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IMPERIAL 5064; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

In the winter 1950 everything seemed to be breaking right for Dave Bartholomew. The previous year he’d scored a huge hit which led to him getting an extended residency in a top Houston club which in turn led directly to him being hired by the owner Imperial Records to head up the company’s musical operations as they branched into New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll.

There Bartholomew got to put all of his many talents to work – as a musician, songwriter, arranger, budding producer along with the organizational skills to pull all of the disparate artists together and come out with a unified sound, everybody heading in the same direction.

As for that direction? Well, two months into 1950 the direction was heading straight to the top with two of the first three releases he co-wrote, produced and oversaw resting in the national Top Ten. Furthermore, the overall sound emanating from The Crescent City where rock itself was born was now growing even stronger with additional artists making commercial inroads in his wake.

All of which means that as Mardi Gras rolled around in February Dave Bartholomew should’ve been sitting on top of the world.
 

 

This Is A Big Affair
With that kind of set-up you know there has to be a “but” coming and so we won’t drag out the suspense.

In most ways Bartholomew WAS sitting on top of the world as the Nineteen Fifties dawned and while he had no way of knowing his future reputation and financial security was assured now that he was on this track he had to feel good about his position in that he was now in control of his own destiny as much as possible.

Now here’s the “BUT”… as in but those rewards came with a price, as his promising career as an artist in his own right was now inevitably going to take a back seat. It certainly didn’t end by any means, he’d still release a lot of singles over the years with a lot of great music among that output, but his days as a viable hit-maker under his own name were coming to a premature close.

Was this a trade-off he would’ve been comfortable making had he known that at the time? Logically it’d be hard to argue that he wouldn’t accept that fate, after all, he’d be the most revered producer in rock for the next decade, responsible for more hits than any single person in the field, the songs he wrote brought him enormous – and consistent – income for the rest of his life (and since he lived until a hundred years old that money had to go a long ways!) all of which placed his legacy beyond reproach.

Yet to the end of his life Bartholomew would get somewhat rankled about having his own musical career shortchanged, in spite of all the other accolades he received. He never got over how The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame inducted him as a Non-Performer, IE. recognizing him solely for his producing and songwriting rather than his playing and singing.

Actually it’s hard to argue with that decision, one of the few that institution made which is defensible on merits. But what his ongoing disgruntlement about it tells you is that in spite of all of his accomplishments he still probably felt just a little unfulfilled when looking back at what might’ve been had he focused entirely on his own recording career rather than overseeing the careers of others.

Here’s where the shift in his focus really begins to become apparent with his first release after taking on the responsibilities of overseeing Imperial Records, for whom he’s also now recording himself after his last record came out on DeLuxe eight whole months earlier.

Though Carnival Day never made the national Billboard charts it was a strong regional hit in New Orleans, coinciding with the holiday the song describes which defines the city to many.

Yet while it’s got some interesting ideas scattered throughout the record the somewhat ragged unfocused nature of the performance also shows why maybe Bartholomew’s ultimate role as the facilitator for others was his best bet all along.
 


 
 

Ballin’ On Rampart Street
There was little chance that most prolific musicians who were lifelong residents of New Orleans weren’t going to find reason to tackle this topic sooner or later and so the choice of themes for Bartholomew’s first Imperial release was indeed a good one. If ever there was a subject that would allow for him to combine his own experience in the city, his diverse musical background – spanning everything from Dixieland jazz to rock ‘n’ roll – and his commercial instincts in bringing something so colorful to the nation as a whole, surely this would be it.

Which is why it’s such a let down that Carnival Day is like looking at someone else’s out of focus vacation photos as they struggle to remember what each shot depicts.

For those who’ve never been to it, Mardi Gras is less an event than it is an experience, meaning the atmosphere of the city during that week is the main attraction while the surrounding celebrations are merely part of the ambiance that contribute to the fun. But that can be a hard thing to convey in the confines of a two and a half minute song if you attempt to describe it lyrically rather than merely suggest it aurally, which is the first misstep Bartholomew makes.

On his own songs his lyrics were often the weakest aspect and you get the sense that at times he was often ad-libbing… either that or he was singing them from memory and frequently lost his place. As one of the greatest producers ever you’d think he’d be more than willing to go back and do another take to get it right, but since he so often didn’t when it came to his own work you have to wonder if he felt at all self-conscious about taking TOO much time for his own material, even though he was a legitimate recording artist with a strong track record before taking on additional roles.

Whatever the cause though the combination of a somewhat unfocused narrative, descriptive scenes that are a little too vague and a few flubbed lines means that we never really get a sense of the picture he’s trying to paint.

He starts off with some Indian chants to give it the appropriate local flavor but his voice isn’t suited for this as he’s simply not melodic enough to make it sound like something more than gibberish to outsiders.

Once he jumps into the proper lyrics it improves only modestly for much the same reasons. Dave’s voice is quirky, something we’ve praised here at times, but it requires the right arrangement to highlight those quirks and this isn’t it. For starters the lines are too brief, almost chopped into pieces rather than drawn out to form a more coherent structure, and while the action he describes is certainly authentic you get no real sense of what’s going on if you don’t have any previous exposure to the sights and sounds during the festivities.

It sounds intriguing maybe but not altogether inviting and that’s the first responsibility of whoever is trying to sell something as mysterious to outsiders as the intricacies of Mardi Gras hoopla.
 

Bands Blasting Everywhere
If nothing else you’d think the band of New Orleans bred musicians would be salivating at sinking their hooks into this subject, letting the sounds of street parades that permeated their youth in the city receive full-flower here, but rather than sound natural, as if the music were seeping from their pores, it sounds… well… kinda artificial.

Like a group of outsiders were brought in and instructed to replicate New Orleans music without the proper time to immerse themselves in it.

I know, I know, that’s a harsh statement to make considering the quality of musicians involved here but it’s hard to sugar coat it when Carnival Day is somewhat clumsy in its backing track – good in concept with its many interlocking parts but they don’t mesh well enough to ultimately work to the song’s advantage.

Everything on this is just slightly out of sync. The guitar stands out as something potentially interesting if it were pursued, as Ernest McLean uses sort of a buzzy distorted tone, but that doesn’t fit with the stop/start percussion its paired with. Then when the guitar takes a back seat and the horns come in, far more appropriate for the topic at least, it’s done in by the claves which are played in much too herky-jerky a manner to get you in a groove. Just focus on those and nothing else and try and snap your fingers to it and it won’t be long before you wind up completely lost.

The Herb Hardesty sax solo that follows is fairly good in isolation but doesn’t fit well with everything around it, nor is it distinctive enough melodically to have you wanting to go back to hear it again. Maybe the best thing to call it is “indistinct”, but when it comes to New Orleans sax even that phrase is more of a put-down than anything.

The most memorable element of the entire track is the underlying horn riff they play behind Bartholomew on the verses, that intoxicating pattern filled with pauses that are further emphasized by some really good drumming by Earl Palmer, but because Dave’s voice is so harsh during these parts you tend to lose focus even here.

You WANT to like it more than you do and it’s easy to see that Carnival Day had some real potential if it had been tightened up some, but with success comes higher expectations and when taking everything into consideration – the timing, his recent hit records for others AND his best showing as an artist when last we saw him with Country Boy – our expectations were through the roof and this mostly fails to live up to them in the end.
 


 
 

People Crowd New Orleans
In a lot of these reviews, looking back at all of these artists and records at the distance of well over a half century, it’s hard not to let conjecture slip into your thinking. In the case of Dave Bartholomew at this specific time it’s almost impossible not to.

Here he was being given almost unprecedented control over the output of an entire label and naturally that would be weighing on his mind the most. His own music was bound to suffer to a degree, at least until he got his feet under him, and since he was headed out on tour just after cutting these sides in early February this was even more the case.

Thus it’s entirely understandable that Carnival Day sounds like a good idea done in by a lack of preparation with little chance for extensive re-takes.

Though the record sold well enough to be considered a success, the failure of Bartholomew to take his place on the the national hit parade alongside the artists he was now in charge of producing may have been part of the reason why he began to put the majority of his efforts into overseeing the work of others.

That’s good news for the likes of Fats Domino, Tommy Ridgley and Smiley Lewis, but not so good for the career of Dave Bartholomew as a performer.

But life itself is a constant series of give and take and with so much on his plate now Bartholomew had to decide what came first. From this point forward – and surely with some regret – Dave’s own career would have to come in second.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Dave Bartholomew for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)