Ray and Fathead

This is already an old story but I was reminded of it tonight. I watched the Johnny Cash Walk the Line movie. Hard not to miss the fact that the last Hollywood bio flick I saw, Ray, also had grisly childhood brother death as the catalyst for later musical genius. I must check if Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and Charlie Parker also stood by as their brothers fell in the wood-chipper or something like it. Excuse me, it’s not funny, I know. But I have to wonder if my brother’s surviving childhood has kept me back, somehow.

When Richard Suhl put on this record, in his Westmount mansion bedroom that fateful day , it changed my life. I don’t know where he is now – California someplace – but back then Suhl was one hip kid. Although I’m sure he’s straight he always reminded me a bit of Oscar Wilde, in wit and appearance. Well, he was always surprising me but this time he outdid himself. I was instantly a convert. Ray Charles has seen me through 50 years of hard times, bad love, great sex, boundless drunkeness, continuous dope, miraculous afternoons, endless nights, hot 18-year-old girls (and you know who you are, Caroline), spontaneous parties, loneliness, regret, euphoria, mania, wine-stained carpets, and it should have been me with that real fine chick!

I saw him once around 1970 and I get hard just thinking about it. When the movie came out there was no way I’d even consider seeing it. If there’s one thing America can’t do it’s celebrate it’s true geniuses. It took a Frenchman to make the first good jazz film, Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight.

Enter Fathead. David Fathead Newman was the first instrumentalist in the Ray Charles band who stood out for me, right off the bat. He was the hot sauce in that stew. Without Fathead, Ray Charles would have been transcendently great, but not as transcendently great. You know Ray thought so, too, because he never propelled any of his other sideman to individual eminence as he did in 1958 when he produced the classic, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman.

When I got to finally meet David Newman in 2003 90% of our conversation was about Ray. Newman was humble and very generous, and perfectly happy to answer everything, not the least bit insulted that I only asked him two questions about himself: How’d you get the Fathead name. And have you talked to Ray recently?

A year later I saw Newman – and his great wife Karen, too, by the way – again. By then the movie was out and Ray was dead. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to see Ray. I’ve managed to avoid Clint Eastwood’s Bird all these years, after all. But maybe I should check with Fathead.

“Should I see this movie?”

“Yes. It’s very good. Jamie Foxx is Ray! I didn’t like the Fathead much, though.”

I have to admit Ray is not bad. Walk the Line‘s not too shabby, either.

One last thought. For a time in the seventies and eighties I thought that what I really wanted to do was produce records. There were so many projects that needed to be done, that no one seemed to think of but me. One was a Ray Charles album without strings, orchestras, guest pop stars or schlock of any kind – even though some of those albums were nice. I mentioned this unrealized and too-late-now dream to David and Karen Newman.

“Near the end of his career Ray should have done one album, maybe a double, where he just sings those great classic tunes accompanied only by his own beautiful piano. He owed us – all his lifelong fans – that much.”

David gave me that sideways look, and Karen said,

“Yeah, that would have been great.”

[Photo of David Newman by the author.]

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