After derailing the past couple of years with honorees that were too obvious (Janis Joplin) or too marginal (Les Paul), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Music Masters series gets back on track this year with Walking to New Orleans: The Music of Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. The annual weeklong program — which celebrates an influential artist who helped shape rock & roll — pays tribute to a pair of pioneering musicians whose partnership yielded some of rock's greatest songs.
This is the first time the Rock Hall is dedicating its conferences-and-concerts series to two people. And it makes sense. While past subjects — from Woody Guthrie and Bessie Smith to Hank Williams and Roy Orbison — made their best music with a variety of producers, arrangers, and musicians, almost all of Domino's hits were created with fellow New Orleans native Bartholomew.
Bartholomew's career began about a decade before Domino's. Bartholomew — who'll turn 90 in December — started playing trumpet with Army bands in the '40s. By 1947 he was recording with his own big band, which was influenced by Big Joe Turner's jump-blues R&B. He gave the music a pinch of New Orleans spice, beefed up the sound, and steamrolled over traditional pop arrangements. He hooked up with piano player Domino (who's now 82) at the tail end of the decade, and together they reached No. 2 on the R&B charts with their first song, "The Fat Man."
By the end of the '50s, the pair was responsible for some of rock's most enduring cuts: "Ain't That a Shame," "I'm in Love Again," "Blueberry Hill," and "I'm Walkin'." Domino co-wrote, sang, and performed the songs; Bartholomew co-wrote, produced, arranged, and played on them. And every single one of them is packed with a sound that's as big and as amiable as Domino himself.
"We disagreed on some things," recalls Bartholomew, "but things always came together."
"Their collaboration is unique," says Lauren Onkey, the Rock Hall's VP of Education and Public Programs. "There really isn't a comparable figure like Dave Bartholomew in the career of, say, Elvis. He wasn't a manager, he didn't discover him. It really was a collaboration."
The program starts on Monday with a Rock and Roll Night School at the Rock Hall, where Onkey and others will discuss the influence of Domino and Bartholomew. (For one thing, you can hear a prototype of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound in Bartholomew's arrangements and production. Just think of how many modern rock bands have been influenced by Spector, and you'll see the scope of inspiration here.)
For the next five days, the Rock Hall will present movies, seminars, and Q&A sessions that illustrate the importance of these two artists. A daylong conference at Case Western Reserve University's Wolstein Auditorium on Saturday, November 13, will even feature an appearance by Bartholomew. (Domino rarely travels outside of his New Orleans home these days and won't be attending any of the festivities.)
The whole thing culminates in two concerts next weekend: one by Trombone Shorty on Friday, November 12, at the House of Blues, and an all-star New Orleans blowout featuring Bartholomew, Toots and the Maytals, Irma Thomas, and Dr. John and the Lower 911 (who will serve as the house band) at the Palace Theatre on Saturday, November 13.
"The New Orleans story plays such a key role in rock & roll," says Onkey. "There's no first rock record — everybody kinda argues about that. But you can make a really strong case that rock & roll as we know it was created in J&M Studios in New Orleans by these guys."
The highlights of this year's program will likely be the conference and concert on November 13, both of which include appearances by Bartholomew and several of the musicians who played on Domino's hits. While Bartholomew probably won't perform much ("I still got something, but don't expect what I did years ago," he says), he plans on sharing a few of his many stories.
One of his favorites involves the making of "Blueberry Hill," their biggest pop hit, which reached No. 2 in 1955, and one of rock's all-time greatest songs. "We were fine on that song until we got to the bridge," says Bartholomew. "I didn't even know it. We spent five or six hours on that one song. They wanted to put it out, but I said, 'It's not right. We got nothing.' It became a hit, and they told me, 'From now on, just give us nothing.'"Send feedback to [email protected].