Great Clients: Tommy Newsom

Great Clients: Tommy Newsom

Now I have been very fournate to have a lot of great clients in my life. But I think Tommy Newsom was the only guy that made me laugh just walking through the door. He always ask ‘what are you laughing at?” I never really answered but just had the big smile on my face. The man was just naturally funny.. even when he was being serious I had the smile. Tommy brought me a lot of great moments…….

Tommy Newsom, Saxophonist, Dies at 78

Published: May 1, 2007

Correction Appended

Tommy Newsom, the good-humored backup bandleader on “The Tonight Show” who earned fame as Johnny Carson’s comical punching bag — and respect among musicians as a composer, arranger and saxophone soloist — died on Saturday at his home in Portsmouth, Va. He was 78.


The Los Angeles Times, via Associated Press
Tommy Newsom in 1992.

The cause was cancer, his nephew Jim Newsom told The Associated Press.

Mr. Carson famously delighted in tossing barbs at his regular bandleader, Doc Severinsen, often concerning his flamboyant personality and garish attire. Mr. Newsom, who favored conservative brown suits, got lambasted for his tameness. Mr. Carson called him “the man from bland,” “Mr. Excitement” and the “comatose commander.”

He once compared Mr. Newsom to oatmeal, saying, “It won’t hurt you, but you don’t look forward to it.” He once even offered a line from a prospective obituary for Mr. Newsom: “He died of natural dullness.”

Mr. Newsom said in a 2005 interview with The Virginian-Pilot that he did not mind the harpoons, because Mr. Carson prefaced them by saying what a great musician he was. It was a widely shared view.

In addition to being assistant music director of the orchestra for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” he published hundreds of arrangements and compositions. Among those who performed his works were Skitch Henderson, Woody Herman, Beverly Sills, Kenny Rogers, Charlie Byrd and John Denver.

He toured South America and the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman, and performed on records with artists like Buck Clayton, a trumpeter for Count Basie. His arrangements were cited in Emmy Awards for musical direction given to “Night of 100 Stars” in 1982 and “The 40th Annual Tony Awards Show” in 1986. He wrote and arranged symphonic pieces.

Beginning in 1992, Mr. Newsom did arrangements and compositions for the Diva Jazz Orchestra, a respected all-female band. Sherry Maricle, the band’s leader, said in an interview yesterday that he factored in the talent of each individual player, as well as the overall sound of the group. She lauded his “sense of swing.”

Thomas Penn Newsom was born in Portsmouth on Feb. 25, 1929. As a young boy, he stared longingly at saxophones’ shiny keys in pawnshop windows, and his parents bought him one when he was 8. He started performing with older musicians when he was 13 at the Elk’s Club and similar settings.

“It was a lust,” he said, referring to his infatuation with music as a teenager in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I had to do it.”

Mr. Newsom attended the Norfolk Division of the College of a William & Mary, a junior college that became Old Dominion University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in musical education from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he paid some of his tuition by playing in strip joints. He then played with Airmen of Note, an Air Force jazz ensemble during a four-year enlistment. He next earned a master’s degree at Columbia University

His professional break came when Goodman hired him to tour with his band. A member of Goodman’s band recommended him to Merv Griffin, and he won a spot on Mr. Griffin’s afternoon show. That led to “Tonight,” where he began on April 2, 1962. Mr. Carson took over as host six months later. The two retired together on May 22, 1992. Mr. Carson died in 2005.

Mr. Newsom is survived by his wife of 50 years, Patricia, and their daughter, Candy Newsom of Teaneck, N.J.

He insisted in interviews that he never minded not being the principal “Tonight” bandleader, nor did he mind Mr. Carson’s insults.

A few times, though, Mr. Newsom refused to let Mr. Carson have the last word. Once, he discarded his customary conservative garb and wore a screaming yellow suit, and Mr. Carson cracked, “Look at that big, dumb canary.”

“You’ll know what kind of bird I am when I fly over you,” Mr. Newsom replied.

Correction: May 2, 2007
An obituary yesterday about Tommy Newsom, the backup bandleader for “The Tonight Show” whom Johnny Carson used as a comical target, misstated part of the name of the Air Force jazz ensemble in which he played. It is the Airmen of Note, not Airman.