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Tommy Newsom

Tommy Newsom a jazz saxophonist and arranger who gained national visibility as a key member of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" band for three decades, and whom Carson nicknamed "Mr. Excitement" for his stone-faced demeanor and somber outfits. One night Carson turned to Newsom during his monologue and asked why he always had his hands clasped together behind his back. Newsom replied "Vapor lock!", bringing down the house with laughter. Carson quipped, "I'm out here busting my buns to get a laugh, with one joke after another, and you just say 'vapor lock' and crack us all up!"

Newsom, normally known for wearing bland suits, in contrast to Severinsen's colorful attire, once appeared in a loud sport coat. Carson, impressed by Newsom's bold change of appearance, asked him where he got the coat. Newsom responded simply, "I found it in my closet, Johnny," breaking up Carson and the audience.

As a personality, Mr. Newsom pretended to have none. Carson gently taunted him for his deadpan expression and bland tastes -- his suits ran the gamut from brown to navy.

Despite the gags, Mr. Newsom was a graceful musician and veteran of bands led by guitarist Charlie Byrd, clarinetist Benny Goodman and society bandleader Vincent Lopez. Mr. Newsom became an NBC studio musician, worked for Merv Griffin and soon after was assigned to the "Tonight" program in early 1962, several months before Carson took over.

Mr. Newsom spent the next 30 years on the show, most of the time directly under the bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who was known for his loud outfits. Mr. Newsom became assistant music director in the late 1960s and took over the baton in Severinsen's absence.

"I think the first night I took over for Doc, Carson recoiled," Mr. Newsom told the Los Angeles Times. "He was so used to having foils on either side, Ed [McMahon] over here and Doc over there, and he needed somebody to bounce something off of, so the gags began.

"I guess my cardboard-cutout style makes a good contrast to Doc's flamboyant image," he said. "Carson has really laid some heavy ones on me. One night, he said I was the only person who was going to reach puberty and senility at the same time."

Thomas Penn Newsom was born in Portsmouth, where his father was a pharmacist and his mother taught kindergarten. As a child, he was exposed to opera and big band music over the radio. His mother played piano and sang.

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Album Review
Big Band Report
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Album Discography

Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

Tommy Newsom and His...

Arbors Records
2005

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Friendly Fire

Arbors Records
2002

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Friendly Fire

Arbors Records
2001

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