Saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman Dies at 75
David “Fathead” Newman, whose saxophone contributed to the classic recordings of Ray Charles for many years, and who enjoyed a prolific solo career as well, died of pancreatic cancer at his home in West Hurley, N.Y., on Jan. 20. He was 75.
Born in Corsicana, Tex., on February 24, 1933, Newman and his family soon moved to Dallas. He began his career fronting local bands after graduating high school, where a teacher had given him the nickname he embraced professionally. He studied music and theology at Jarvis Christian College, but left after two years to pursue a career in music. While gigging with alto saxophonist Buster Smith, Newman was introduced to Ray Charles, who called upon Newman to join his band in 1954. Newman, first as baritone saxist and then as tenor, stayed with Charles for a dozen years, playing on most of Charles’ Atlantic and ABC hit records as well as accompanying him for concert appearances.
Newman, who also played flute, launched a solo career for Atlantic while still in Charles’ employ, releasing his debut solo album, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman, in 1959. Charles was the album’s pianist, and baritonist Hank Crawford among the other musicians. After leaving Charles, Newman returned briefly to Dallas, then moved to New York, where he continued to cut solo albums for Atlantic and tour under his own name while also playing with many of the jazz greats of the day. A short list of his collaborators onstage and in the studio includes Aretha Franklin, Lee Morgan, Kenny Drew Sr., T-Bone Walker, Billy Higgins, Little Jimmy Scott, Freddie King, Donny Hathaway, Kenny Dorham, Ben E. King, Cal Tjader, Red Garland, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Stanley Turrentine, Natalie Cole and others. He also spent about 10 years working with Herbie Mann and recorded for Mann’s Kokopelli label. Newman’s career took him to Europe and Japan as well as every corner of the U.S.
Newman briefly reunited with Ray Charles in the early ’70s, then left again to continue on his solo path. He cut albums for Warner Bros. and Prestige and, beginning in 1980, he aligned with the Muse label, which later became High Note, for which he recorded for most of the remainder of his career (although he briefly returned to Atlantic in the late ’80s). In the early ’90s, he made two albums under the name Bluesiana Triangle with drummer Art Blakey and keyboardist Dr. John. Newman’s last album was 2008’s Diamondhead, which featured Cedar Walton (piano), Peter Washington (bass), Yoron Israel (drums) and Curtis Fuller guesting on trombone.
Newman appeared on many television shows, including Saturday Night Live, David Sanborn’s Night Music and The Late Show with David Letterman. He also appeared in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City and did a national tour with the Kansas City Orchestra, for Verve Records.