Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Newman, David "Fathead"

David “Fathead” Newman, Jr. was born in Corsicana, Texas on February 24, 1933, but soon after his family moved to Dallas, where the future saxophonist spent most of his youth. While still in college, Newman toured with Henry “Buster” Smith, who had been a mentor to Charlie Parker, but it was as a member of Ray Charles’s band that Newman first came to prominence.

 David “Fathead” Newman

Newman was featured on a number of Charles’s recordings from the mid- and late-1950s, and remained with the band for 12 years. Charles also took the lead in securing a leader date for Newman on the Atlantic label. Charles even joined in on sideman on the 1959 release Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David 'Fathead' Newman (Atlantic 1304). Newman's work here on “Hard Times” was especially popular, and the song remained a trademark for the rest of his career.

Newman achieved his famous nickname at Lincoln High School in Dallas, when the band teacher wanted to express his displeasure with the student’s poor skills at reading music. He strolled over to Newman, tapped him on the head with the conductor’s baton, and called him “Fathead.” The other students broke into laughter. Newman, for his part, found that the name followed him throughout his career; and though he didn’t object, he still preferred to have his friends call him “David.”

During two years at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, Newman studied theology and music. Around this time, he began working on the road, honing his skills during countless one-nighters in the southwester and sentral states. From the start, Newman stood out for his seamless blending of hard bop and R&B strains in a distinctive mixture that elicited the respect of other musicians and the fervor of fans. In his early years, he recorded on baritone, alto and flute, but he eventually focused on the tenor sax, the instrument for which he is best known.

Newman would eventually record 38 leader dates, but his soulful sax stylings made him very much in demand as a sideman, and during his career he accompanied an impressive list of A-league stars, including Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Natalie Cole, Eric Clapton, and Queen Latifah. Newman was nominated for a Grammy in 1990 for his work with Dr. John and Art Blakey on "Bluesiana Triangle. He also appeared on the screen in Robert Altman's film Kansas City.

At a high-profile celebration of Newman’s 75th birthday, an all-star contingent came out to celebrate. But this would prove to be Newman’s final birthday. He would succumb to pancreatic cancer on January 20, 2009 in Kingston, New York.

Contributor: Ted Gioia


Related links:

New York Times obituary by Ben Ratliff
Obituary by Tim Malcolm
Obituary by Jon Thurber
Bio from Newman’s web site