Chillin’ in the Catskills: An Interview with David "Fathead" Newman
By Brian L. Knight

From his earliest days playing saxophone in Texas up to his session work with Eric Clapton in the 1980s, David "Fathead" Newman and his saxophone/flute playing has become a legend in both jazz and rock & roll circles. Newman may be best remembered for his work with Ray Charles from 1954-1964 and 1970-1971 but he has also left his mark on classic albums by Herbie Mann, Doug Sahm, Natalie Cole Freddie King, Jack McDuff and Shirley Scott. Even through countless recordings as a sideman, Newman also had plenty of time to record as a leader. His latest effort is Chillin’ (High Note) which has a nice combination of originals and covers as well as Newman’s own son taking the vocals. The Vermont Review took some time out with David "Fathead" Newman to talk about his days with Ray Charles, his newest recording effort and of course, the source of that long running nickname.

Vermont Review: Where am I calling right now?

David "Fathead" Newman: Woodstock, New York

VR: A home of some great music….

DFN: Yes, also the home of a lot of fine jazz artists.

VR: Who else lives up there?

DFN: Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland……… Al Foster. Quite a few.

VR: That’s incredible. Do you ever get together while in Woodstock?

DFN: Very seldom because every is busy. I see Jack DeJohnette every night at the supermarket. Pat Metheny…….he has a big place up here. He also has a place in the city and he has a home in Europe. He is not around that often. Sonny Rollins has a place in Germantown, not too far from here. He is home quite a bit. Kenny Burrell lives in Great County. It is very seldom that any of the guys really get together. Unless there is a special occasion and if everyone is available. And that is not too often.

VR: What do you think is the appeal of upstate New York?

DFN: I think the appeal is that its is very beautiful and very spiritual.

VR: It must be very different than your home state of Texas.

DFN: Oh, it’s a lot different from Texas. It is a lot different to New York City. We still have a house in Texas and I still have relatives there. As a matter fact, I am going to Dallas next week. I am going down to do a concert at a clinic at a college there in San Marcos. Northwest Texas State University.

VR: The music tradition is deep in Texas. It seems that music is inherent Texan trait just as much as football. Were you introduced to music at an early age?

DFN: Yes. There are a lot of influential musicians from Dallas – where I am from. Red Garland, Cedar Walton, Roy Hargrove – to name a few of the present day musicians. Some of my influences from Texas were Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Buddy Tate.

VR: Are you Dallas Cowboys fan?

DFN: I used to be but not any more. I have a become a Jets and Giants fan. I am not into football these days because my teams have been a little disappointing. I a big basketball fan. In a basketball, I am a big Knicks fan.

VR: What do you think of Latrell Sprewell?

DFN: He is quite a player. He has a lot of initiative. He brings a lot to the Knicks.

VR: The first time I saw you play live was this summer in Boston with guitarist David Stein (Editor’s note: David Stein used to call Brattleboro, VT home).

DFN: David did a recording early last year and he asked me to come down and do a guest artist appearance. I recorded last year also on the High Note level called Chillin’

VR: Does the album title reflect your present state of mind?

DFN: It reflects a state of mind. Like chill out. We also took pictures for the cover from the Esophus Creek, which runs through Woodstock – a very laid back feeling. That helped towards a concept related to Chillin’ out.


VR: You are adept with both the saxophone and flute. Which came first for you?

DFN: The saxophone came first. I started out playing the alto saxophone. There was a gentleman from Dallas known as Buster Smith. He was my main influence. He spent many years living in Kansas City. He had bands in Kansas City in the 1930s when the town was the hub. There were great, what they called, territorial bands that came through Kansas City and stayed there. Buster Smith had a band there and he also played with Bennie Moten’s band. They had a band called the Blue Devils. Jay McShann also had a band there. Charlie Parker would listen to Buster Smith play and they all called Buster Smith "prophet". Charlie Parker was influenced by Buster Smith in the early days before joining Jay McShann. Charlie Parker was one of the big main influences. I started out playing the alto saxophone and later on, when I joined Ray Charles in ’54, I started out playing the baritone saxophone. Because that was the only opening. Then I switched to the tenor saxophone in the 1950s because it had become so very popular. And then later, around 1960, I played the soprano and then I started playing the flute also.

VR: Is it difficult to go from one instrument to the other?

DFN: It is a little difficult to the flute. It is very similar on the saxophones. The fingering is basically the same and the only difference is the tonation. The alto is an E Flat instrument and the tenor is a B Flat instrument. The baritone is also an E Flat instrument. The flute is different in concept and the fingering. So is the clarinet but they are all in the woodwind family.

VR: You mentioned the music of Kansas City. You participated on the Kansas City-Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Verve). What do you think of the Robert Altman movie?

DFN: I didn’t think too much of the movie itself - the plot. The music, I thought, was fantastic. I thought it was pretty spectacular with all the young players that were participating on the soundtrack. They were very talented musicians. People like Cyrus Chestnut, Nicholas Payton, Mark Whitfield……Ron Carter……..Geri Allen………Joshua Redman………David Murray. Jessie Davis and I played alto saxophone because there were quite a few tenor saxophone players...……Joshua Redman……. Craig Handy……David Murray …….also James Carter. I liked playing the role of Buster Smith in the cast.

VR: So you were in the movie as well?

DFN: Yes. We had our brief moments.

VR: Was that your first acting experience?

DFN: No. I had been in a movie when I was with Ray Charles. A movie called Ballad in Blue. It was filmed in Dublin, Ireland. This was done back in the 1960s. It was a movie directed by Paul Henreid I don’t remember seeing the movie that much in the states.

VR: Going back to your new album, Chillin. ’There are two Duke Ellington songs and you also recorded a Ellington tribute album a few years back.

DFN: I did a tribute to Duke where all the compositions were done by Duke on a CD titled Mr. Gentle Mr. Cool(1994). On Chillin’, I did original tunes. One was called "Chillin’", which of course, is the title tune. I had another tune called "Whole Tzimmes". It is a Yiddish term meaning the whole thing. So I wrote two tunes. My son, Cadino Newman, made his debut singing. He sang two cuts on the CD also. He did an Ellington tune, "Caravan" and a composition called "My Little Red Top". I do some standard ballads like  "These Foolish Things" and another tune recorded by Shirley Horn quite a few years back called "Return to Paradise." We did another ballad tune called "Invitation."

VR: What tune son Chillin’ do you particularly enjoy?

DFN: I like the Duke Ellington tune "Take the Coltrane". I also like "Return to Paradise" and "Invitation" also.

VR: Chillin’ is also highlighted by the engineering of the legendary Rudy Van Gelder….

DFN: He is a classic engineer. He goes way back many years. He has been a top-notch engineer for many years. A lot of guys like to go to Rudy’s studio because he has that particular touch.

VR: You were referring to your time spent with Ray Charles. I read some where that he did not like to call you "Fathead" and he preferred "Brains"

DFN: Yup. That was his nickname for me. He didn’t like to use the term "Fathead". He felt it was a little degrading. I didn’t have any qualms about being called "Fathead". It was not derogatory to me at all. I wasn’t offended by the nickname after all it was just a nickname. A lot of musicians, my peers, have strange nicknames. I suppose "Fathead" was a "mushuginah" sounding name but it stuck. My music instructor from high school gave me the nickname by the way. I had this bad habit of memorizing the music. He wanted to make sure that I read the music. I had some music on my bandstand one day when we are playing "Sousa’s March." The music was upside down on my music stand. He knew that I could barely read the music upright let alone upside down. He walked behind me and thumped me on the head in class and called me "Fathead". He said: ‘You are supposed to read the music, not memorize the music.’ All my classmates went ape in class. After a class they all started calling me "Fathead" and it stuck. By now, it is like a trademark.

VR: On of the first times I ever heard your name was on an album by Herbie Mann. Do you ever see Herbie these days?

DFN: Yes, I see Herbie often. As a matter of fact, we have some scheduled some special dates for this year out in Arizona and Colorado. He sort of in semi retirement theses days. He is not active as he has been in the last couple of years.

VR: How about your fellow Texan, Ornette Coleman?

DFN: Ornette Coleman is still doing it. He is still getting doctorate degrees and he is still playing numerous concerts. He is not quite as active as he has been in the past, but he still comes out and does dates. Ornette, I think he is probably one year older than I am. He was born in 1932 and I was born in 1933. He is from Fort Worth and I am from Dallas, which is right across the bridge.

VR: Did you meet as children?

DFN: Yes. We used to meet all the time as teenagers. In high school, we would meet up and play in the parks. Then, during the be-bop era, when we were all into Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillepsie, we would play all the be-bop tunes. Ornette would play some solo note for note. When that was over with, then he would go into "Ornette mode" and he would go into his thing. We knew, at that given point, that he was going a different direction from us. He did just that. He was into a different direction with harmolodics. I am not quite sure if I can explain what harmolodics is and what it means.

VR: Have you had a chance to see It's Mister Fathead by 32 Records? It is an impressive collection of your earliest stuff.

DFN: Oh yes. That brings back a lot of memories. It is so wonderful seeing some of that stuff being played again. It is a rejuvenation, it is giving it a second life. I am quite happy with that.

VR: Over the years, you have done studio work with Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton and many others. Any sessions stick out in your mind?

DFN: Dr John. Mac Rebennack. The last thing I did with Mac was Under the Hoodoo Moon. We also did a recording on the Windham Hill label called the Bluesiana Triangle. Mac was on it. Art Blakey was on it for a few tune. It was right before Art Blakey passed so that was a memorable experience.

VR: With so many memorable recording sessions, how often do you get to hear yourself play?

DFN; Every now and then. I have most of this stuff. A lot of my recordings were destroyed in 1997 because of a fire. A lot of my memorabilia, CDs and LPs were destroyed. I still have been able to refurbish. I have a lot of the recordings I did years back, I don’t have ALL of them, but I have most of them. It brings back memories. I listen to the difference in my sound as opposed to my sound now. I think of the guys that I played with and the experiences we had together. It does bring back a lot of memories.

VR: One person you played quite a bit with was saxophonist Hank Crawford. You to must click pretty well together?

DFN: Hank and I are like brothers. He is a like a little brother. We stay in touch and we talk quite often. Occasionally, we get a chance to record and play together. We just did a date with BB King together. BB King did the music of Louis Jordan. Hank Crawford and I, along with Dr. John, did a recording with BB King.

VR: When you play live, which do you prefer nightclubs or festival?

DFN: I like the intimacy of clubs, but I have smoke problems. I had surgery back in 92 so I am not allowed to be near smoke. I have it in my contract where there has to be a non-smoking policy. A lot of the nightclubs still have quite a bit of smoking going on so I miss out some of the nightclub gigs. The clubs, where I do play, have a non-smoking policy. Most of the clubs in New York City are starting to have no smoking especially there is food.

VR: It is a changing world.

DFN: It is about time too, Brian. I smoke. I was a smoker for years and I know the downside of smoking. It is really a killer. It is stupid habit. There are still a lot of diehards out there.

VR: What do you do when you are not playing music?

DFN: I like to catch a few Broadway shows. I go to a few movies. I enjoy a lot of home life. It is pretty peaceful up in the upstate New York area –Hudson valley and the Catskills. Occasionally, my wife and I do a bit of traveling. I go to Europe a couple times a year.

VR: To vacation or to play?

DFN: I go and I play. I played a six-week tour of Netherlands and Holland. The fans are great.

VR: What kind of music are you listening to these days?

DFN: Some of everything. I try to listen to all times of music. There was a time when I was strictly into jazz music but my tastes have broadened lately.

Broaden your own musical taste and check out David "Fathead" Newman’s Chillin’!