Stalwart of Ray Charles band dies

Freewheeling jazz saxophonist and stalwart of the Ray Charles band, David Newman, has died aged 75 in upstate New York.

David ”Fathead” Newman, who battled a year-long fight with pancreatic cancer, was a casual, big-boned tenor sax player from Texas, whose imposing appearance didn’t offer any clue to his unflattering nickname.

During the 1980s, the group co-led by the saxophonists Newman and Hank Crawford kept on proving that what was remarkable about their former employer, Ray Charles, was also flourishing in the hands of two of the singer’s most original instrumental sidekicks.

They sounded like a miniature Ray Charles orchestra, lacing their predominantly soulful and gospelly repertoire with a scattering of fizzing bebop tunes, and generally specialising in a funkily upbeat and breezy approach that made many friends beyond the jazz cognoscenti.

Charles preferred to dub the musically sophisticated Newman ”Brains”, but ”Fathead” had stuck from the time a high-school teacher derided the saxophonist for leaving his band part upside down, not appreciating that Newman could already memorise almost any melody with ease.

He never paraded his skills, however, but used them to power a bluesy and voice-like jazz of infectious eloquence, unleashed in huge, enveloping gusts of sound. On a straight blues tune such as the Charles band’s Uncle Funky, a Newman rendition would crackle like a bushfire, but against that relentlessly hard-hitting background his suave and velvety tone would roll over the chords like a limousine.

If it was boiled down to its on-paper basics, the music Newman specialised in would almost fade away, so simple and direct were its operating principles. The fact that it would leave such an impression of rich feeling was entirely down to inflection and hardly at all to do with complex phraseology.

Solo career
Newman, who played flute and baritone saxophone as well as alto, found ways of balancing the directness of blues with modern jazz’s more intricate melodic and harmonic ideas, without impeding the soulful message or sounding as if he were grandstanding.

He was discovered by Charles in the early 1950s, and from the time Charles hired him (as a baritone saxophonist at first) in 1954 in Los Angeles, he toured tirelessly with the RnB star for 12 years, adding his inimitable colouration to the band’s sound in ways that transformed it.

It was Newman who often furnished the hot and cajoling sax overtures that set the audience up for Charles’s searing vocals (the steamy intro to Night Time Is the Right Time was one of his most celebrated), and they became key features of his boss’s biggest hits of the 1960s, including Talkin ‘Bout You and I Got a Woman.

Recognising his talented sideman’s potential for a solo career, Charles helped Newman get started as a band leader in 1958 with the album Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman — a set that included a moving sax rendition of the Paul Mitchell song Hard Times, which became something of a Newman signature tune.

But he also enjoyed numerous guest roles as session player with other celebrated leaders over the years, including Aretha Franklin, BB King, Donny Hathaway and Dr John.

David Newman Jr was born in Corsicana, Texas, and raised in Dallas, playing piano at first, and taking up the alto sax in high school, where his fellow students included pianist Cedar Walton and saxophonist James Clay.

He studied theology at Jarvis Christian College, but simultaneously played with the band of local saxophonist Red Connors, which also included the budding but widely misunderstood young Fort Worth genius Ornette Coleman.

These were the hard years in which Coleman, beginning to explore an intuitive approach to improvising not rooted in bop song-forms and with a pliable, pitch-warping tone, was often persecuted as weird on a dancehall circuit that wanted only pop hooks.

But Coleman’s sound came from the same earthy roots in raw blues and RnB that gave many Texas saxophonists their power, and something of the same heartfelt cry was always audible with Newman too.

He was also influenced by the saxophonist Buster Smith, a former participant in the Kansas City swing scene of the 1930s and an early influence on Charlie Parker.

Newman worked for Smith after ending his theology studies in 1950, and always credited the older man as a significant influence.

Hitting it off
Newman met Charles while on tour in 1951, and quickly hit it off with the rising star, who was at the time playing piano for the bluesman Lowell Fulson. After Charles hired Newman as a baritone player in 1954, the two were close associates for a decade, until Newman sought to build his solo career in Dallas, and then in New York.

The saxophonist briefly returned to play with Charles again in 1970, and then with former Miles Davis pianist Red Garland, and with the jazz-funk fusion flautist Herbie Mann. Newman then extensively recorded funky jazz-blues for the Atlantic label and others, and worked busily as a session player.

After 1980, he played in a more overtly jazzy and straight-swinging style for the Muse label (with partners including his old high-school associate Cedar Walton and drummers Jimmy Cobb and Louis Hayes), and returned to Atlantic in 1988 to hook up with Charles sax partner Crawford and the ruggedly bluesy Stanley Turrentine on Live at the Village Vanguard. Newman’s heartfelt and subtle tribute to Duke Ellington on Mr Gentle, Mr Cool (1994) was also a powerful testament to jazz instincts sometimes disguised in his career.

Newman frequently appeared on television (on Saturday Night Live, the David Letterman show, and on the Night Music programme of saxophonist David Sanborn), and played in Robert Altman’s Kansas City movie. He was also portrayed by Bokeem Woodbine in the Charles biopic Ray.

From 1998 until his last weeks, Newman released a succession of fine jazz albums on the High Note label — often with the inevitable Charles tributes, but featuring the versatile saxophonist still in his freewheeling prime. Diamondhead, a crisp and purposeful session produced by Newman’s long-time friend and associate Houston Person, was released in 2008. His final recording, made last December, will be released early in 2009 as The Blessing.

”Fathead” Newman is survived by his wife and manager Karen, four sons, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. —

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