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March 1, 2005
As he celebrates his 72nd birthday, saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman is enjoying a bit of a resurgence. That’s because of his prominent place in the career of the late Ray Charles and his portrayal by actor Bokeem Woodbine in the Oscar nominated film, Ray.
Newman was there during Charles’ groundbreaking, genre-busting heyday, playing with him from 1954-64, and rejoining him in 1970-71. The two had met while playing with different blues bands in Newman’s native Texas in the early ‘50s.
“In the area where I grew up in Dallas,” Newman told me recently, “I was surrounded by blues. But bebop was something that I was naturally---a bebop jazz musician. But the thing of it is, you couldn’t earn any money playing straightahead bebop. Therefore we had to do what was necessary there and that was to play with rhythm and blues groups. There were plenty of them. And that’s what I began to pursue.
“When I met Ray Charles in ’52, that’s what he was doing. He was being featured with the Lowell Fulsom blues band and I was being featured with Buster Smith, but behind the T-Bone Walker blues band.”
When I called him at his home in Woodstock, NY, Newman had just returned the night before from a recording session in New York City with Freddie Cole. He has a new CD out on High Note honoring his old boss called I Remember Brother Ray. And Friday night, he comes to the Roper Performing Arts Center in Norfolk for the final Jazz on Granby concert of the season, billed as “remembering Johnny Hartman” with guest vocalist Frank D’Rone.
But the Johnny Hartman salute is only one piece of the evening’s setlist. For the most part, it will be David “Fathead” Newman doing what he does best on sax and flute, drawing from the many phases of his long career. He built his reputation playing R&B and soul music with Ray Charles, recording his own string of soul-drenched albums, appearing on records by folks like Aretha Franklin and The Rascals, and through a lengthy association with Herbie Mann that began in 1972. But Newman claims he was really a bebopper at heart.
“I think I was about 16 when I started playing professionally around Dallas,” he recalled. “I started playing the saxophone when I was about ten years old.
“At the very beginning, I would listen to people like Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Louis Jordan. And then later, I was introduced to bebop, introduced to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and that was the beginning of the bebop era. I was a young kid listening and surrounded by this music. They had 78 [rpm] recordings where if you dropped one it would break into a million pieces. We would listen to all of these recordings. Some other young friends of mine, we would get together in garages and have these little sessions and play all of the bebop tunes and go over all the hits.”
One of the young guys he played with in those days was Ornette Coleman, who would go on to become both the dean of the avant garde and a controversial figure in the development of free jazz at the turn of the ‘60s.
“We grew up together,” Newman said of Coleman. “He was in Fort Worth and I was there in Dallas. What we were doing is we were playing bebop tunes and once we were finished playing the heads, Ornette would go off into his thing, his ‘harmolodics.’ We knew right away that he was going to be a little different because he would never conform to the chord changes as we were accustomed to doing. We would follow the chord changes and Ornette would just absolutely refuse to do that. So, we knew right away that he was going in a different direction…and he did!”
While David Newman was traveling around the world with Ray Charles, Frank D’Rone was carving out a career for himself as a Sinatra-influenced lounge singer and guitarist in clubs around the Chicago area and on the Vegas/Atlantic City circuit. He’d begun performing in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, at the age of five.
“When I was three, I saw a ukulele in the window and wanted it,” he remembered last week, “and my dad got it for me. At four I got my first guitar and started playing that, and just kept on and on.
“At that time, when I was a kid, Nat Cole had a fifteen minute radio show sponsored by Wild Root Cream Oil and his guitar player’s name was Oscar Moore. I used to listen to that and get my guitar and play along with them, or try to, and listen to what they were doing.”
Friday night in Norfolk, D’Rone will join Newman and his band onstage to revisit a few of the best known songs from jazz balladeer Johnny Hartman’s repertoire. Hartman’s most famous album was the 1963 classic, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, recorded with the iconic tenor saxman and featuring definitive versions of “Lush Life” and “My One and Only Love.” It’ll be the first time Newman and D’Rone have worked together, and it’s a surprise matchup even for the two of them.
“I don’t connect him with Johnny Hartman,” Newman admitted, “although Frank comes from about the same era and time span.”
Actually, D’Rone and Hartman were friends in Chicago.
“He had a great sound, was a good singer and did great songs,” D’Rone said of Hartman. “He was a baritone, I’m a baritone.
“Not too long before he passed, I happened to be in Florida. He was working a place and I went to see him. He called me up on stage and I sang a tune. Then we did something together.”
Besides the batch of Hartman-associated tunes with D’Rone, the real star Friday night will be the earthy, soulful saxophone and flute stylings of David “Fathead” Newman. (He got his nickname from his high school band director.)
“That’s something I try to inject into the music,” he acknowledged. “I try to play from the soul; I try to play from the heart. I try to play with feeling and I also try to be a little lyrical in my playing, which is something that I focus on quite a bit, as another voice would.”
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