times before Wall Street became Las Vegas East. A car hangs from a ceiling at the spacious hall. The gift store is a killer.
In November, the Rock Hall honored Dave Bartholomew, the trumpeter, bandmaster and producer who molded the Fats Domino sound, in its American Music Masters series. Bartholomew and Domino are previous inductees; the Masters series is a yearly event honoring an artist who changed the course of culture. Besides Domino, Bartholomew produced Lloyd Price, Irma Thomas, Little Richard, the Spiders, Smiley Lewis, Roy Brown, Chris Kenner and then some. The trumpeter who came out of World War II with a bravura tone and unique slant on big band arrangements found his world in the J&M Studio with Cosimo Matassa. Matassa the Venerable sat smiling at the concert where Bartholomew’s artistry shimmered in the tender duet as Irma Thomas and Lloyd Price sang “Walking To New Orleans.” Dr. John played piano. Thomas and Price did a gentle catwalk off stage, a showcase moment on how to age with grace.
Six months shy of his 90th birthday, accompanied by a large retinue of family, Dave Bartholomew was dapper, his gait a bit slower than in the years when rock was young. He was debonair at the concert, playing a sweet trumpet.
The measure of the man showed in other ways. At the day-long symposium on his career at Case Western Reserve University, Bartholomew as patriarch was celebrated in an inspired music video directed by Kevin Davis, “Born in the Country: Behind the Scenes,” produced by Dave’s hip hop-making sons, Don L. and Ron C., of Bang N Records. You can see it on YouTube.
Of all the novelty songs in the early R&B canon, “The Monkey Speaks His Mind” as sung by Bartholomew to a rolling drumbeat and not much else, is a standout of cross-racial comic irony.
No monkey ever deserted his wife, Starved her babyand ruined her life … And then the deep bottom refrain: Yeah, the monkey speaks his mind.
In a moment away from the festivities, I asked what caused him to write the song. “I was in the Dallas airport,” he replied matter-of-factly, “rushing to catch a plane. Lady handed me this envelope and said read this, it could make a good song. I put it in my pocket. Weeks later opened it up, read it and thought, what is this? Let me try.”
He said he had never met the lady before nor seen her since. He didn’t know her name. This happened before the rise of celebrity culture. How did that white woman come to recognize Bartholomew, and what led her to hand him the shards of a song? Timeless music is made of such mysteries.
In an interview at the conference, author John Broven asked Bartholomew the secret of his success. “I really can’t say, John,” replied the man. He wasn’t deadpanning either. In fact the reply echoed a 1981 interview he did with Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones, in which he admitted that he had been opposed to the distribution of Domino’s version of “Blueberry Hill.” He feared it would confuse people, instead of jumping over to the country charts as it did.
“So who am I?” he shrugged in retrospect, many million sales later.
The modesty speaks volumes about his success. For all of his talent, Bartholomew earned that Music Masters award by dint of a dead-serious work ethic. He was a dictator in the studio; he knew what he wanted. The 1950s recording technology was primitive – he spent endless hours with Matassa, driving the musicians through retake after retake to get the perfect sound.
At one of the conference panels, veterans of that studio band – Ernest Maclean; Billy Diamond, 94; Herb Hardesty, a youthful 85; and lyricist and recording marketer Eddie Ray; sat with the irrepressible Bob French, recalling life on the road during the perils of segregation and working in the studio under Bartholomew.
Today, with multiple tracks and digital technology, you can build a sound for bands that can barely replicate it when they go on stage. What drew producers and artists to New Orleans as the records moved nationally was Earl Palmer’s backbeat on drums and the hot horns that Bartholomew harnessed in the Domino rhythm section.
Everyone wanted the honey-sweet baritone of Domino’s voice, but the reason so many producers who didn’t have a contract with Domino wanted Bartholomew’s band owed to the magical sound he forged, a sound that made people across many time zones get up and dance, thinking they could dance forever.