Tommy Newsom

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Tommy Newsom
Birth name Thomas Penn Newsom
Born (1929-02-25)February 25, 1929
Portsmouth, Virginia, U.S.
Died April 28, 2007(2007-04-28) (aged 78)
Portsmouth, Virginia, U.S.
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, arranger
Instruments Saxophone, clarinet, flute
Years active 1962–1992
Labels Arbors Records
Associated acts The Tonight Show Band

Thomas Penn Newsom (February 25, 1929 – April 28, 2007) was a saxophone player in the NBC Orchestra on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, for which he later became assistant director. Newsom was frequently the band's substitute director, whenever Doc Severinsen was away from the show or filling in for announcer Ed McMahon. Nicknamed "Mr. Excitement" as a sarcastic take on his low-keyed, often dour persona, Newsom was often a foil for Carson's humor. His brown or blue suits were a marked contrast to Severinsen's flashy stage clothing.[1]


Newsom was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. He earned degrees from the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary (now Old Dominion University), the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and Columbia University.[2] He served in the Air Force where he played in the band, and later toured with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and performed with Vincent Lopez in New York.[3] Newsom joined the Tonight Show Band in 1962, and left it when Carson retired in 1992. In addition to Carson's orchestra, Newsom performed with the orchestra for the Merv Griffin Show.

Newsom was as well known within the music industry as an arranger as much as he was as a performer. He arranged for groups as varied as the Tonight Show ensemble and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, and musicians Skitch Henderson, Woody Herman, Kenny Rogers, Charlie Byrd, John Denver, and opera star Beverly Sills.

Newsom won two Emmy Awards as a musical director, in 1982 with Night of 100 Stars and in 1986 for the 40th Annual Tony Awards. He also recorded several albums as a bandleader.[3]

On April 28, 2007, Newsom died of bladder and liver cancer at his home in Portsmouth. He was 78 years old. Newsom had been married to his wife Patricia for 50 years; they had one daughter, Candy, as well as a son, Mark, who died in 2003.[1]


Newsom and Carson used audiences' low expectations for Tommy to good advantage:

  • One night Carson turned to Newsom during his monologue and asked why he always had his hands clasped together behind his back. Newsom replied, "vapor lock!" bringing down the house with laughter. Carson quipped, "I'm out here busting my buns to get a laugh, with one joke after another, and you just say 'vapor lock' and crack us all up!"[4]
  • Newsom, normally known for wearing bland suits, in contrast to Severinsen's colorful attire, once appeared in a sport coat similar to Carson's own coat for an evening's show. Carson, noticing the similarity, asked him where he got the coat. Newsom responded simply, "It was in my closet at home, John," breaking up Carson and the audience.
  • Another time, Carson, who had just returned from vacation, said, "I really missed you guys." Newsom: "Why didn't you write?"
  • One night, Newsom wore a very bold (for him) yellow suit. Carson commented, "Look at that big, dumb canary." Newsom's response: "You’ll know what kind of bird I am when I fly over you."[3]


  • Live from Beautiful Downtown Burbank (1978, Direct-Disc Labs)
  • Tommy Newsom & His TV Jazz Stars (1990)
  • I Remember You, Johnny (1996, a tribute to Johnny Mercer)
  • The Feeling of Jazz w/ Ken Peplowski (1999, Arbors Records)
  • Tommy Newsom is Afraid of Bees (2000)
  • Friendly Fire (2001, Arbors Records)

As sideman[edit]

With Buck Clayton and Tommy Gwaltney's Kansas City 9

With Rosemary Clooney

With J. J. Johnson

As arranger[edit]

With Maurice Hines


  1. ^ a b Bernstein, Alan (May 1, 2007). "Jazz Saxophonist Tommy Newsom; Played on 'Tonight Show'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-10-09. 
  2. ^ McLellan, Dennis (May 1, 2007). "Tommy Newsom, 78; `Tonight Show' musician was Carson's foil". Los Angeles Times. 
  3. ^ a b c Martin, Douglas (May 1, 2007). "Tommy Newsom, Saxophonist, Dies at 78". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-09. 
  4. ^ "Tommy Newsom Biography". All About Jazz. Retrieved 20 December 2014. 

External links[edit]