David "Fathead" Newman, legendary saxophonist/flutist and composer who was a prominent member of the Ray Charles band in the fifties and the sixties and a renowned bandleader in his own right thereafter, passed away on January 20, 2009 in upstate New York, succumbing to the pancreatic cancer that he heroically battled for the past year. He was 75 years old.
David Newman was born in Corsicana, Texas on February 24, 1933 and soon moved with his family to Dallas, where he graduated Lincoln High School, following which he attended Jarvis Christian College where he studied theology and music on a scholarship while working in local bands. After two years of college, Newman went on the road full time with fellow Texan Red Connor's group which featured Ornette Coleman and with the band of Charlie Parker's mentor Buster Smith, playing dance halls, throughout the southwest. While on tour he met Ray Charles, who was working as a sideman with another group. The two bonded, both musically and personally and when Charles began leading his own band in 1954, he called upon Newman to join the group, beginning a twelve-year association with the organization, helping to define the Charles orchestra's sound as its star tenor soloist.
Charles was instrumental in helping Newman set out on a solo career, bringing the saxophonist to his label, Atlantic Records, leading to his debut album as a leader in 1959, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman. The date included Newman's soulful rendition of Paul Mitchell's classic "Hard Times," with which he would be identified for the rest of his life. Newman would record numerous more records as a leader for Atlantic. His versatility on saxes and flutes also made him a first call session player and his presence contributed to studio dates by the likes of Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Dr. John, Joe Cocker, The Average White Band and Garland Jeffreys, as well as jazz greats Lee Morgan, Herbie Mann and fellow Charles alumnus Hank Crawford.
In 1980, Newman, determined to pursue his own musical identity, recorded several mainstream jazz albums for the Muse label. Artists such as Cedar Walton, Jimmy Cobb, Buster Williams, Louis Hayes and other fine NY musicians, helped round out the rhythm sections. He returned to Atlantic Records in the late eighties to record several more albums for the label that he started out with. One of the recordings Live at the Village Vanguard, featured Stanley Turrentine and Hank Crawford. Newman's next recordings were on Herbie Mann's Kokopelli label, a beautiful CD in tribute to Duke Ellington, titled Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cool and another that he produced, Under A Woodstock Moon, the title referring to his move to upstate New York. Newman began a productive relationship with High Note Records at the close of the 1990s, releasing an impressive series of albums, including Chillin', Keep the Spirits Singing, Davey Blue, The Gift , Song for the New Man , I Remember Brother Ray (a moving tribute to Ray Charles became the #1 Most Played Jazz Album nationwide), Cityscape, and Life. His latest album Diamondhead was released in 2008. David went into the Rudy Van Gelder studio for the last time in December, 2008 for what was to be his last recording, The Blessing, which will appear on High Note later in 2009.
Newman appeared on many television shows including Saturday Night Live, David Sanborn's Night Music, David Letterman, and Michael Jackson: Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration. He appeared in Robert Altman's film Kansas City and did a national tour with the Kansas City Orchestra for Verve Records. He was portrayed by Bookeem Woodbine in the feature film Ray, the award-winning movie on the life of Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx.
David Newman is survived by his loving wife and manager of twenty eight years, Karen Newman, four sons, eight grandchildren, three great grandchildren, an uncle and an aunt and a father-in-law who was his best friend, Izzy Goldstein. Memorial services are to be announced in the near future.