Call him 'Fathead' if you want, but some call David Newman a pioneer

By Linda Jones
Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

NEW YORK David "Fathead" Newman is seated in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel, waiting for his moment in the spotlight.

It is the night of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards ceremony and the veteran saxophonist and former sideman for Ray Charles is one of its 12 honorees.

Legends such as Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Bobby Byrd, who once led James Brown's Famous Flames, give high-octane performances that work the audience into a frenzy.

But when Mr. Newman takes the stage, the wild-man antics, fancy footwork and soulful shouts are temporarily on hold.

Cool is in session and it's time to settle down.

Smoothly and seductively, jazz-tinged notes of his bluesy 1959 classic, "Hard Times," flow from the instrument of Texas-born tenor saxman, giving the roomful of celebrities and fans a chance to regain their composure.

For nearly 40 years, Mr. Newman has been making music that is soothing and can swing as well.  His talent and longevity earned him recognition in February at the ceremony sponsored by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which was organized in 1988 to help performers from the '50s and '60s recoup royalties and provide emergency financial aid for medical bills, rent and funerals.

Sitting in a Manhattan coffeehouse, the 65-year-old musician, who now lives in Woodstock, N.Y., recalls that he was so overwhelmed at the ceremony that when he gave his acceptance speech, he forgot to include Ray Charles, whom he credits with giving his career a major boost.

"It was an oversight," he laments in a soft but gravelly voice.  "I was trying to be brief with all the thank you's.  I had a little speech written but I tried to memorize it.  When I did, Ray was the only person I left out."

Mr. Newman met Mr. Charles in Dallas in the mid-1950s and played in his band for about 10 years before going solo.

"I was brought up a bebop musician but it wasn't so acceptable, especially in Dallas," says Mr. Newman, who was a fixture at the legendary Sunday afternoon jazz sessions at the old American Woodmen Center hall in South Dallas.  "You couldn't make a living doing that, so I had to play rhythm and blues.  I adapted to that easily, being from an area where blues was prevalent."

In order to work steadily, Mr. Newman joined bluesman Lowell Fulson's band in the early 1950s.  Mr. Charles formed his own band in 1954 and he hired Mr. Newman to play baritone sax.  When tenor player Don Wilkerson left, Mr. Newman moved to his spot.

In 1959, while Mr. Newman was still with the band, Mr. Charles produced Ray Charles Presents David "Fathead" Newman, and album that enable Mr. Newman to showcase his talents.

"I was very grateful that Ray would give me such a chance for the exposure," says Mr. Newman.  "He'd never done that for anyone else in the band."

Mr. Newman left Dallas for New York in the mid-'60s but returned between gigs.  He came back to live briefly during the 1980s before returning to New York and still owns a home in Oak Cliff.  He comes to Dallas frequently to visit family and friends; his last local performance was in 1996 during a jazz festival at the African American Museum honoring the late jazz vocalist Shirley McPhatter.

These days, the Corsicana-born Mr. Newman is touring with his own quintet and working on some new compositions for a CD he hopes to have completed in May.

What makes the R&B Foundation award a bit sweeter is the sizable check that comes along with it.  He and the other honorees will share a $205,000 cash award.  Mr. Newman says he'll use his portion to spruce up his home in Woodstock and purchase a computer to assist his manager and wife, Karen, who coordinates his schedule.  He also plans to use the computer to help write music.

Mr. Newman made the shift from Manhattan, where he was closer to his gigs and the nightlife, to the serenity of Woodstock in 1993.

"It was time to move out and get in tune with nature, have some grass and trees and water," he says.  "Being from Texas, I'm a person who likes space, and Manhattan, you know, is a concrete jungle."

He says he relishes spending nights looking at the sunset where the "real stars" are.

The beauty of his new surroundings inspired Under the Woodstock Moon, his 1997 CD.

"It was a tribute to Mother Nature," says Mr. Newman.  The CD includes such standards as "Summertime," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up" and some of his originals including "Under a Woodstock Moon," and "Amandla."

Mr. Newman describes himself as a versatile stylist.

"I can war several different hats.  I can put on my blues hat and I can put on my jazz hat.  My technique has improved and I'm a little more mature in my presentation," he says.  "But my style hasn't changed much."

Neither has his nickname.  Mr. Newman says he can't seem to shake "Fathead," the moniker he received as a teenager which helps separate him from noted soundtrack composer David Newman.

He was given the nickname by J.K. Miller, his band teacher at Lincoln High School, and after all these years, he doesn't seem to mind repeating the story.

"I was in band class and I had this music on my music stand but it was upside down," he says.  "He [Mr. Miller] knew I could barely read the music right side up.  He thumped me on the head and called me 'Fathead.'  My classmates laughed.  After that, it became my trademark.

"I don't consider it derogatory and it doesn't offend me.  If someone asked me what I prefer to be called, it would be David.  But Fathead doesn't bother me at all."


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Jazz Times

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