COLUMN TWENTY-SIX, OCTOBER 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
HOUSE OF DAVID
(Copyright © 1996 Josh Alan Friedman)
[This article originally appeared in the Dallas Observer.]
Oak Cliff, Texas
David Newman's Oak Cliff home contains a living room wall-of-fame---the "Fathead National Museum"---which is adorned with his 28 album covers in chronological order. They date from 1959's Ray Charles Presents Fathead, to last year's Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cool. The great tenor sax player's feisty old Aunt Freda runs his Dallas household.
"He's got 22 albums on that wall. . .then he stopped doing records," she shrugs, pointing at the CD covers, "and made six of those little things."
Newman's nom de sax---Fathead---seems a total misnomer for this prolific, sweet-mannered maestro. A high school music teacher barked the name at him once after young David flubbed an arpeggio---and it stuck. But Fathead's never since missed a beat. Aside from his own 28, Newman estimates he's played on some 400 pop, jazz and blues albums as a star sideman.
"I've been very fortunate, indeed," he says, in his living room, amongst his sons' golf and tennis trophies. Few jazz musicians at age 63 are so upbeat and fit. Newman himself plays tennis.
"Music has changed over the years," he says, "but never to the point where I haven't been able to fit in."
David Newman is regarded as the perfect blend of bebop jazz musician and authentic blues/R&B player.
"You never get lost listening to Fathead," explains his longtime producer, Joel Dorn. "He never solos past a logical thought or melody. I always think of him and Hank Crawford as guys who were singers that happened to play saxophone."
The recent two-CD career retrospective, House of David, on Rhino/Atlantic, demonstrates Newman's longevity. The set includes many Fathead-as-sideman tracks, beginning with Zuzu Bollin's local 1952 chestnut, Why Don't You Eat Where You Slept Last Night. Then it rolls through seven Ray Charles classics, which prove just how essential Fathead was in Brother Ray's career. He was Ray Charles' sax star and alter ego. In 1952, they both passed through Lowell Fulson's blues band in Dallas. Fathead became first pick for Ray's trailblazing septet, two years later. The question arises as to why Ray Charles was referred to as "The Genius," on so many Atlantic album covers.
"I don't know about him being a genius," Newman considers, "but I do think he had a stroke of genius within his makeup. They started calling Ray 'The Genius of Soul' after we did a recording session in Atlanta. I think it was I Got A Woman. He does have a great mind, perfect pitch, he can compose and arrange instantaneously. He could write arrangements in Braille, but he preferred to dictate. The rests, notes, the key, tempo, everything."
Ray Charles' fabled charts, dictated to Fathead or Hank Crawford, made seven or eight instruments sound like 15.
I Got A Woman hit number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in January 1955, the innovation being that it was the first use of a 16-bar gospel chord progression in pop music. Many songs imitated this progression, but Charles took the slings and arrows from sanctified church folk for raiding the spiritual canon. Putting three black chick singers (the Raeletts---an "amen corner") behind the band was another Ray Charles stage innovation, copied ad nauseam to this day. Credited with the "birth of soul," Brother Ray and Fathead were also part of the dawn of rock 'n' roll (which Atlantic Records wanted to call "cat music" before Alan Freed christened it otherwise). But the Ray Charles Band never pandered to reap teen coin from the burgeoning rock 'n' roll market. They kept their themes adult---church music gone orgasmic (like What'd I Say).
Dorn, who later produced eight Fathead LPs when on staff at Atlantic, was a teenage Ray
Fathead's 'Hard Times'
his radio show's theme song
Charles fanatic. "I was his most twisted, sickest, devoted fan." Dorn left school anytime the Ray Charles band played within a few hundred miles of Philadelphia, crashing backstage. "I knew all the guys in his band, his road manager, his valet, the driver. I used to tell him I'm gonna be a record producer." Dorn acquired his own Philly radio show on WHAT-FM in '61, and made Fathead's Hard Times his show's theme song. "The record became a smash in Philly, sold thousands of copies a year in that town."
Hard Times from Newman's debut as leader, Ray Charles Presents Fathead, came to symbolize what aficionados termed "soul jazz." The only money Newman sees today from his prolific output on Atlantic records---as sideman, and as leader on two dozen of his own LPs---comes from the all-important publishing royalties through BMI for writing compositions like Missy, Fathead Comes On, Turning Point, Shiloh, and Children of Abraham.
"He was a darling child, beautiful---and so was his mother," declares Aunt Freda, poking her head in from the kitchen.
"They was just crazy about my mom, crazy about her cookin'. She worked for Jewish families all of her life," says Newman, whose self-tooled saxophone case carries the Hebrew inscription of his name, "Da-veed." As personal maid, his mom prepared kosher meals in the home kitchens of (Neiman's founder) Stanley Marcus, as well as the Sanger Brothers. "I would eat the same things as the Marcuses or Sangers, when I was a young kid."
Kosher meals aside, Newman attended St. Peter's Academy, a Catholic School in North Dallas, through sixth grade. After graduating Lincoln High in South Dallas, Newman attended Jarvis Christian College, in Harkins, Texas, on a church scholarship, but didn't study theology. "I would have gone to a music school if we could have afforded it."
Jack Ruby's Vegas Club and the Silver Spur were dives that employed black jazz musicians in naughty Dallas of the '50s: "The thing I remember most about Jack Ruby," chuckles Newman, "were the stag parties in his clubs. Whenever the striptease dancers came out, he'd want the musicians to turn our backs. 'Cause these were white ladies. He'd say, 'Now, you guys turn your backs so you can't see this.' But the strippers would insist that the drummer watch them, so he could catch their bumps and grinds. So, Jack says, 'Well, the drummer can look, but the rest of you guys, you turn your backs on the bandstand."
Newman played bebop in Fort Worth with Ornette Coleman, and jammed Sundays at the American Woodmen Auditorium, a black insurance company on Oakland Avenue. "We knew every tune that Bird, Diz and Miles would put out, note for note." R&B package tours came through Dallas, featuring T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner and Lowell Fulson (with Brother Ray on piano). Buster Smith's Dallas-based ensemble, which Newman played in as a teenager, backed these package tours in town.
"I'd listened to Charlie Christian before him, of course, but T-Bone Walker was the first blues guitarist to really impress me," remembers Newman. He'd never heard a blues guitarist use diminished and augmented chords.
Dallasite Buster Smith had been to Count Basie what Fathead was to Ray Charles---his alter ego. Smith was Charlie Parker's teacher, as well as a mentor to Fathead. Since Newman led a tribute album on Austin's Amazing Records, 40 years after his stint, he was a natural to play Buster Smith in Robert Altman's fascinating flop, Kansas City. The film's house band played counterpoint to the plot, with all musicians approximating roles of historical figures. But with little musical direction, the younger cats weren't true to their 1934 counterparts. Joshua Redman, as the Lester Young-based character, didn't play like Young, and Cyrus Chestnut didn't play like Basie, not being grounded in stride piano. Altman felt that commercial 78s of the time may not have reflected the experimentation during these Blue Devil jazz days. Thus, bebop riffs poke in and out of the solos. Ron Carter and Fathead Newman were the movie band's elder statesmen. Playing alto sax, Newman was thinking Buster Smith with every note.
"I was a little older, and experienced and knew about this," he says. "Had I played tenor saxophone, I would have been able to imitate some of the Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young sounds."
Newman himself carries the mantle as today's preeminent Big Texas Tenor. The Texans who created this world renowned sound came a generation before: Arnette Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate and Herschell Evans. Influenced by many, Fathead saw Charlie Parker only once, in 1954, racing down to Birdland after a Ray Charles Apollo gig in Harlem. "That was a big moment in my life."
Newman's albums sell big for jazz records. Ray Charles Presents Fathead sold 150,000 by 1960. Bigger & Better, which cost $50,000 to make in 1968, sold 200,000, and his last on Kokopelli topped the Gavin jazz chart with over 100,000 in sales. He never forgot local peers, like Marcel Ivery, with whom he cut a 1993 album in Holland called Blue, Greens & Beans. But Holland doesn't count. For a jazz musician, says Newman, "You have to move to
'We used to believe
you had to be high
New York or L.A. to further your career, be on the scene. You have to leave town, like the young Roy Hargrove, to make it."
Newman also cut two albums with recently deceased hardluck story James Clay---one in 1960, and one recorded live in New York in '91, one of Clay's swan songs. Though Newman took Clay out on the road with Ray Charles' big band for two years in the early '60s, Clay's critical expectations fell short as he spent most of his career in Dallas jazz obscurity, perhaps the better to nurse his addiction.
"We used to believe you had to be high to play," Newman says of his days with Ray Charles. "Nowadays, we know this is completely untrue. I'm so proud of guys like Mac [Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John], now that he gets up in the morning, eats a nutritious breakfast, then gets to work."
The image of Fathead's close musical ally Dr. John eating a nutritious breakfast is somewhat unsettling but, fact is, he cleaned up his tracks and recorded the strongest records of his career---after 34 years of heroin addiction. Today's jazz players, Newman believes, are far more disciplined than those of his own generation. Young jazz musicians are today's four-eyed squares, who go to college, practice diligently---and eat nutritious breakfasts. (It is the MTV bubble gum groups who drown their sorrows in heroin.)
Though now based with his wife Karen near Woodstock, N.Y., which he calls "God's country," Fathead always comes home. This September he headlined the Second Annual Shirley McFatter Jazz Festival in Fair Park. He emerged onstage to cries of "Fathaid, Fathaid," shouted by old-timers who remember from way back. And there were cries of "Dino, Dino!" for his 32-year-old son, on drums in the quintet. David Newman exudes class, in dapper vest and suit, an unshow-off. But he conks you upside the head with his subtlety.
He intends to become an independent producer, and work at becoming a lyricist. Eventually, the lip goes. "I intend to buy a Mac computer. I want to be connected to music beyond my playing years." Even though he feels rap has been "bad for the music industry," he thinks he'd make an interesting choice to produce in that genre. After 50 years playing his horn, he says, "The time has finally come." ##
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