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Tonight Show Saxophonist Tommy Newsom Dies at 78

Tommy Newsom, a clarinetist, saxophonist and the assistant music director on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992, died of cancer on Saturday at 78.

Newsom died in his hometown of Portsmith, Va., where fans honored him with a “Tommy Newsom Day” in 1980 and awarded him a star on Norfolk’s Legends of Music Walk of Fame in 2002.

At age 8, Newsom got his first saxophone and showed early talent and promise without ever having taken a lesson. In high school and college, he played in school and local bands. His professional career began with stints touring with Benny Goodman and The Merv Griffin Show Orchestra.

Newsom joined The Tonight Show in 1962 as a band member and rose to assistant bandleader. Ironically nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” for his bland suits and low-key personality, Newsom soon became a frequent yet affable target of Carson’s teasing. Newsom left the show in 1992 when Carson retired.

Newsom won two Emmys for musical direction in the ’80s, and the Tonight Show won five Emmys with him onboard. Over the course of his career, Newsom arranged and composed for such performers as Skitch Henderson, Woody Herman, Beverly Sills, Kenny Rogers, Charlie Byrd and John Denver.

In recent years, Newsom released several albums and had been working with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia, and their daughter, Candy.

Originally Published