David "Fathead" Newman: Remembering Brother Ray
“ David and I became friends because he heard my sound---he heard me. ”
And the envelope please. The Oscar goes to the other most frequently spoken character name in the film Ray "Fathead." The name was eminently prominent with the character portrayed in the academy award nominated film Ray, and was an extraordinary, integral part. The character "Fathead" was a prime figure throughout the film playing baritone sax and alto in Charles' band. David Newman is a soft-spoken, gentle, tenor sax-flute-playing musician who played in Ray Charles' band for 12 years.
He has never won a Grammy nor a Downbeat Poll Winner's Award, but just might have a chance of being part of history---being portrayed in the hit movie Ray, that was honored with an Academy Award Oscar for Best Actor.
It never occurred to me that I was talking to the man who was Ray Charles' best friend after David Newman had just performed at Jazz at Drew with the Los Angeles Multi-High School Jazz orchestra conducted by Reggie Andrews, music instructor at Locke High.
Everybody knows who Ray Charles is, but nobody has any idea that "Fathead," his Ace Boon Coon-right hand partner for 50 years, would rather be called David Newman. Yet, Fathead has fit well since his high school music class in Dallas, Texas. A not too often asked question about how he got the name was told to me when I asked David how the name come about. David remembers back to Lincoln High School taking music in JW Miller's music class. "Mr. Miller, one day, saw my music upside down on the stand, and knowing I couldn't read music too well anyway, walked over and tapped me on my head with the maestro stick and called me 'Fathead.' All the kids laughed their asses off. I didn't find it derogatory; so it has stuck, even though I'd prefer to be called David."
Newman was born in Corsican, Texas, and his family later moved to Dallas. There, he attended Lincoln High where he studied music playing sax in Miller's music class. After graduation, he almost became Reverend David Newman. After 2 years of studying Theology and Music at Jarvis Christian College, he quit and joined Buster Smith, Bird's mentor, and went on the road playing a lot of one nighters throughout Texas, Arkansas, California, and Oklahoma, where he joined Ernie Field's Band.
On one of those trips he met Charles while playing with T-Bone Walker and Ray with Lowell Fulsome. Newman reminisces, "In 1952, I was with T-Bone Walker and Ray was with Lowell Fulsome. We were both featured with each band at the famous Central Avenue Club Alabama. We hit it off and became very friendly." Charles has said, "David and I became friends because he heard my sound---he heard me. "Fathead" practically became part of my own soundthat's how close we were. He played emerald cut solos on all my hits; 'The Night Time Is The Right Time,' 'Tell The Truth,' 'Hit The Road Jack,' 'What'd I Say'."
Newman mused on remembering the occasion, "He told me he was going to be forming his own group very soon. And I told him I'd love to be a part of that. So, he let me know when he did, and sho' 'nuff, two years later in '54, he put together his first band and formed it right out here in L.A.. Ray gave me a call and I came out to L.A."
Newman continues, saying how opportune the call was. "Ironically, I had just come out to live with my auntie who was living here. I had been living in Texas. She lived on 148th and Broadway. I came out and started living with her. That's when I joined Ray's band in September, 1954. I joined in September of 1954 and stayed until 1964. I left and returned in 70 and 71. I was with Ray's band for 12 years. And the rest is history." Newman became the band's "Emerald cut soloist."
Newman's and Charles' friendship was cemented tighter after an arrest in Houston in 1952. There was an obscure rarely-enforced law used exclusively for black men who wore a "do," according to the police.
Newman used to drive Charles around Houston when Charles would do single engagements. Damn near every brother wore a "do" or Process, commonly known among the brothers as a "Conk." In 1952 a black man could get arrested for driving. Charles remembered, "It was an incident in Houston that melded our friendship as soul brothers for life. "Fathead" would drive me around when I would play single gigs as a friendnot as a chauffeur. So, one night we were stopped by the police and told to get out the car. One of them looked at "Fathead" and said, 'What you trying to do Nigger? Impersonate white folks?' Charles went on, "Well at that time "Fathead" was wearing a "do" or processed straightened hairwhat brothers called a "Conk". They asked me was I blind. I said yes. They said, 'Well you better get yourself a ride home, cause we gonna take this Nigger and his f----d up hair do to jail for trying to look like white people.'
"I had to get a ride down to the jail and bail him out before they went upside his head", Charles continued. "From then on, we were Ace Boon Coons."