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Interviews

David "Fathead" Newman: Keeper of the Flame

By Published: August 14, 2005

I try to be humble. I like being part of a group which achieved great things and made people happy - like my whole experiences with Ray Charles.

Saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman is best known for his many years playing in Ray Charles' bands from 1954 to the mid '60s and again in the early '70s. He got his start in Dallas and acquired his trademark nickname at Lincoln High, when band director J.K. Miller called him "Fathead" after he bungled a note in class. He has had a fascinating career in music, performing with numerous legends, participating in memorable and historic recording sessions and putting out his own music—his life in music is rich and varied. AAJ-NY recently spoke with Mr. Newman at his bucolic home near Woodstock, New York.

All About Jazz: Let's start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?

David "Fathead" Newman: I was born in a small town in Texas called Corsicana, on February 24th, 1933. The stop signs all said "whoa," it was so small. I was an only child and my family soon moved to the big city—Dallas.

AAJ: Your early musical influences?

DFN: My grandma had an old wind-up Victrola and my earliest exposure to music was early 78s you could buy for a few nickels. I listened to ragtime music—Scott Joplin, traditional jazz—Louis Armstrong. I liked the big bands—Basie, Glenn Miller, Jimmie Lunceford. And the church had a powerful influence on my musical upbringing. I still feel that spirit in my music to this day. As I got older, I greatly loved the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan.

AAJ: When did you begin playing saxophone and when did you know music would become your career?

DFN: When I was in high school in Dallas, I got serious about music. That's where my band director first called me "Fathead"—I had the sheet music for a John Philip Sousa march upside-down and was playing the notes all wrong. The nickname stuck. Ray Charles didn't like that name; he thought it was derogatory. He called me "brains." But I knew early on that my career path would be music. I wanted to merge what I loved most with a way of making a living. As it turned out, that's what I did. I'm glad I switched from piano to saxophone when I was about 10 years old. Listening to people like Red Garland and Herschel Evans [from Denton TX] lured me into a world of music—it got into my soul. I didn't listen much to Bob Wills, but later on, I learned it because of Ray Charles, when he expanded his repertoire to country-and-western swing songs. But I liked grittier stuff—the blues and when I heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker—bebop—that was it for me. That's the style I learned.

AAJ:: When did you meet Ray Charles?

DFN: In 1949, I was playing in T-Bone Walker's band. Ray was traveling with Lowell Fulson, who was big at the time. Ray was singing like Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown back then. I liked his style and we became friends. When he formed his own band, he asked me to join.

AAJ: He had a reputation for being a tough taskmaster. Did you get along with him?

DFN: Oh yes! We always respected each other. I did my job. If you didn't do your job, you had a problem with Ray. He was focused and dedicated to perfection. For a man who could not see, he had incredible vision...both musically and from a business perspective. He was sharp as a tack. He helped my career greatly, by producing my first solo album in 1960, which had the hit "Hard Times."

AAJ: What else did Ray Charles teach you?

DFN: Working with Ray was like taking a course in music appreciation. Ray loved jazz, blues, gospel, country and western and classical. To him, music was like food—you don't eat the same thing every day. I was stuck in bebop when I met him; then, I learned how much other stuff could be explored. And I learned to appreciate life in general, from traveling around the world with Ray and the band.

AAJ: Did you like the movie Ray?

DFN: It captured the spirit of our lives accurately. The musical performances were done nicely. I was depicted a little wilder than I remember, but in youth you do some crazy stuff.

AAJ: You said the church guided your music, too?

DFN: That spirit is always with me. Always in my music. It's a fulfilling factor.

AAJ: Talk about some of the other musicians you have played with over the years...

DFN: Lots of them—I was a session player for Atlantic Records in the '60s. You can hear me on "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. I've played with Jimmy Scott, Donny Hathaway, Les McCann, Cornell Dupree, Herbie Mann—I played with Herbie just before he passed away, down in New Orleans, last year. I've played with Cal Tjader, Hank Crawford, Cedar Walton, who went to high school with me in Dallas. Jazz artists like Buster Williams and Louis Hayes. I played on an Allman Brothers session, too. And I recorded on that Queen Latifah album of standards which was a big hit last year. I was in the band from the Robert Altman film, Kansas City. That was fun.

AAJ: You have recorded numerous solo albums, including the beautiful tribute to Ray Charles, recently released on HighNote, I Remember Brother Ray]. How do you pick your material?

DFN: Obviously, I wanted to do a tribute to my friend, Ray Charles. I just picked my favorite tunes, and [HighNote president] Joe Fields is always a joy to work with. He lets you do your thing. Over the years, I have written material and performed covers, ranging from Beatles tunes to spirituals. One of my favorites was Mr Gentle, Mr Cool, my tribute to Duke Ellington. I am especially pleased with that recording.

AAJ: Does your rural setting in the Woodstock area inspire you to write music?

DFN: Yes. It is quite peaceful and beautiful here. Nature can help grow some good musical thoughts.

AAJ: In a life filled with great achievements, what are some of your proudest moments?

DFN: I try to be humble. I like being part of a group which achieved great things and made people happy—like my whole experiences with Ray Charles; working with musicians like [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave was always a pleasure. Working with [producers] Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records led to some magical moments, musically. I was nominated for a Grammy Award, working on Bluesiana Triangle, with Dr. John and Art Blakey. I received a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award—that was an awesome moment, too.

AAJ: What advice could you give to an upstart musician?

DFN: Learn the business end of it to keep from starving. Being rewarded properly for your work will keep your mind focused on the positive things. And, of course, play music from the heart. Not everybody can be Sonny Rollins—travel down a path you are comfortable with. Keep raising the bar, but you must also be pleased with your achievements.

AAJ: Any suggestions to get jazz music heard more often in an ever-changing market?

DFN: If I could answer that, I'd be rich! I guess it is important to revisit the past to create the future. The great music of Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra should be played on the radio and their biographies taught in schools. Jazz at Lincoln Center is a wonderful thing, because it is so wide-ranging and promotes music to young people. The framework of budgets is always the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Keep tradition alive through festivals, music clinics and education.

AAJ: I always thought the title of your solo record, Songs for the New Man, succinctly summed up your musical career—always fluid, diverse and mercurial. How would you like the world to remember David "Fathead" Newman?

DFN: Well...as a loyal and devoted keeper of the flame. As a dedicated master of his craft. As a friend to many. As a man who liked to grow things in his garden.

Recommended Listening:

David "Fathead" Newman—I Remember Brother Ray (HighNote, 2004)

David "Fathead" Newman—Mr.Gentle, Mr.Cool: A Tribute to Duke Ellington (Kokopelli, 1994)

David "Fathead" Newman—Fire! Live at the Village Vanguard (Atlantic, 1988)

David "Fathead" Newman—Still Hard Times (Muse, 1982)

David "Fathead" Newman—It's Mister Fathead (Atlantic-32 Jazz, 1958-'67)

Ray Charles—Genius After Hours (Atlantic-Rhino, 1956)

Photo Credit
Top Photo: Ben Johnson
Bottom Photo: Bill King



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