Saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, whose blend of jazz and inimitable Lone Star soul made him an integral part of Ray Charles’ orchestra and served him through dozens of impressive leader dates, passed away from pancreatic cancer yesterday at the age of 75. The news came as a surprise to many jazz fans, for Newman had been highly productive in recent years, releasing a CD a year on the HighNote label, and there had been little publicity about his illness. He was a beloved player (a kind of gateway jazz musician for numerous listeners who discovered him through his recordings with Charles) and by all accounts a man who could have claimed as his own moniker the title of a Duke Ellington song he once recorded: Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cool.
The Rhino anthology House of David provides a solid two-disc tour of the Newman discography, and any of the latter-day HighNotes are worth picking up as well (the 2002 Davey Blue is a particular favorite of mine). Jazz critic Larry Kart has hipped Organissimo posters in the past to two of Fathead’s overlooked late-1960s albums. Finally, for another musical overview of the saxophonist’s career (he played flute, too), check out the Afterglow program I did last year in celebration of his 75th birthday: Happy Birthday, Fathead, including a number of sides that feature him backing singers.
Read David Fathead Newman’s 2003 JazzTimes before-and-after blindfold test with jazz DJ and Library of Congress archivist Larry Applebaum.
The backstory on “Fathead”: Newman said he was given the nickname by J.K. Miller, his band teacher at Lincoln High School. “I was in band class and I had this music on my music stand but it was upside down,” he told a Dallas reporter. “He [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.”
Watch Newman and fellow tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks with Ray Charles in 1963 doing “Birth of a Band” (Newman’s on the left; Brooks, a bit past his 1960-61 prime, on the right):
Watch Newman playing “Heads Up”:
(Photo of David Fathead Newman by Mark Sheldon.)