BHM 2019

David "Fathead" Newman

February 22, 2019

Newman was born in Corsicana, Texas, on February 24, 1933, but grew up in Dallas, where he studied first the piano and then the saxophone.[3] According to one account, he got his nickname “Fathead” in school when “an outraged music instructor used it as an epithet after catching Mr. Newman playing a Sousa march from memory rather than from reading the sheet music, which rested upside down on the stand.”[4]

Inspired by the jump blues bandleader Louis Jordan, Newman took up the alto saxophone in the seventh grade, and was mentored by former Count Basie saxophonist Buster Smith.[5] He went off to Jarvis Christian College on a music and theology scholarship but quit school after three years and began playing professionally, mostly jazz and blues, with a number of musicians, including Smith, pianist Lloyd Glenn, and guitarist bandleaders Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker.[3]

Newman met and befriended Ray Charles in early 1951 when Charles was playing piano and singing with the Lowell Fulson band.[5] Newman joined Charles’ band in 1954 as a baritone saxophone player, but later switched to tenor and became Charles’ principal saxophone soloist after tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson left the band.[5][6]

Many of Charles’ seminal recordings during the 1950s and early 1960s feature a saxophone solo by Newman. These include hits such as “Lonely Avenue,” “Swanee River Rock,” “Ain’t That Love,” “The Right Time” (with Newman on alto sax), and “Unchain My Heart“.[7] Although his solos were short in duration, they became, as the New York Times later noted, “crucial to the Ray Charles sound.”[8] Atlantic Records’ producer Jerry Wexler, who signed Charles to the label, called Newman Charles’ “alter ego on tenor.”[9] Charles said that Newman “could make his sax sing the song like no one else.”[10] As Newman himself put it, “I became famous for playing 8-bar and 12-bar solos!”[5]

In 1959, Newman released his debut album as a leader, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman, with Charles playing piano.[5] He stayed with Charles’ band until 1964, and rejoined the group in 1970–1971.[5]

After leaving Charles’ band, Newman worked with Herbie Mann’s band in 1970-71, and recorded albums for Atlantic, Warner Bros., Prestige and Muse.[11] Newman did session work with a variety of artists, including Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Dr. John, and with Natalie Cole on her Unforgettable album.[5] He also worked as a sideman with Jimmy Scott, B.B. King, and Lou Rawls.[2] He also scored films and performed in the Robert Altman film Kansas City and did a national tour with the band from that 1996 film for Verve records.[5] In 1990 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for recordings with Art Blakey and Dr. John.[4]

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