2020-05-06 23:34:27 UTC
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 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 many its 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, at least around New Orleans, 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: 4/10
Sampson should be shot for giving this classic a 4.
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 song’s 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: 8/10