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IMPERIAL 5064; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

When the product that you’re attempting to sell to a mass audience needs to grab the potential customer’s interest at just a glance and is unable to use the primary appeal of its contents to stir that interest, what do you do?

The answer, as anyone who’s been assaulted by gaudy displays for everything from used car lots to fast food restaurants knows, is to catch your eye with something colorful… literally or figuratively.

78 RPM singles were limited in even that regard though because the company’s color scheme on the label was pretty well established and could hardly be changed for each new release by every artist on their roster.

So they turned to the one attribute which always was different from record to record and even A-side to B-side… the title.

The latest Imperial Records release shown here features a title that is indeed colorful, but also one that’s rather curious. Surely as your mind pondered its significance and came up with more questions than answers, you figured it might just be worth the 79 cents it costs (or just a nickel to hear it on a jukebox) to find out what it means.

Most of the time when you’re lured into buying something based on surface appeal alone you’ll wind up disappointed, a victim of false advertising or unrealistic expectations… but not here. The tale that Dave Bartholomew weaves may not quite leave you dead in your tracks as the title suggests, but buying this record is a far better way to spend your money than blowing it on a down payment for a tombstone.
 

 

Man, You Know That’s Wrong!
The English language is a funny thing… full of ironclad rules that make little sense and are often more fun when breaking them than when following them.

This title may be grammatically correct but it’s nevertheless an incongruous statement because the speaker is telling the subject something which the subject can’t possibly hear if the statement is accurate since said subject is deceased!

Yet the way in which its framed is ingenious, as Dave Bartholomew has taken a fairly generic criticism – telling someone who’s been a victim of their own poor judgement that they’re about to make the same mistake again – and twisted it by substituting the word “burned” (as in, that’s how you got burned before… or “got hurt before”, or “got in trouble before”, whatever floats your boat) for “killed”, which if taken literally changes the ramifications – and the sensibility of that statement – entirely.

Though rock’s critics felt that anyone who listened to this music was a monosyllabic dimwit and thus wouldn’t appreciate anything requiring more than a kilowatt of brain power, the fact is most rock listeners were far more savvy than their critics alleged and titles like this were bound to pique their interest because it shows the person responsible for the song also has some brains and delights in showing it off in a wryly ironic manner.

Thus, heading into That’s How You Got Killed Before any listener who has more than just oatmeal taking up space in the six inches between their ears is prepared for something interesting and unique when cueing this song up in hopes that the title doesn’t wind up being the best aspect of the record when all is said and done.
 


 
 

That’s What You Get, Daddy
The weird dichotomy of Dave Bartholomew songwriter/producer for others, and Dave Bartholomew songwriter/performer in his own right, is that when crafting material for other artists it was almost always simple, direct and refreshingly matter-of-fact, whereas when coming up with ideas for his own material he’d often let his mind run wild.

One gets the idea that at times he may have been creatively frustrated that he was required to deliver uncomplicated material when the careers of his many charges was at stake and so he became more quirky and indulgent in his own output when the only thing at risk if it flew over listeners heads was his own career as an artist.

Bartholomew the singer was always more at home embracing his quirkiness – the slightly odd vocal delivery, the peculiar lyrical perspectives and the more eccentric musical touches – than he was playing it straight. Whereas Fats Domino could make even the most basic lyrics seem profound with his warm Creole vocals and rollicking rhythmic drive behind it, Bartholomew seemed more comfortable with somewhat offbeat material.

Domino was a fastball pitcher, whereas Bartholomew was a junkballer, tossing up slow curves, screwballs, knucklers and even an occasional spitter to keep batters… err listeners… off balance. That approach suited his delivery and seemed to spur his creativity and on That’s How You Got Killed Before those attributes are shown to be in fine form throughout.

You wouldn’t expect that however when hearing how this comes crashing out of the gate, horns blaring, drums pounding, rhythm churning like it was nothing but a standard New Orleans rocker taken at full throttle. Of course if it WAS that it’d hardly be a bad thing, since The Crescent City was already known for that sort of slam bang record, some of which had Bartholomew behind the board or leading the band, but just as you get acclimated to the rampaging sound he brings it to a sudden halt to let his vocals enter the frame and that’s when the predictability ends.
 


 
 

Knots On Your Head
Dave’s voice, as always, is beguiling in its limitations. Though hardly beset with a croak or a squawk in his vocal chords, he’s definitely lacking the rich tones of most of the singers he worked with, yet his unusual delivery gives him character and you tend to focus on what he’s saying more than how he’s saying it as a result of this. When he’s got an idiosyncratic story to tell, as he does here, that works to his advantage as his advice to the unnamed protagonist of this tale takes on a bemused cockeyed charm rather than sound off-putting.

He’s cracking wise but not exactly being insulting while doing so, allowing you to swallow it without getting offended. Though the story is certainly going for some laughs along the way, the underlying message is one that any reckless would-be Lothario should listen to because it’s dead-on in its warnings.

“Sammy”, the one he’s addressing, is the kind of guy who will pick out the best looking girl in the club, completely oblivious to who she may be with, not to mention being unable to pick up on the fact she’s clearly not interested in him as he approaches. This fella proceeds to hit on her six ways from Sunday until her friends hustle her into the ladies room to escape him, while his pals try and get him out the door before her bruiser of a boyfriend returns from the bar and removes his spleen without an anesthetic.

Yet in spite of these regular set-backs, this delusional lout won’t quit and Dave is attempting to put him straight so he doesn’t wind up hospitalized (or worse) and is doing so in a manner that suggests he’s not above tweaking his friend’s ego in the process for his own kicks.

The lyrics here are first rate, which is a welcome sight since too often Bartholomew seemed to be ad-libbing his lines in a lot of songs, either that or forgetting what he’d written and scrambling to come up with a worthy substitute on the fly which has a tendency to make some of his songs appear much sloppier than they should be. But on That’s How You Got Killed Before he shows he can indeed craft a good narrative with some quotable passages that are still able to elicit a grin even after you know the punchline.

Throughout all of this Dave remains the stalwart friend who’s been down this road before, tired of the aggravation of hitting the town with his buddy when it almost always ends up with them racing to their car to get away from a vicious beat down because of Sammy’s ill-advised quests for fun and excitement with women who are already spoken for.

If you’ve been there with any of your own friends you’ll recognize the eye-rolling exasperation in Dave’s voice and the scenes he lays out might have you checking behind you in case some cute girl’s old man is approaching with a glare that could cut through steel. For a mere two and a half minute record this paints a very vivid scene.
 

A Big Guy For A Pal
But Bartholomew himself would’ve told you that his best attributes as an artist wasn’t to be found in his singing, nor even in his lyrics, rather his strength was in arranging and it’s here where this earns its stripes and allows it to make a pretty good claim for being his best single to date.

The rousing intro got this off on the right foot and when he downshifts in tempo to deliver the vocal lines the clamor may die down but the inventiveness doesn’t, as he has Frank Fields use his bass as almost a second voice. By stripping it down so much during the sung portions he’s also creating plenty of opportunity for them to rev things back up when the singing stops.

He takes full advantage of that structure here by not only allowing his top notch band to all get spotlighted individually in the breaks, but by writing parts that draw attention to their skills – as well as his OWN in crafting this.

Take for instance the humorous interjections he puts into That’s How You Got Killed Before – almost a “DING-DONG!” sort of sound as Salvadore Doucette makes the piano keys ring with exaggerated echo – yet which don’t seem out of place musically because of how they’re set up in the arrangement. Then he segues out of it smoothly by using Earl Palmer’s deft drumming to create a natural transition back to something more typical with the saxophones.

Even Bartholomew’s use of his own trumpet – a tough sonic fit in rock songs to date – is effectively done thanks to the eccentric combination of sounds that preceded it. His horn’s squawks aren’t off putting in this context, but rather extend the humor, as if they’re moaning with a mixture of apprehension and dread of the fireworks that are to follow if ol’ Sammy continues to pester every woman in the joint.

We know the most likely meal they’ll be eating during their night out will be a knuckle sandwich or two, but seeing as how we’re safely on the other side of the jukebox glass, or in this case well into the next century, we can sit back and enjoy this comic farce as it plays out with no possible harm coming to any of us.
 

You Better Take It Slow
I suppose you can’t really call this a novelty record, or even a song which used humor as its primary appeal, as it probably was far too muscular sounding for many to even notice the comedic aspects of it without paying close attention. Yet it’s also not quite “normal” sounding in its structure, or even in Bartholomew’s singing style, allowing audiences who remained completely unaware of its humor to gravitate towards it with the same interest as something a little more more mainstream in nature.

But that reason also ensured That’s How You Got Killed Before would winding up falling into a middle ground that didn’t reward Bartholomew for how well conceived it was and how expertly they carried it out. Yet had they gone too far in either direction, whether going for laughs or going for the gusto musically, and the delicate balance they achieved would’ve been upended.
 


 

There’s every likelihood that it still would’ve been good either way, you can definitely see them ramping up the jokes and having it work, or you can see them dumbing it down and ramping up the excitement and driving you to a frenzy, but either of those alternatives wouldn’t have captured the idiosyncratic nature that Dave Bartholomew enjoyed showing off every so often, making this far more fitting for his still emerging musical persona as an artist.

That side of his career tends to get the short shrift historically but records like this show that he certainly had something interesting to contribute under his own name and while his greatest achievements came behind the scenes for others, rock ‘n’ roll was still much better off that he didn’t forsake performing altogether once the hits began rolling in for those under his watch as a producer.

Maybe this isn’t “hit material” in the usual sense but it’s got more going for it than a lot of songs that were hits and even when stacked up against his more famous work for others it more than holds its own.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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