David Fathead Newman, 1933-2009

Gentle, soulful David Newman is gone. He died on Monday. 


“Fathead” was a nickname that became a promotional tag, but those close to him knew him as David. They seemed always to say the name with affection whether they were speaking to or about him. He once told the story of his nickname. 
I was in band class and I had this music on my music stand but it was
upside down … 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. I don’t consider it derogatory and it
doesn’t offend me. If someone asked me what I prefer to be called, it would be
David. But Fathead doesn’t bother me at all.

Newman was one of Ray Charles’s favorite musicians from the time Charles emerged as a star. He recorded his biggest success, “Hard Times,” at a 1958 session for which Charles was producer, arranger and pianist. The piece became his signature tune.
For the last year of his life, he kept on playing as long as he could despite the pancreatic cancer that finally slowed him. Often, he appeared with student musicians, whom he loved to teach and encourage. From my notes for one of his last CDs

As he approaches his mid seventies, David Newman’s pace is not slower; he is merely moving toward different audiences. Like many jazz musicians, he tries to stay away from clubs, with their late hours and the smoke his doctor says he must avoid. The success of his CDs and of a film about Ray Charles put him in greater demand than ever. He is accepting concert offers, playing festivals and doing clinics. 

At one of his concerts recently, his encore was a B-flat blues with a searing flute solo. He and the sixteen-piece band from Central Washington University rocked the hall and got a standing ovation. Newman smiled when I remarked on it later, then delivered what for him was an effusion of self-satisfaction. “Yes, I was very pleased with that,” he said

Here is David Newman in a recent performance of the song from which he was inseparable. The video is shaky and cuts off the second his solo ends, but it is a fine solo and a fine way to remember him.
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  1. George Finch says

    Just read you piece about Newman. For the record, as they say, I asked him about how he got the name ‘Fathead’. For what it is worth, the part about the band leader was right, but the rest of the story was that the teacher was impressed that he still knew the music ‘intuitively;’ it was in his head, thus Fathead. I tend to believe this story.

  2. Chuck Voellinger says

    I took that video at the Jazz on the Boulevard Concert in Sept 07 in Ft. Worth Texas. I wish that I’d had a better digi camera in order to get more of his performance: the last time I saw him. I asked him after the show if he’d heard from Hank and Hog and he said Hank had been ill. 18 months later they were all gone. Very strange that they all died so close to one another…I’m a HUGE fan of them all: their work with Ray and solo. Thanks for linking to my video!
    Chuck Voellinger aka “Impala327” on YouTube.