Josh Alan Friedman, who penned an amazing piece about the Texas Tenor for the paper version of Unfair Park long ago, brings sad news today: Corsicana-born, Dallas-raised sax great David "Fathead" Newman died yesterday. There's only been one obituary, but a call to David's wife and manager Karen offers further confirmation. Says a family friend named Patty, he died last night following a long bout with pancreatic cancer. Funeral services are being arranged, says Patty, and "there will be a jazz service at a later date in New York."
Newman, who so beautifully straddled the line between jazz and R&B throughout his estimable career, had one of the most illustrious careers in modern music, stretching all the way from Lincoln High School to bandleader Buster Smith to Ray Charles to Atlantic Records to Aretha Franklin to ZuZu Bolin to Robert Altman's film Kansas City, in which he had a small role as a sax player, but of course. As Josh wrote in 1996, "Aside from his own 28 [albums], Newman estimates he has played on some 400 pop, jazz, and blues albums as a star sideman." He acquired his nickname while at Lincoln: As Sarah Hepola recounted in the Observer in 2004, legendary band director J.K. Miller "called him a 'fathead' after he bungled a note in class."
In his autobiography Brother Ray, co-written with native Dallasite David Ritz, Charles wrote of his fondness for Newman, who joined his band in 1954. "He was one of the best musicians I'd ever heard," Charles wrote, one who played with such "lyricism" and "sweetness." Added Charles, "He could make his sax sings the song like no one else." Fathead was such an enormous part of Charles's life that in the 2004 film Ray, Bokeem Woodbine portrayed the saxophone-playing sideman. And it was Charles who lent his name to Newman's 1958 solo debut: Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman.
In '04, Newman told the Observer that playing with Charles "was like a course in music appreciation... Ray loved jazz, blues, rock, rhythm and blues, country and western, and classical. I was stuck in the bebop era, and I didn't think there was anything other than bebop, but he taught me differently."
In 2005, Newman released the album I Remember Brother Ray. It would be among his last. His final album was 2008's Diamondhead, which also featured South Dallas-born pianist Cedar Walton.