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‘Fathead’ Newman, frequent Ellington’s performer, passes

By Staff | Jan 28, 2009

David “Fathead” Newman, legendary saxophonist/flutist and composer who was a prominent member of the Ray Charles band in the ’50s and ’60s and a renowned bandleader in his own right thereafter, passed away on Jan. 20, 2009 in upstate New York, succumbing to the pancreatic cancer that he heroically battled for the past year. He was 75 years old.

Local jazz fans knew Newman from his frequent dates playing at Ellington’s Jazz Bar and Restaurant at the Sanibel Inn.

“We will always treasure the time we spent with Mr. Newman at Ellington’s and in New York,” read the tribute posted on Ellington’s Web site. “He was a tremendously talented musician and a magnificent human being. He was a gentle soul with a loving personality, a grand smile and he will be sorely missed.”

Newman was one of several jazz greats to add their autograph to Ellington’s trademark Grand Piano, which also features the signatures of Dave Brubeck, Sweet Georgia Brown, Jon Weber and Johnnie Mae Dunson.

Born in Corsicana, Texas on Feb. 24, 1933, Newman hit the road full time following college with fellow Texan Red Connor’s group – which featured Ornette Coleman and with the band of Charlie Parker’s mentor Buster Smith – playing dance halls throughout the southwest. While on tour he met Ray Charles, who was working as a sideman with another group. The two bonded, both musically and personally. When Charles began leading his own band in 1954, he called upon Newman to join the group, beginning a 12-year association with the organization, helping to define the Charles orchestra’s sound as its star tenor soloist.

Newman would record numerous more records as a leader for Atlantic Records. His versatility on saxes and flutes also made him a first call session player and his presence contributed to studio dates by the likes Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Dr. John, Joe Cocker, The Average White Band and Garland Jeffreys, as well as jazz greats Lee Morgan, Herbie Mann and fellow Charles alumnus Hank Crawford.

Newman appeared on many TV shows, including Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman, and appeared in Robert Altman’s film “Kansas City.” He was portrayed by Bookeem Woodbine in the feature film “Ray,” the award-winning movie based on the life of Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx.

Newman is survived by his loving wife and manager of 28 years, Karen Newman, four sons, seven grandchildren, three great grandchildren, an uncle and an aunt and a father-in-law who was his best friend, Izzy Goldstein. Memorial services are to be announced in the near future.