David “Fathead” Newman: From Ray Charles Protégé to Band Leader

Mar 7, 2015

David Newman is a fairly average name. But insert the nickname “Fathead,” and there you have a memorable handle—especially when the person is an entertainer. An odd name is one way to get attention. Musician David Newman must have caught on to this early in his career as a professional musician, and advanced by keeping the derogatory but attention-catching name of David “Fathead” Newman.

He can thank his high school music teacher for the name, which was applied when the teacher caught him pretending to read sheet music—with the page upside-down. Newman wasn’t very good at reading music, but could execute well, playing by ear.

He enjoyed an outstanding career in great part because he learned to be versatile. He was equally at home playing R&B, blues, soul jazz, and straight-ahead jazz.

It’s not known if Newman’s future success made the teacher eat his words, but if he followed Newman’s career, the giver should have been as proud of its use as the receiver.

David Newman enjoyed an outstanding career as a musician in great part because he learned to be versatile, playing in many genres of music. He was equally at home playing R&B, blues, soul jazz, and straight-ahead jazz. Along the way he became a multi-instrumentalist, mastering the alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, and flute.

He was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and studied piano and alto saxophone at Lincoln High School. He also attended Jarvis Christian College for two years, but dropped out because he wanted to play music full time. He began by joining a band headed by Buster Smith, a respected alto sax player who once had Charlie Parker as a student. Later, there were stints with a couple of others bands of note. One of them had a pianist named Ray Charles. Newman and Charles became acquainted, and a few years after their first meeting, Charles formed a band and asked Newman to join him. The union lasted from 1954 to 1964.

In 1958, Newman recorded his first (and some say his best) album under his own name: Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David “Fathead” Newman. Ray played piano on the album, and it took off like a rocket. One of the songs on the disc, “Hard Times,” was used as a theme song by more than a few disc jockeys across the nation. It also became Newman’s signature song.

"Hard Times":

The Ray Charles Band played great in any genre. The band members, like Newman and their multi-talented leader, contained musicians who could play music of any stripe, and complement each category. When Newman left the band, he was quick to say that the experience of working with Ray Charles was the single most important influence in his musical development.

He went on to record 40 albums as a leader. Between club and concert dates and his own recording, he worked with some of the top names in the music industry, including Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, Nat King Cole, and Donny Hathaway, to name a few.

David “Fathead” Newman was born in 1933 and passed away January 20, 2009, in Kingston, New York, at age 75. Coincidentally, two other former members of the Ray Charles Band during Newman’s tenure—saxophonists Hank Crawford and Leroy “Hog” Cooper—died that same month. One jazz writer observed that Ray Charles must have called a band rehearsal. Charles had passed on five years earlier.

This article is from the January 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More information.