SACRAMENTO — Dave Bartholomew is a born storyteller who loves to reminisce about the excitement of making the hits that established (Antoine) Fats Domino--alongside Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard--as one of the superstars of early rock.
"The thing that made Fats' records so good was that people could identify with what he was saying," Bartholomew was explaining. "They were real songs. The best was 'Blue Monday.' That was a hell of a story . . . a real workingman's song, and that's where I come from--the working class of people. It was about the life I lived.
"Remember, I came up in a time when we didn't know anything about owning your own home or anything like that. All I ever wanted to do was get a little double house (duplex apartment), and maybe rent one side and get me a used car. I never dreamed I'd ever be able to buy a new car because it was such a rough life when I was coming up as a kid."
Then the phone rang, an irritating interruption.
His mood brightened when he heard Domino's voice through the receiver. They had flown here together from New Orleans for the start of Domino's first California concert tour in nearly 20 years--and the opening show was just a few hours away.
"Yes, Antoine," Bartholomew said. "Don't worry, everything's going to be all right. We're all going to play our butts off tonight."
After a few more words of reassurance, Bartholomew, 65, who co-wrote and/or produced many of Domino's records and remains his musical director, returned to his chair by the window.
"You know, even after all these years Fats is still real concerned with putting on a good show," he said. "A lot of performers--especially those who've been around as long as he has--tend to take things easy. They just go out and do their hits and pick up their check. But Fats really loves music. He's still just like he was the first night I saw him 40 years ago."
He paused--a soft, sweet moment as he seemed caught up in his admiration for his longtime friend.
The phone rang again--somebody on the road crew looking for a member of the band. Bartholomew cut him short. He wanted to finish his story about "Blue Monday." The song tells a lot about Bartholomew's struggle in the fledging days of the rock revolution.
"I'll never forget what my father said. He was a barber and a musician, and he told me that I'd have to make something out of myself in music because a black man has a hard road to travel in this world . . . and it was true. But I later found out that not only a black man has a hard road to travel. Any man has a hard road to travel if he doesn't know anything or develop a talent. And that song is about traveling down that road."
To those who don't read the credits on records, the whole story of million-sellers like "Ain't That a Shame," "I'm in Love Again" and "Blueberry Hill" rests in the name Fats Domino.
However, fans more knowledgeable about the history of those records realize that Domino had an invaluable partner in Bartholomew. The latter was a talent scout for Lew Chudd's Los Angeles-based Imperial Records in 1949 when he spotted the 19-year-old Domino playing piano and singing in a New Orleans club called the Hideaway.
Intrigued by Domino's warm, disarming vocal style, Bartholomew asked the young musician to make a record and their first single--"The Fat Man"--sold a million copies. They would go on to record more than three dozen Top 40 singles, resulting in sales estimated at between 65 million and 100 million. That string of hits ranks him 10th in the rock era (post-'55) in number of Top 40 singles--ahead of the Supremes, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Barbra Streisand.
And, there are other evidences of Domino's popularity. When Ernest Evans looked for a stage name in the late '50s, he thought of Fats Domino and came up with Chubby Checker. Paul McCartney tipped his hat to Domino when he echoed his early New Orleans-based piano sound on "Lady Madonna." To millions of people who grew up in the '50s, Domino's music still epitomizes the good-time essence of early rock.
Still, Domino's reputation isn't as strong among young rock fans today as that of his more flamboyant rivals--Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard. One reason is Domino never exhibited the wild, rebellious side that made headlines in the '50s. He also has toured infrequently in recent years and his shyness makes him retreat from TV and interviews.
Because of that shyness, Bartholomew is perhaps best equipped to give us perspective on the Domino story and those exciting days of early rock. Bartholomew was the hottest bandleader in New Orleans after World War II, but none of the several records he made for De Luxe Records made him a star.