David 'Fathead' Newman: Saxophonist who worked with Ray Charles

The Oscar-winning film biography of Ray Charles, Ray (2005), pays scant attention to many of the key figures in the pianist and soul-singer's life, most notably his saxophonist, David "Fathead" Newman. During Charles's key years, Newman was his most accomplished musician, his best friend, and the man who knew where to buy the dope.

Two years younger than Charles, Newman was born in Corsicana, Texas, in 1933. His family moved to Dallas and during a school lesson, a teacher called him a "fathead", a name which stuck. Academically bright, Newman studied for a degree at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas. In the evenings he played alto sax in jazz clubs and began to experiment with drugs. After two years, he toured around the Dallas and Fort Worth areas in a band led by Buster Smith, who had been a strong influence on Charlie Parker.

In 1952, Newman went on a national tour, playing alto for the pianist Lloyd Glenn. At a booking in Atlanta, Georgia, he met and befriended Charles, who was the support act for the evening. When Charles became successful, he recruited Newman for his band.

Newman played baritone sax at first, but then switched to tenor. He was also Charles's driver and one of his duties was to obtain heroin for his employer. Newman would heat Charles's dose and then shoot it into his arm. Once, in Houston, Newman was arrested, leaving Ray, a blind man, alone in the car. "You've gotta find your own way back," said a callous policeman.

Newman can be heard on all of Charles's groundbreaking singles for the Atlantic label. They include "Lonely Avenue", "I Got a Woman", "What'd I Say" and "Night Time is the Right Time" as well as the highly atmospheric live album Ray Charles at Newport (1958). Charles was so appreciative that he produced Ray Charles Presents David "Fathead" Newman (1959), Newman's first solo album. The tracks include the blues-drenched "Hard Times" featuring Charles on piano.

When Charles switched to ABC Records, Newman was featured on several of his best tracks, including a commentary on civil rights, "The Danger Zone", the B-side to the classic comic song of marital disharmony – also featuring Newman – "Hit the Road Jack" (1961).

Both Charles and Newman came off drugs in the early Sixties, and when Newman left Charles in 1964, he established himself as a session musician. He is featured on such memorable albums as Joe Cocker's Luxury You Can Afford (1978), B.B. King's There Must Be a Better World Somewhere (1981), Lou Rawls's At Last (1989), Eric Clapton's Journeyman (1989), Natalie Cole's tribute to her father, Nat "King" Cole, Unforgettable – with Love (1991) and Jimmy Scott's All the Way (1992). He returned to play with Charles at a number of big events and toured with him in 1970-71.

Newman often worked with his own quartet and he undertook European tours. His albums included Blue Head (1989) ,with the tenor player Clifford Jordan, and a tribute to Duke Ellington, Mr Gentle, Mr Cool (1994). In 1990, he, Art Blakey and Dr John were nominated for a Grammy with their album, Bluesiana Triangle, and in 1996 he appeared as a musician at the Hey-Hey Club in Robert Altman's film Kansas City.

When Newman moved from New York to the country, he made the idyllic Under a Woodstock Moon (1996), which featured such songs as "Nature Boy" and "Skylark". He released a tribute album to Ray Charles, I Remember Brother Ray, to coincide with the film in 2005. He also worked with his son, the vocalist and drummer, Cadino Newman.

Spencer Leigh

David Newman, musician: born Corsicana, Texas 24 February 1933; married (four sons); died Kingston, New York 20 January 2009.

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