David "Fathead" Newman

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David "Fathead" Newman
Newman at the Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver
Newman at the Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver
Background information
Born(1933-02-24)February 24, 1933
Corsicana, Texas, U.S.
DiedJanuary 20, 2009(2009-01-20) (aged 75)
Kingston, New York, U.S.
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
Instrument(s)Saxophone, flute
LabelsAtlantic, Prestige, Riverside

David "Fathead" Newman (February 24, 1933 – January 20, 2009)[1] was an American jazz and rhythm-and-blues saxophonist, who made numerous recordings as a session musician and leader, but is best known for his work as a sideman on seminal 1950s and early 1960s recordings by Ray Charles.

The AllMusic Guide to Jazz wrote that "there have not been many saxophonists and flutists more naturally soulful than David 'Fathead' Newman."[2] Newman was a leading exponent of the "Texas Tenor" saxophone style, a big-toned, bluesy approach popularized by jazz tenor players from that state.[3]

Early life[edit]

Newman was born in Corsicana, Texas, United States, on February 24, 1933, but grew up in Dallas, where he studied first the piano and then the saxophone.[1] 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] Newman went on to Jarvis Christian College on a music and theology scholarship but quit school after three years and began playing professionally.[1]


Newman began his career playing mostly jazz and blues, with a number of musicians that included Buster Smith, pianist Lloyd Glenn, and guitarist bandleaders Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker.[1]

Sideman and soloist with Ray Charles[edit]

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's band in 1954 as a baritone saxophone player, but later switched to tenor and became the principal saxophone soloist after tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson left the band.[5][6]

Many of Charles's 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".[6] Although his solos were short in duration, they became, as The New York Times later noted, "crucial to the Ray Charles sound".[4] Atlantic Records' producer Jerry Wexler, who worked with Charles, called Newman Charles's "alter ego on tenor".[7] Charles said that Newman "could make his sax sing the song like no one else".[8] 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 the Ray Charles band until 1964, and rejoined the group in 1970–1971.[5]

Later work[edit]

After leaving Charles's band, Newman worked with Herbie Mann's band in 1970–71, and recorded albums for Atlantic, Warner Bros., Prestige and Muse.[1] Newman did session work with a variety of artists, including Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Gregg Allman, Dr. John, and Natalie Cole on her Unforgettable album.[5] He also worked as a sideman with Jimmy Scott, B.B. King, and Lou Rawls.[3] 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]

Over the years up to 2008, Newman recorded more than 38 albums under his own name, including his first, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David 'Fathead' Newman, recorded in 1958,[9][10] but not released until 1960, and the second, The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces!!!!, with James Clay,[11] produced by Cannonball Adderley.

Newman also played R&B and blues, appearing on recordings with Jimmy Scott, Stanley Turrentine, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, the Average White Band, Jimmy McGriff, Eric Clapton, John Stein, Natalie Cole, Hank Crawford, Aaron Neville, Queen Latifah, Richard Tee,[12] Dr. John, Cheryl Bentyne of The Manhattan Transfer, and country-rock/tex-mex artist Doug Sahm. The late Roy Hargrove, trumpeter, band leader and composer (1969–2018) credits hearing Mr. Newman play while Hargrove was still a high school student and being enthralled by his jazz improvisation. Mr. Newman performed with Hargrove and recorded several tunes on Hargrove's 1995 album entitled Family.

Personal life[edit]

Newman was portrayed by Bokeem Woodbine in the 2004 Ray Charles biopic Ray starring Jamie Foxx. While praising Foxx's performance as Ray Charles, Newman disputed the accuracy of the film's depiction of himself, in particular its portrayal of him as having introduced Charles to hard drugs.[5]

Newman died in Kingston, New York, on January 20, 2009, at the age of 75, of pancreatic cancer.[1]


As leader/co-leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With Laverne Butler

  • A Foolish Thing to Do (Maxjazz, 2000)

With Ray Charles

With Hank Crawford

With Cornell Dupree

  • Teasin' (Atlantic, 1974)

With Eddie Harris

With Randy Johnston

With JW-Jones

  • Kissing in 29 Days (NorthernBlues, 2006)

With B.B. King

With Charles Kynard

With Junior Mance

With Herbie Mann

With Arif Mardin

With Jimmy McGriff

With Meeco

  • Amargo Mel (Connector, 2009)

With Jane Monheit

With Buddy Montgomery

With Lee Morgan

With Don Patterson

With Jimmy Scott

  • All the Way (Sire, 1992)

With Shirley Scott

With Lonnie Smith

  • Think! (Blue Note, 1968)
  • Boogaloo to Beck: A Tribute (Scufflin' Records, 2003)

With John Stein

  • Green Street (Challenge, 1999)

Other appearances


  1. ^ a b c d e f Thurber, Jon (23 January 2009). "David 'Fathead' Newman dies at 75; jazz saxophonist". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2 September 2021. Newman was born in Corsicana, Texas, on Feb. 24, 1933, but grew up in Dallas, where he studied first the piano and then the saxophone. He earned the nickname 'Fathead' from his high school band teacher because he stubbornly refused to learn to read music, preferring instead to take it in by ear. 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 Buster Smith, Lloyd Glenn, Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker.
  2. ^ Wynn, Ron, et al., All Music Guide to Jazz (Miller Freeman Books, 1994), p. 495.
  3. ^ a b "Billy Taylor's Jazz | Guest Artist". Npr.org. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Ratliff, Ben (January 22, 2009). "David (Fathead) Newman, Saxophonist, Dies at 75". The New York Times. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dahl, Bill, "The Saxmen", liner notes to Ray Charles: Genius and Soul, Rhino Records (1997).
  6. ^ a b Robert Palmer, liner notes to The Birth of Soul: the Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings 1952–1959, Atlantic Records (1991).
  7. ^ Wexler, Jerry, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music (Knopf, 1993), p. 106..
  8. ^ Charles, Ray, and David Ritz, Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story (Dial Press, 1978), p. 175.
  9. ^ Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford University Press US, 2007, ISBN 9780195320008.
  10. ^ "Atlantic Album Discography, Part 2". Bsnpubs.com. October 6, 2005. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  11. ^ "Riverside Records Discography: 1960". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  12. ^ a b c "Prestige Records Catalog: 10100, 16000, 66000, 34000, MPP 2500, 11000 series". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  13. ^ a b "Warner Brothers Album Discography, Part 7". Bsnpubs.com. June 25, 2004. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  14. ^ a b "Muse Records Listing". Jazzdiscography.com. Retrieved July 12, 2017.

External links[edit]