David 'Fathead' Newman (1933-2009): An Appreciation

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David “Fathead” Newman, one of our favorite tenor men, has passed after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 75.

A Dallas native, Newman left college to tour with Charlie Parker’s mentor, Buster Smith. He then found fame as a sideman with Ray Charles, spending 12 seminal years in his band beginning in 1954 as the foundation of modern soul was constructed.

Newman would later lead his own group, even while continuing as an in-demand session musician — recording with Aretha Franklin, Dr. John on the Bluesiana projects, Herbie Mann and Aaron Neville, among many others.

Here’s our tribute to this criminally underappreciated figure in R&B and jazz.

DAVID NEWMAN, ‘HOUSE OF DAVID’ ANTHOLOGY (1991): Fathead — a nickname given to Newman after he goofed on his scales while practicing as a kid — is an involving leader as well, heard on “House of David” fronting both small bands and larger, expressive configurations. “Fathead Comes On” from 1963, displayed here on the tune “Esther’s Melody,” was a tough jazz recording in the Blue Note style. Even better are tracks from the “Straight Ahead” release of 1960, where Newman sits in with the drop-jaw rhythm section with Miles Davis connections including Wyn Kelly, Paul Chambers and Charlie Persip.

Still, for my money, I’ll always stick with the rollicking, awfully fun Ray Charles-period recordings, confined exclusively to Disc 1. Newman made the seminal 1958 Newport Jazz Festival appearance with Charles then, a year later, he was first recorded in a purely jazz context, fronting the Count Basie Band. Newman’s reputation as bluesy, but sizzling soloist was secured. So much so that he made a solo record the same year, the aptly titled “Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman.” Three tracks from that fine record are also included.

BLUESIANA, ‘II’ (1991): Dr. John, Essiet Okon Essiet, Newman and Joe Bonadio all return from the original Bluesiana configuration, with one other notable addition: Ray Anderson on the trombone. Both as foil and foundation, Anderson proves indispensable.

And the record comes off more New Orleans for it (on the titanic “Fonkalishus,” for instance) — but also more collective, as Anderson joins Newman in writing several songs. Things hang together better on this outing, with Bluesiana sounding less like a made-for-the-studio project and more like a functioning band. (Newman and Anderson are particularly sympathetic collaborators on the horn-driven “Skoshuss.”)

–David’s wife Karen Newman issued an official statement on Wednesday: “No surprise for us Newmans. We have been dying for some time now. David had pancreatic cancer for the past year and he was blessed to have not suffered that greatly.”

Cards, we’re told, can be sent in c/o Head Music, 112 Tanglewood Road, West Hurley, N.Y., 12491.

Other views: A terrific tribute to Newman was posted last night by Carl Abernathy at Cahl’s Juke Joint, a favorite from the Something Else! blog roll.

Finally, a fitting send off is embedded below: Newman’s take on “One For My Baby (And One More for The Road)”:

Newman, man. Soulful, mellow, then rocking and blue. A true loss for music.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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