David Newman's Oak Cliff home contains a living-room wall of fame--the "Fathead National Museum"--adorned with his 28 album covers in chronological order. They date from 1959's Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman to last year's Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cool. The great tenor sax player's feisty old Aunt Freda runs his Dallas household. "He's got 22 albums on that wall...Then he stopped doing records," she shrugs, pointing at the CD covers, "and made six of those little things."
Newman's nom de sax--Fathead--seems a total misnomer for this prolific, sweet-mannered maestro. A high-school music teacher barked the name at him once after young David flubbed an arpeggio--and it stuck. But Fathead's never since missed a beat. Aside from his own 28, Newman estimates he has played on some 400 pop, jazz, and blues albums as a star sideman.
"I've been very fortunate, indeed," he says in his living room among his three sons' golf and tennis trophies. Few jazz musicians at age 63 are so upbeat and fit; he himself plays tennis. "Music has changed over the years, but never to the point where I haven't been able to fit in," he says.
David Newman is regarded as the perfect blend of bebop jazz musician and authentic blues-R&B player. "You never get lost listening to Fathead," explains his longtime producer, Joel Dorn. "He never solos past a logical thought or melody. I always think of him and Hank Crawford as guys who were singers that happened to play saxophone."
The recent two-CD career retrospective, House of David (the same title as a 1967 solo album), on Rhino/Atlantic, demonstrates Newman's longevity. The set includes many Fathead-as-sideman tracks, beginning with late local blues guitarist Zuzu Bollin's regional 1952 chestnut, "Why Don't You Eat Where You Slept Last Night." Then it rolls through seven Ray Charles classics like "Rock House," proving just how essential Fathead was in Brother Ray's career. Fathead was Ray Charles' sax star and alter ego. In 1952, they both passed through Lowell Fulson's blues band in Dallas. Fathead became first pick for Ray's trailblazing septet two years later. The question arises as to why Ray Charles is referred to as "The Genius" on so many Atlantic album covers.
"I don't know about him being a genius," Newman considers, "but I do think he had a stroke of genius within his makeup. They started calling Ray 'The Genius of Soul' after we did a recording session in Atlanta. I think it was 'I Got A Woman.' He does have a great mind; perfect pitch. He can compose and arrange instantaneously. He could write arrangements in Braille, but he preferred to dictate. The rests, notes, the key, tempo--everything."
Ray Charles' fabled charts, dictated to Fathead or Hank Crawford, made seven or eight instruments sound like l5. "I Got A Woman" hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in January 1955, the innovation being that it was the first use of a 16-bar gospel chord progression in pop music. Many songs imitated this progression, but Charles took a stoning from sanctified church folk for raiding the spiritual canon. Putting three black chick singers (the "amen corner" of the Raeletts) behind the band was another Ray Charles stage innovation, copied ad nauseam to this day. Credited with the "birth of soul," Brother Ray and Fathead were also part of the dawn of rock 'n' roll (which Atlantic Records wanted to call "cat music" before Alan Freed christened it otherwise). But the Ray Charles Band never pandered to the burgeoning rock 'n' roll market; it kept its themes adult--church music gone orgasmic, like the upward-spiraling "What'd I Say."
Dorn, who later produced eight Fathead LPs when on staff at Atlantic, was a teenage Ray Charles fanatic. "I was his most twisted, sickest, devoted fan," Dorn says. Dorn skipped school anytime the Ray Charles band played within a few hundred miles of Philadelphia, crashing backstage. "I knew all the guys in his band--his road manager, his valet, the driver. I used to tell him, 'I'm gonna be a record producer.'" Dorn acquired his own Philly radio show on WHAT-FM in '61, and made Fathead's "Hard Times" his show's theme song. "The record became a smash in Philly--sold thousands of copies a year in that town."
"Hard Times" from Newman's debut as leader, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman, came to symbolize what aficionados termed "soul jazz." The only money Newman sees today from his prolific output on Atlantic Records--where he was a sideman, and a leader on two dozen of his own LPs--comes from the all-important publishing royalties through BMI for the compositions he actually wrote: "Missy," "Fathead Comes On," "Turning Point," "Shiloh," and "Children of Abraham."
"He was a darling child--beautiful--and so was his mother," declares Aunt Freda, poking her head in from the kitchen.
"They was just crazy about my mom; crazy about her cookin'. She worked for Jewish families all of her life," says Newman, whose self-tooled saxophone case carries the Hebrew inscription of his name, "Da-veed." As personal maid, his mom prepared kosher meals in the home kitchens of Neiman's honcho Stanley Marcus, as well as the Sanger brothers. "I would eat the same things as the Marcuses or Sangers when I was a young kid," Newman says.
Kosher meals aside, Newman attended St. Peter's Academy, a Catholic school in North Dallas, through sixth grade. After graduating from Lincoln High in South Dallas, Newman attended Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, on a church scholarship, but didn't study theology. "I would have gone to a music school if we could have afforded it," he says.
Jack Ruby's Vegas Club and the Silver Spur were dives that employed black jazz musicians in the Naughty Dallas of the '50s. "The thing I remember most about Jack Ruby," chuckles Newman, "were the stag parties in his clubs. Whenever the striptease dancers came out, he'd want the musicians to turn our backs, 'cause these were white ladies. He'd say, 'Now, you guys turn your backs so you can't see this.' But the strippers would insist that the drummer watch them so he could catch their bumps and grinds. So, Jack says, 'Well, the drummer can look, but the rest of you guys, you turn your backs on the bandstand.'"
Newman played bebop in Fort Worth with Ornette Coleman, and jammed Sundays at the Woodmen's Auditorium, a black lodge and insurance company on Oakland Avenue. "We knew every tune that Bird, Diz, and Miles would put out, note for note," says Newman. R&B package tours came through Dallas featuring T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, and Lowell Fulson (with Brother Ray on piano). Buster Smith's Dallas-based ensemble, which Newman played in as a teenager, backed these package tours in town. "I'd listened to Charlie Christian before him, of course, but T-Bone Walker was the first blues guitarist to really impress me," remembers Newman, who had never before heard a blues guitarist use diminished and augmented chords.
Dallasite Buster Smith had been to Count Basie what Fathead was to Ray Charles: his alter ego. Smith was also Charlie Parker's teacher, as well as a mentor to Fathead. Since Newman led a tribute album to Smith on Austin's Amazing Records 40 years after his stint, he was a natural to play Buster Smith in Robert Altman's fascinating flop, Kansas City. The film's house band played counterpoint to the plot, with all the musicians approximating roles of historical figures. According to Newman, however, with little musical direction, the younger cats weren't true to their 1934 counterparts. Joshua Redman, as the Lester Young-based character, didn't play like Young, and Cyrus Chestnut--not being grounded in stride piano--didn't play like Basie. Altman felt that commercial 78s of the time may not have reflected the experimentation during these Blue Devil jazz days and therefore allowed bebop riffs to poke in and out of the solos. Ron Carter and Fathead Newman, however, were the movie band's elder statesmen. Playing alto sax, Newman was thinking Buster Smith with every note. "I was a little older and experienced and knew about this. Had I played tenor saxophone, I would have been able to imitate some of the Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young sounds."
Newman himself carries the mantle as today's preeminent Big Texas Tenor. The Texans who created this world-renowned sound came a generation before: Arnette Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, and Herschell Evans. Influenced by many, Fathead saw Charlie Parker only once, in 1954, racing down to Birdland after a Ray Charles Apollo gig in Harlem. "That was a big moment in my life," he says.
Newman's albums sell big for jazz records. Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman sold 150,000 copies by 1960. Bigger & Better, which cost $50,000 to make in 1968, sold 200,000 copies, and his last effort on Kokopelli Records topped the Gavin jazz chart with more than 100,000 units sold. Unlike many artists who forget their roots when they make it big, however, Newman never forgot local peers like Marcel Ivery, with whom he cut a 1993 album in Holland called Blue, Greens & Beans. But Holland doesn't count. As a jazz musician, says Newman, "You have to move to New York or L.A. to further your career; be on the scene. You have to leave town, like the young Roy Hargrove, to make it."
Newman also cut two albums with recently deceased hard-luck story James Clay--one in 1960, and one recorded live in New York in '91, one of Clay's swan songs. Though Newman took Clay out on the road with Ray Charles' big band for two years in the early '60s, Clay fell short of critical expectations as he spent most of his career in Dallas and jazz obscurity, perhaps the better to nurse his heroin addiction.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"We used to believe you had to be high to play," Newman says of his days with Ray Charles. "Nowadays, we know this is completely untrue. I'm so proud of guys like Mac [Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John] now that he gets up in the morning, eats a nutritious breakfast, then gets to work."
The image of Fathead's close friend and musical ally Dr. John eating a nutritious breakfast is somewhat unsettling, but the fact is that he cleaned up his tracks and recorded the strongest records of his career after 34 years of heroin addiction. Today's jazz players, Newman believes, are far more disciplined than those of his own generation. Young jazz musicians are today's four-eyed squares who go to college, practice diligently--and eat nutritious breakfasts; it's the MTV bubblegum groups who drown their sorrows in heroin.
Though now based with his wife, Karen, near Woodstock, New York--which he calls "God's country"--Fathead always comes home. This September he headlined the Second Annual Shirley McFatter Jazz Festival in Fair Park. He emerged onstage to cries of "Fathaid, Fathaid," shouted by old-timers who remember him from way back, and there were cries of "Dino, Dino!" for his 32-year-old son, who drums in the quintet. David Newman exudes class in dapper vest and suit--an unshowoff. But he conks you upside the head with his subtlety.
Newman intends to become an independent producer and work at becoming a lyricist--eventually, the lip goes. "I intend to buy a Mac computer. I want to be connected to music beyond my playing years," he says. Even though he feels rap has been "bad for the music industry," he thinks he'd make an interesting choice to produce in that genre. After 50 years playing his horn, he says, "The time has finally come.