House of David

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.

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Josh Alan Friedman