Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos, Ponderosa Stomp Co-Founder, shared this remembrance of his friend, the legendary Dave Bartholomew, who passed away recently at age 100. Dave’s contributions to the development of popular music can not be overstated. It was our good fortune that this giant of American music was also a mentor and “the father of the Ponderosa Stomp family.” He will be missed, and we will be forever grateful for his inspiration.
The passing of Dave Bartholomew has really crushed me after the recent loss of Ponderosa Stomp stars Paul ”Lil Buck” Sinegal, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, and Roky Erickson. While Lil Buck and Lazy Lester were the heart and soul of the Stomp, Dave Bartholomew was the father of the Ponderosa Stomp family. How this noble, immaculately dressed King of Rock and Roll became good friends with a t-shirt-and-shorts wearing, vinyl-fiend doctor is still a mystery to me. But he was a true friend and mentor who gave me a lot of sage advice and history lessons over the years.
Dave was a regal presence. If you talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk he had no time for you. He was always direct and straightforward, which could make him appear prickly, but he was deeply generous. While he was all business at rehearsals and gigs, he always hung out with members of his band and was beloved by his fellow musicians, who called him The Chief.
Dave put the “big beat” into R&B, and left his personal stamp on the new genre of rock and roll. He scouted and recorded the artists he believed in, like Fats Domino, and produced them as he saw fit. His partnership with Domino, beginning with “The Fat Man” in 1949, charted a new way forward. In that historic run, Dave was the musician everybody looked up to–he was nicknamed Leather Lungs for his ability to hold a note. He and his band of ringer African American jazz musicians had the musicianship and versatility to take R&B to the next level. Dave led the revolution.
Dave was more than a master musician, songwriter supreme, arranger par excellence, A&R man of the highest order, and hit-making producer. He was a mentor and role model to countless musicians over the years, from the members of his great studio band to Harold Battiste, Wardell Quezergue, Allen Toussaint, and Mac Rebennack.
As a black A&R man and record executive in the Deep South in the 50s and 60s, Dave was also a civil rights leader. He put himself in the position to manage his own recording budgets, signing and paying acts as he saw fit. He established a rare level of control of black cultural products in a white-dominated industry. Beyond that, his hits with Fats Domino and others helped bring down segregation as kids of every color around the world wanted to dance to the hit records he wrote, arranged, and produced.
When we started doing Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau shows, the saxophonist Herbert Hardesty told me I should do something with Dave Bartholomew. When I told Herbert I was creating The Ponderosa Stomp, he suggested that we reunite Dave with his old musicians, including himself, Earl Palmer, and Ernest McLean. Herbert put me in touch with Earl and Ernest, who loved the idea. Herbert arranged for us to go talk to Dave after a Preservation Hall gig he was doing. Dave was pretty gruff and to the point. He looked me over and said, since you are taking care of my musicians, I’ll do it. Call my son Ron to set it up.
After talking to Ron everything was in place, or so I thought. A month before the first Ponderosa Stomp concert, the phone rang at midnight. It was Dave Bartholomew. He had been to the casino and no one there knew he was playing the Ponderosa Stomp. Was I doing any promotion? After assuring him for ten minutes people would be there, he hung up. The next night, the phone rang again at midnight. It’s Dave Bartholomew. Why aren’t we advertising his appearance on television? I once again reassured him people would be there.The next night: why am I not advertising the Stomp in the Times Picayune? Here we go again–somehow I have to get Dave to believe people will attend. This went on for weeks.
Finally, the Ponderosa Stomp comes. On the first night, Dave shows up unannounced to see Earl, Ernest, and Herbert play and hang out with them. He is shocked to see there are people there, and has a great time, arranging a photo of him with his old band members. After the first shot, he insisted that Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and Lazy Lester bunch in for group shots since they represented the next step in the evolution of rock and roll. Two nights later, Dave and his band played. It was incredible. Allen Toussaint showed up on his own to hang out. Cosimo Matassa came with his wife. Dave reuniting with his old band onstage was magnificent. He played some of the most amazing trumpet solos I have ever seen.
While it would take a few years to get Dave to play the Stomp again, there would be many trips to Dooky Chase’s and Houston’s. We became good friends. He gave me advice on how to set up concert bills and present bands, making sure to have the right backing musicians for each artist. He also taught me about when and where his songs were written. When asked about various musicians, he looked at them from both the business side–how their records sold–as well as his personal relationship with them.
In 2009, The Ponderosa stomp was asked to produce an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum about the history of rock and roll in the state. It featured a 100-foot wall laying out the story of New Orleans R&B, starting with the “Fat Man” and walking through every major artist, producer, and A&R man until the 1970s. Of course Dave was featured, with his collaborators including Domino, Smiley Lewis, Shirley & Lee, and Tommy Ridgely, and the peers he inspired like Harold Battiste, Allen Toussaint, and Wardell Quezergue. Dave’s eyes watered when he saw the exhibit–he said it was how the music should be presented: seriously, with dignity, the way he’d always made it. In 2009 he did an oral history at our Music History Conference (and spoke at the Conference again in 2010) and pretty much directed his own interview. Dave did everything his way. I feel extremely lucky to have called him my friend.