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David (Fathead) Newman Passes at 75

David Newman David Newman
By a sad irony, just as the first ever African-American to become president of the United States was being sworn in in Washington DC, one of the legends of African-American music passed away in a Kingston, NY hospital. Saxophonist and flutist David 'Fathead' Newman was best known as a star soloist with the Ray Charles band, but his multi-faceted career was much more than that. His synthesis of styles across the spectrum of black music was unique, combining hard bop, gospel and R&B; the list of artists with whom he worked and recorded, from Cedar Walton, Red Garland and Herbie Mann to King Kurtis, Aretha Franklin, and Dr. John, bears witness to the breadth of his work. He was able to bridge these gaps through two things: the essential language of the blues and the warmth of his personality. Forrest Dylan Bryant, writing at All About Jazz, summed it up well:

"When David 'Fathead' Newman picks up his weathered tenor saxophone and begins to blow, he doesn't compel you to listen with a towering tone or crazy acrobatics. He does it by connecting with his music on a human level, embodying a depth of feeling that suffuses the atmosphere of the room. You can't help but breathe it in."

This is a rare quality on today's world, including the world of music. If for no other reason, David Newman will be sorely missed.

David 'Fathead' Newman was born in Corsicana, Texas on February 24, 1933. His family soon moved to Dallas, where David graduated from Lincoln High School. He had already taken up the saxophone and he worked in local bands until a scholarship allowed him to attend Jarvis Christian College where he studied theology and music. It was while he was at Lincoln, however, that he acquired his unusual nickname, being dubbed "Fathead" by his band teacher J.K. Miller. "I was in band class and I had this music on my music stand but it was upside down," he told a Dallas reporter. "Mr. Miller 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." He accepted the name in good humor, although he always said he preferred to be called 'David.'

College held his attention for two years, but the road beckoned, and when the opportunity arose David decided to serve his musical apprenticeship with altoist Buster Smith -- an early mentor of Charlie Parker -- playing one-nighters and dance halls in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and occasionally California. It was on one of those tours that David met Ray Charles. They immediately became friends and, in 1954, when Ray started his own band, he invited David to join him. Newman stayed with Charles for twelve years, beginning as the baritone player, but later becoming a star soloist on tenor. His tenure with the band did a lot to launch David's career. Apart from featuring him with the band, Charles also helped David to record his first album as a leader. Appearing in 1959 on the Atlantic label, it was entitled, Ray Charles Presents 'Fathead', and included Newman's famous rendition of "Hard Times." Wide Open Spaces, produced by fellow saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, appeared the following year.

After leaving Ray Charles, Newman moved to New York City where he continued to record for several labels, including, Atlantic, Warner Brothers and Prestige, with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Hank Crawford, and Aaron Neville. Meanwhile, having forged his sound in Charles' saxophone section, David now immersed himself in the New York jazz scene, working with the likes of Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Kenny Drew, Billy Higgins, Kenny Dorham, and others. He led his own quartet and began touring Europe and Japan as a leader.

It was another chance encounter, at a record date, that opened further horizons for David. He met Herbie Mann who asked him to join his famous Family of Mann group that also included Cal Tjader, and later Roy Ayres. It was an interesting partnership, especially as David also played the flute. He had taken it up in 1960, as the result of a lucky accident. He told me the story when I interviewed him for my forthcoming book The Flute in Jazz: Window on World Music (

"I was playing with the Ray Charles big band, and I had had a little inkling to pick up the flute and start playing it as it was a mellow sounding instrument and I really liked the sound of it. I was in Orlando Florida and I happened to pass by this pawn shop, and they had these two beautiful Haynes wooden flutes there, ebony flutes, one alto and one C. Some guy from the symphony had left them there and never came back for them. So I purchased the C flute. It was very reasonable--the guy only wanted 25 bucks for it--he didn't realize its value. And when I got back to the band and showed it to the guys they said, 'Do you know what you have there?' I said, 'Well yes, it's a wooden flute.' And they said, 'That's not just a wooden flute, it's a Haynes, that's a very expensive instrument.'"

"So I started on it - I never took lessons - I taught myself how to play it - I am pretty much self-taught on the flute. And then I started recording on it. I was recording with Atlantic Records and so I started doing flute tunes on some of my LPs on that label, and since the late 70s and early 80s I started featuring the flute more and more. Now it's on most of my recordings."

Indeed, Newman made a unique contribution to the flute in jazz. If he was a Texas tenor at heart, he somehow managed to transfer that feeling to the flute. Like his tenor and his alto, like his personality, his flute was warm, straightforward, direct, and very musical. His contribution to this instrument was recognized by his inclusion on a unique collection, Heavy Flute, from 2000 -- put together by the late Joel Dorn, who had been David's producer at Atlantic -- that also included Herbie Mann, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Hubert Laws.

The 1980s found David Newman pursuing his own musical identity, putting the style he had forged over the previous 30 years into a variety of settings, recording for the Muse label, in what is clearly the jazz idiom, albeit with his own bluesey touch, working with rhythm sections including artists such as Cedar Walton, Jimmy Cobb, Buster Williams, and Louis Hayes, and partnering with horn players such as Curtis Fuller, and Steve Turre. Later dates on Atlantic Records featured a live date with Stanley Turrentine and Hank Crawford. He then renewed his partnership with Herbie Mann by recording for Mann's Kokopelli label, including a Duke Ellington tribute entitled Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cool, and Under A Woodstock Moon, reflecting his love of the upstate New York area where he now made his home.

The late nineties brought David to the High Note label for whom he recorded seven CDs, including a tribute to Ray Charles, I Remember Brother Ray, in 2005 that became the #1 Most Played Jazz Album nationwide, and his most recent release, Life. In all, he issued close to 40 albums under his own name. The number on which he appeared as sideman will take some time to count. Those who sought him for their dates included Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, the Average White Band, Jimmy McGriff, Eric Clapton, Natalie Cole, Hank Crawford, Aaron Neville, Queen Latifah, Richard Tee, Dr. John, Cheryl Bentyne of The Manhattan Transfer and country/tex-mex artist Doug Sahm. David appeared on many television shows including David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, David Sanborn's Night Music. He appeared in Robert Altman's film Kansas City and did a national tour with the Kansas City Orchestra, for Verve Records.. He received a Grammy nomination in 1990 for Bluesiana Triangle with Dr. John and Art Blakey, and an INDIE for best traditional jazz record, also in 1990 for Return To The Wide Open Spaces featuring James Clay, Ellis Marsalis and Leroy Cooper.

David Newman was 75, and is survived by his loving wife and manager of twenty eight years, Karen Newman, four sons, eight grandchildren, three great grandchildren, an uncle and an aunt and a father-in-law who was his best friend, Izzy Goldstein. Having had the pleasure of knowing David I can imagine how much they must miss him.


Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: David Newman
  • Subtitle: Flutist/Saxphonist Best Known for Work With Ray Charles and Herbie Mann
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