David "Fathead" Newman: Remembering Brother Ray
“ David and I became friends because he heard my sound---he heard me. Ray Charles ”
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."
The greatest showcase of Newman's Tenor Saxness was recorded in Atlanta on May 29, 1959, at Thorton Stadium, performing "The Night Time Is The Right Time." Newman's alto intorduction was so robust with blues-funk and grit, that Art Blakey when hearing it said, "The Ray Charles Band is the concrete foundation of "soul solidification." This day was an everlasting epoch in the annals of the Ray Charles Band for Newman.
In 1959 Ray presented David's intro album Ray Charles-Presenting David "Fathead" Newman, on Atlantic Records. This album introduced Newman's famous signature song, "Hard Times." Later albums included House of David, Captain Buckles and Live At the Village Gate. All of them were tremendous accomplishments for Newman and Atlantic Records.
He moved to New York after a brief stay in Dallas and as leader toured with a rhythm section that at times included Cedar Walton, Jimmy Cobb, Buster Williams, and Louis Hayes. Their travels took them throughout the East Coast, Europe and Japan.
After touring as a leader, Newman joined Herbie Mann as co-leader and together they went around the world playing. "I was with Herbie Mann for 10 years, after leaving Ray's band," Newman recalled. "I had just left Ray's band. In fact, I was still playing with Ray in 1971. He offered me money after I did a recording with him. He said, 'I'd like to have you in my band.' And I said, well, you know I'm with Mr. Charles. Herbie said, 'I'll give you double what he's paying you if you join my band.' So I told him to double what I was getting from Mr. Charles and he doubled that...that was it.. I had to go." Playing flutes together, Newman and Mann made history in 1980 performing at the first Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. A full house of 17,000 roared their appreciation for the collaborative double harmony displayed by their playing Mann's hit, "Memphis Underground."
Newman has recorded with Aretha, Natalie Cole, Hank Crawford, Aaron Neville, and most recently with Grammy nominated Dana Owens (Queen Latifah), and Cheryl Bentyne of The Manhattan Transfer.
His most recent album is called I Rember Brother Ray. The cover shows Newman and Charles seated on a couch, both flashing smiles reflecting the illumination of their 50-year friendship. This was the last time they saw each other.
Joe Adams, long time Charles MC, introduced "Fathead" at Charles' funeral with these words, "One of the mainstays with the the Ray Charles organization for many many years was a young man that we affectionately refer to as 'Fathead.' Today, he told me to be sure to preface hs name as David 'Fathead' Newman." Newman poignantly and solemnly played "Precious Lord." His tenor solo tribute to Brother Ray, his friend of 50 years, had tears of joy flowing from all who were paying their final goodbyes at First AME Church.
David "Fathead" Newman is probably more requested now than ever, after the success of Ray. Time with his wife in their upstate New York home has been economically interrupted with calls for more gigs. But Newman's not complaining, because now his son is traveling with him playing drums. Hard times for Newman have now become good times, and even though the nickname "Fathead" is more famous than Newman, once you hear his effervescent tenor-flute sounds and remember the film, you'll say, "Ah, that's David Newman."
Visit David "Fathead" Newman on the web.