Saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, Jr., was born on February 24, 1933, in Corsicana, Texas. He is well-known for his years playing in the Ray Charles band. Newman joined Charles in 1954 and was a member of the band until the mid-1960s. He played again with Charles in the early 1970s. Known as a musician’s musician, Newman’s artistic career is also noted for frequent collaborations with a long list of renowned artists including Henry “Buster” Smith, Ornette Coleman, T-Bone Walker, Herbie Mann, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, and Lee Morgan, among others.
David Newman played alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone, as well as flute, achieving a powerfully unique style that melded musical genres. His style has been described in a wide variety of ways, and he’s received praise for his strong beat and funky quality as well as his more subtle and gentle playing. Newman was able to masterfully combine the bebop idiom with more traditional blues and soul music.
While he was still a youth, Newman’s family moved from Corsicana to Dallas. He grew up listening to 78 rpm records on his grandmother’s Victrola and heard the ragtime of Scott Joplin and jazz of Louis Armstrong. The youngster was also influenced by the big band sound of Count Basie and Glenn Miller as well as music he heard in church. He originally learned to play piano but switched to saxophone when he was ten. While attending Lincoln High School, Newman received the nickname that would become a trademark throughout his career. He later recalled:
I was in band class and I had this music on my music stand but it was upside down. ... He [J. K. Miller, his band teacher] knew I could barely read the music right side up. He thumped me on the head and called me “Fathead.” My classmates laughed. After that, it became my trademark. I don't consider it derogatory and it doesn't offend me. If someone asked me what I prefer to be called, it would be David. But “Fathead” doesn't bother me at all.
Following high school, Newman played in local bands. After receiving a scholarship, he attended Jarvis Christian College, where he studied music and theology for the next two years. He then took to the road and furthered his career by joining Buster Smith, Charlie Parker’s mentor. The Buster Smith band played one-nighters and dance halls and toured the central United States, including Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and even as far west as California.
Newman soon found himself playing gigs with some of the greatest musicians of the time. He first met Ray Charles in the early 1950s when Charles was in the Lowell Fulson band and Newman was with Buster Smith in a band backing T-Bone Walker. Charles’s and Newman’s friendship was cemented after a Houston arrest in 1952. Newman, who often drove for Charles, was stopped and arrested by police. “On this particular night in Houston the cops decided to stop us,” explained Charles. “They gave no reason, though soon we saw it was because they didn’t like David’s hair.” The police arrested Newman and left Charles on the side of the road. Charles later bailed Newman out of jail and explained, “It was the incident in Houston that melded our friendship as soul brothers for life.”
Meeting Charles changed Newman’s trajectory and allowed him to begin developing his playing on different levels and expand beyond his main interest at the time, which was bebop. It also opened the door to commercial acclaim. In Charles he found a musician that “was focused and dedicated to perfection.” Newman joined Charles’s band in September 1954 and began by playing baritone saxophone. He later took over on tenor when Don Wilkerson quit the band.
In 1959 Newman released his debut album, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Fathead Newman, thanks to the support of Charles, who was already a pop star at the time. The album featured Ray playing piano and included Newman’s now classic rendition of the jazz standard, “Hard Times.”
The Fathead album established Newman as a frontman. He returned to Dallas for a time, and in 1966 he was hired to lead the horn section on The !!!! Beat, a soul and R&B television program shot at the studio of WFAA. He later made the move to New York City and subsequently recorded and performed regularly with renowned musicians. During the 1960s (and while still working with Charles), Newman recorded and released several celebrated albums, including The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces (Riverside, 1960) with his Texan-mate James Clay on saxophone, Fathead Comes On (Atlantic, 1962), and Double Barrelled Soul (Atlantic, 1968), with jazz organist Jack McDuff. He also performed with King Curtis’s Kingpins. As a studio musician for Atlantic Records, he worked with Aretha Franklin (on her hit “Respect”), Hank Crawford, Aaron Neville, B. B. King, Joe Cocker, and others.
In the early 1970s, Newman joined the Herbie Mann band as co-leader and continued to release his own albums as a frontman. Herbie Mann was so keen on having Newman in the band that he offered him double the amount Ray Charles was paying him. Newman accepted the offer and stayed with Mann for the next ten years. In the 1980s Newman concentrated on a solo career and maintained his popularity with albums that often held references to the past, such as Resurgence (Muse Records, 1980) and Still Hard Times (Muse, 1982).
Newman started a variety of projects in 1990 and released several albums combining live and studio performances. Bluesiana Triangle (Windham Hill, 1990) and Bluesiana II (Windham Hill, 1991) featured Newman on saxophone along with jazz-master drummer Art Blakey and New Orleans piano man Dr. John. Their first collaboration in 1990 was nominated for a Grammy. Newman also appeared in the movie Kansas City (1996) and toured nationally with the Kansas City Orchestra. At the same time, he worked with blues giants such as B. B. King, with whom he recorded Let The Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan (MCA, 1999), a tribute to the influential rhythm-and-blues alto saxophonist. Newman received a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1998.
During the following years, Newman continued recording and was also portrayed in the Ray Charles’s film biopic Ray (2004). The success of the film garnered renewed attention and performance requests for Newman. The following year he did a special tribute to Ray Charles with the album I Remember Brother Ray (High Note, 2005), that became the Number 1 Most Played Jazz Album nationwide.
David “Fathead” Newman’s passion for music continued until the day he died. His last recording was The Blessing (High Note, 2009), a title aptly reflecting his lifelong relationship with music. He died on January 20, 2009, in Kingston, New York, from complications of pancreatic cancer. He was survived by his wife Karen and four sons. David Newman left behind a significant musical legacy that includes thirty-nine albums as frontman, ten albums with Ray Charles, and numerous celebrated collaborations with many of the world’s finest performers. His unique style of blurring the lines of musical genres continues to influence generations of musicians in diverse musical genres. Cellar Groove, recorded live with the Tilden Webb Trio at the Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver in 2004, was released in early 2014.