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David Fathead Newman, 1933-2009

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Gentle, soulful David Newman is gone. He died on Monday.

“Fathead" was a nickname that became a promotional tag, but those close to him knew him as David. They seemed always to say the name with affection whether they were speaking to or about him. He once told the story of his nickname.
I was in band class and I had this music on my music stand but it was upside down ... 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.

Newman was one of Ray Charles's favorite musicians from the time Charles emerged as a star. He recorded his biggest success, “Hard Times," at a 1958 session for which Charles was producer, arranger and pianist. The piece became his signature tune.

For the last year of his life, he kept on playing as long as he could despite the pancreatic cancer that finally slowed him. Often, he appeared with student musicians, whom he loved to teach and encourage. From my notes for one of his last CDs:
As he approaches his mid seventies, David Newman's pace is not slower; he is merely moving toward different audiences. Like many jazz musicians, he tries to stay away from clubs, with their late hours and the smoke his doctor says he must avoid. The success of his CDs and of a film about Ray Charles put him in greater demand than ever. He is accepting concert offers, playing festivals and doing clinics.

At one of his concerts recently, his encore was a B-flat blues with a searing flute solo. He and the sixteen-piece band from Central Washington University rocked the hall and got a standing ovation. Newman smiled when I remarked on it later, then delivered what for him was an effusion of self-satisfaction. “Yes, I was very pleased with that," he said



Here is David Newman in a recent performance of the song from which he was inseparable. The video is shaky and cuts off the second his solo ends, but it is a fine solo and a fine way to remember him.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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