Memphis sax player floyd newman donates saxophone to stax museum gas after eating bread


Even the professional relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — former grade-school classmates who discovered a mutual passion for music when they met again by chance at a Kent railway station on Oct. 17, 1961 — is a fledgling enterprise compared to the partnership of Newman and his one and only baritone sax. Newman and his sax go way, way back

Newman and his wife, Dorothy, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary Aug. 5. But Newman and the musical instrument that accompanied him on tour and on record with B.B. King, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Dionne Warwick and Isaac Hayes have been together since 1949, when Newman’s father purchased the sax for $200 in a Beale Street pawn shop.

Unlike Willie Nelson, who calls the wounded-looking acoustic guitar he has played since 1969 “Trigger,” or B.B. King, who named a succession of Gibson electric guitars “Lucille,” Newman — who also accompanied Frank Sinatra, the Temptations and Stephen Stills — never sentimentalized his saxophone with a nickname.

But he has carried the heavy, curved instrument around the world, on stage and into the storied studios of Muscle Shoals, Miami, New York and most notably Memphis, where Newman’s expressive, sonorous tone was a signature of the Stax/Satellite sound and the foundation for one of the label’s first successes, the instrumental “Last Night,” by the Mar-Keys, which reached No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart in 1961.

After much cajoling from museum operations director Lisa Allen and encouragement from his children, Newman on Thursday officially is donating his sax to Stax. The ceremony will be part of an event that celebrates the 15th anniversary of the Stax Museum, which opened May 3, 2003.

"It is amazing," affirmed longtime Hi Rhythm Section drummer Howard Grimes, 76, who played as a young teenager alongside budding keyboardist Isaac Hayes in the house band Newman led at the old Plantation Inn in West Memphis. "I’ve known no musician to have an instrument he played as long as Floyd."

Grimes and the rest of The Bo-Keys — the soul revival band led by bassist Scott Bomar — will perform during the Stax party. Among the classic numbers they’ll revive are "Frog Stomp" and "Sassy," the two sides of the 1964 Stax single that is the one release credited to Newman as a solo artist.

"He’s a real pearl, man," said Grimes, who played on the original recordings of "Frog Stomp" and "Sassy." "Looking at him play, it looks like he doesn’t put much wind in his blowing, but no other baritone player in the world could copy that sound."

Bomar describes Newman as "definitely the bridge between the ’50s R&B world and the ’60s soul world." Stax Museum executive director Jeff Kollath concurs, identifying Newman as "the thread that ties Memphis music together, in a lot of ways."

Although Newman is not a Bo-Key per se, Bomar recruited the sax master to play on the group’s 2011 album, "Got to Get Back!" Said Bomar: "I remember hearing him play in the studio for the first time, I was like ‘Oh my God’ — it was the most signature sound on the baritone saxophone, just this very recognizable tone. I said, ‘I’ve heard that sound a million times, it never gets old.’"

With or without his horn, Newman is active. He and his wife go to the movies every Friday night (they recently saw "Traffik," starring Dorothy Newman’s niece, Paula Patton), and they eat frequently at the Pancho’s restaurant in West Memphis, a habit Newman developed during his Plantation Inn days.

“Jazz was a challenge," Newman said, naming John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker as his favorite sax players and Memphis-born jazz saxophonist George Coleman as his best friend. "Playing rock and roll and blues was no challenge." (Nevertheless, his favorite headliners to work with, he said, were "B.B., Otis, Isaac and Stephen" Stills.)

From the street, the Newman home appears to be a typical suburban-style brick ranch house, but it’s built on a hill so that the basement — essentially a hidden first floor — opens onto a large backyard with a swimming pool, installed in 1982, largely for the benefit of the couple’s four children.

The basement is decorated with photographs and memorabilia from Newman’s music career (one photo shows Newman wearing an explosive halo of afro plus a Robert Crumb "Keep on Truckin’" T-shirt), while the spotless upstairs is neatly preserved in what seems to be the style of the 1970s, complete with a wall of tall mirrors, arched like church windows, and a hanging painting of a black Jesus. A more recent addition is a tabletop portrait of the Obama family, commemorating the election of the 44th president. A musical upbringing

Born and raised in the neighborhood near Stax that is now identified as "Soulsville," Newman — Floyd Sidney Newman III, to give him his fancy full name — had musical parents: His father, Floyd Newman Jr., who earned a living as a Pullman porter, played saxophone and violin, while his mother, Lillian Hill Newman, was a pianist.

Consequently, young Floyd III played piano all through school, switching to saxophone full time only after his 1949 graduation from Booker T. Washington High School, when his dad took him to Beale and let him pick a baritone sax from one of the street’s pawn shops.

Attending classes at what was then known as Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Newman studied to be a dentist. "I didn’t want to be a musician," he said. "I wanted to be ‘Dr. Floyd Newman.’" But he couldn’t pass chemistry and other demanding courses because he didn’t get back to campus until the wee hours, returning to school from his musical gigs just in time for the classes that failed to keep him awake.

The incentive to pass the Army’s regular musicianship tests was even greater than the lures that attracted players to civilian gigs. Said Newman: "If you didn’t pass the tests, you were sent straight to Korea with a rifle. But anyway, Floyd Newman passed all the tests."

For example, Newman introduced his Plantation Inn bandmate Isaac Hayes to Stax, connecting the company to the artist who would be one of its true superstars. And it is Newman’s vocal interjection "Ooooh… last night!" along with his sax that makes that 1961 Mar-Keys single so memorable. "That’s referring to having a party last night, or whatever," Newman explained. "Could have been sexual…"

Newman also was an original member of the so-called Memphis Horns (a name coined by Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler), an outfit that was always in demand. "We used the horn section like other companies used background vocals," Jim Stewart said. "It wasn’t designed that way, it just sort of happened."

In 1971, Newman joined Stephen Stills for an extravagant international tour with crowds in the thousands. But weary of the demands on his time as well as of the frequent racism he had encountered over the years (Muscle Shoals, he said, was "so racist they wouldn’t even sell gas to a black person"), he tired of travel, opting instead for a steady job as a band director and guidance counselor in Memphis City Schools, at Oakhaven, Humes and Northside. (Meanwhile, his wife, Dorothy, was a math teacher.)

Even so, Newman’s hours were hardly normal: On weekends, he continued to record and gig. But unlike some of his peers, he held onto his money, even on tour. If Newman makes no claims for himself as a stellar musician, he acknowledges he’s different from many of his peers in another way.