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DELUXE 3223; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

Are you ever really fully aware when “your moment” has arrived?

In other words, no matter what specific moment we’re talking about, your peak popularity in school… your optimal level of athletic performance… the best you’ll ever look to the opposite sex… the biggest chance you’ll have for career advancement… are you actually convinced that moment is upon you?

The answer of course is no. Human beings have a unique mix of ego and optimism combined with a sometimes a stupefying lack of self-awareness that enables them to believe that the hot streak they’re enjoying is bound to go on indefinitely. But it never does.

For some it does last longer than others of course and obviously not all heights are created equal. The ugly duckling isn’t going to be prom queen and the boy with two left feet isn’t going to be a basketball star, but in each of their existences there’ll come a time when certain things just come together and they reach their high point, whatever that might be, yet once achieved they think it’s merely a new plateau and tomorrow they’ll take another step up rather than start to slide back down again.

In music it happens all the time, for every artist in every era, and yet who among them knew when they reached that new high that it’d be the one that defined their career forever after?
 

 
Seven Months
In our last review for Dave Bartholomew we started it by bringing up a time frame – 16 months – which marked the span between his previous release way back in December 1947 and his re-emergence in the spring of 1949.

That’s when he had started to come into his own, spending that time playing live gigs where he’d built his reputation and was widely acknowledged as possessing the most skilled band in the New Orleans region. It was also during that period when the musical styles surrounding him had begun to fully gel, his own early jazz leanings being shown to not have anywhere near the potential for mass success as rock ‘n’ roll increasingly had. Bartholomew, one of the most astute figure in music history as well as one of the most ambitious, didn’t need much more prodding to head firmly in that direction.

During those sixteen months spent woodshedding he focused on honing that style which showed the most promise, writing arrangements to take advantage of his stellar musicians and at the same time keep it sounding deceptively simple and direct for audiences to be able to latch onto. When he finally got another chance in the studio the record he came out with, Girt Town, was a Top Ten hit on the New Orleans regional charts in Cash Box, providing confirmation as to the commercial potential of his creative choices.

With this release, Country Boy he’d surpass that, scoring his one and only national hit on the Billboard charts, selling over 100,000 copies of the record, which was a sizable amount still for any rock single in that era.

Based on these recent returns, and combined with his overall skill set as both a songwriter and performer, it would appear as if Dave Bartholomew was poised to become a very big name in rock ‘n’ roll.

That he would, but it would not be as an artist.

The reason for that is in December of 1949 Bartholomew launched his outside production career for Imperial Records, scoring two massive national hits cut on two different artists in his first session behind the board. From that point forward, though his own recording career would continue for years and result in some excellent records, Bartholomew’s fame would come almost entirely from his role as a producer.

It had taken him sixteen months to go from being an almost disregarded afterthought following his initial sub-par efforts in late 1947 to becoming a successful hitmaking artist in mid-1949, yet it would be less than half that time, just seven months all told, where he was able to enjoy that status before his career changed forever.

This then was his moment.
 
 


 

Running Wild In This Big Old Town
In that time spent away leading up to this Bartholomew had shored up his deficiencies in almost ruthless fashion by excising much of what hadn’t worked that first time around the track, no matter how close to his heart those parts had been.

On both his debut, She’s Got Great Big Eyes, and its follow up a month later, Dave’s Boogie Woogie, the enthusiasm of the playing was apparent and there was even hints of his arranging talents as he split the records into separate sections designed to showcase different instruments while maintaining momentum. But they were also flimsy songs… or not so much songs in the sense of strict compositions as much as they were after hours jam sessions built around a simple lyrical premise that was all but superfluous.

His singing, which was never melodious even in the best of circumstances, had his odd tone further emphasized by the style of the songs with their shouted refrains, rather than allowing it to be blended into a more well-rounded sound.

Both of those songs were also hampered by Dave’s reliance on utilizing his own horn – the trumpet – in a manner that was already proving to be ill-fitting in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not that Bartholomew couldn’t play well, but rather the trumpet (as we’ve said more times than we care to remember) wasn’t built for rock’s needs. It was too shrill a sound, the playing methods it employed so well in jazz were excessively showy for the more direct aims of rock.

Bartholomew returned this year with a more streamlined game plan. His songwriting took a huge leap forward as now the compositions were thoroughly worked out, more proper songs than loose-limbed jams. Girt Town had a more well-formed storyline, not complex or revealing any surprising plot twists, but it was something far more sturdy than the drunken chanting he’d used to convey enthusiasm before this.

Furthermore it required him to sing with a lighter touch, to carry a melody reasonably well and introduced his trademark note bending at the end of lines. Of course both of these attributes were hardly shocking discoveries that would change music as we know it. After all MOST artists utilized the very things he seemingly had only just learned here, but the fact he did pick them up and use them both to his advantage when he’d shown no signs of being amenable to that back in ’47 were clear signs of his artistic development.

But it’s the work beyond that which shows him really coming into his own, as his earlier arranging instincts have been further shaped and polished, particularly his understanding of how to best highlight each instrument in the construction of the song, something which is beginning to stand him apart from the crowd.

On Country Boy all of those facets come together wonderfully.
 

 
 

When I’m With My Baby
The record starts with a modest confidence. Horns working in unison set a disarmingly rhythmic riff, one which is noticeably devoid of his own trumpet which is a decision which speaks well as to his grasp of what works and what doesn’t. So many records to date have used the trumpet alongside other horns in intros, almost as if the producer decided that as long as you’re paying for it in the studio it might as well contribute, even though what it usually does is sink the entire mood by standing out too much and changing the feel of what’s heard.

But this intro has no mismatched parts to contend with, just an alto and tenor sax sharing the stage, the pieces fitting together exquisitely, making your head bob and shoulders groove with mesmerizing self-assurance. They’re aided by the rest of the small band, a piano, bass and drums being the only other instruments, all of them playing in quiet lockstep adding discreetly to the prancing pattern that puts you in a mellow trance.

When Dave’s voice comes in it’s slightly higher in mix than the backing track and that along with his distinctive tone assures that it will stand out, but at last he’s maintaining a firmer control over its projection, thereby ensuring that we pay more attention to what he’s telling us rather than how declaratively he’s putting it across.

Though the story itself is fairly basic, a trait he would maintain for the most part over his career, his ability to make simple sentiments sound descriptive and colorful is reaching full flower.

Country Boy takes the premise of placing an unsophisticated young man in a bustling metropolis where he’d seem to be out of his element, even overwhelmed by his surroundings and then pulling the curtain back to show how the character’s natural talents allow him to get along just fine when it comes to what really matters, namely in how the ladies respond to him.

Talk about perfectly embodying your audience’s views. The black community as a whole, especially in the south, was one typically dismissed on sight, underestimated and undervalued at every turn, yet each of them knew they had something substantial to offer the world if given the chance. By distilling that basic belief down to a topic that had universal appeal and allowed the listeners to take pride of the outcome – “all the girls love me ‘cause they know what I’m putting down“, he boasts – Bartholomew forges an immediate connection with the general mindset of those hearing it, knowing they can substitute whatever aspect of themselves they feel is deserving of more recognition. The audience is able to throw their own shoulders back and stick their chest out as they walk down the street while listening to it, feeling like somebody important no matter how they’ve been discounted throughout society before.

Though not containing a lot of variation within, he repeats the same few stanzas multiple times, there’s still enough wit to elicit grins over multiple listens, particularly as he describes his girl waking him up early in the morning demanding that he “give me my morning exercise“.

We know she means sex, yet he delivers it in such a disarming way (helped by the fact she tosses in a crack at his expense) that you could actually believe she wants to simply go for a pre-dawn stroll and still find it just as enjoyable.
 

What I’m Putting Down
What really gives an indication as to his burgeoning know-how is found in its extended instrumental passage. This was the part you might’ve been leery about heading in, knowing that he’ll want to give himself the leading role in the arrangement and knowing just as well that unless he traded his trumpet for a tenor sax that it was likely to misfire badly, sinking what might otherwise be a good record.

But while he does indeed handle the lead chores, what jumps out at you right away is the fact that he figured it out, the elusive mystery of how to incorporate a jazz instrument into rock ‘n’ roll. Finally someone in the rock universe conceptually gets it!

The unifying feature of so many of rock’s early missteps as they were feeling their way along an unlit corridor was their over-reliance on that outdated trumpet. We’ve gone over the reasons countless times, including in this very review, but we had to KEEP repeating them because it seemed that nobody making records then actually listened to them afterwards and were able to determine how the trumpet’s tone and playing style was the proverbial sore thumb sticking out of each arrangement that featured them prominently.

Bartholomew had been guilty of this too at first, but he is now the first to grasp not only the problem but also a potential solution, as he contributes a solo here that fundamentally alters the way the trumpet is showcased.

Normally the trumpet’s lines go on far too long, winding their way around the tune until they strangle it like a kudzu vine. But Bartholomew plays his trumpet here more like a saxophone, with short emphatic blasts, keeping it in the lower range at first and using the higher notes at the end of his solo in much the same way a tenor sax will start to soar into an alto’s range to deliver more ear-popping squeals as it reaches the crescendo.

Though he can do only so much about the horn’s tone he manages to keep it reined in by limiting its exposure and playing up its aggressiveness when it is featured (and special mention must be made for how he emphasizes the bassist in the arrangement throughout this, giving it a deep bottom that not only grooves in a modern way but also off-sets the horn to a degree, balancing the highs and lows nicely). His horn lines may be delivered with a sting more than a bite perhaps, but better that than his previous wayward efforts at atonal buzzing that always came across as more annoying than dangerous. Now he’s concerning himself more with conveying the proper mood for the song than with trying to impress trumpet aficionados with dazzling passages and in doing so he nails the final piece with aplomb. This is his first truly great arrangement and a portend of things to come from him.
 

 

Country Boy was Dave Bartholomew’s coming out party and, ironically enough, his curtain call as a major artist. Once he stepped behind the scenes his own recording career took a back seat to the legends he was helping to build, but this song on this session is where he laid the groundwork for his later monuments as a producer… and where he received the necessary feedback with its success to give him confidence that it was the right direction in which to head.

To think that he began his career in the most unassuming and underwhelming way imaginable and in just a year and a half – over just four released records – he managed to transform himself completely makes his career trajectory among the more remarkable feats we’ve encountered. It’s also proof that far from being a style of music with no artistic advancement rock ‘n’ roll rewarded those who learned from their mistakes and applied those lessons in an ongoing effort to better themselves.

That’s both a testament to rock music itself but also to Dave Bartholomew whose success story is only just beginning even as his moment in the glare of the spotlight is soon ending.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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