Band Leader Tommy Newsom Dies at 78 Tommy Newsom, the former backup band leader on The Tonight Show, died this week at the age of 78. Musician Ed Shaughnessy remembers his friend as an innovative musician.
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Band Leader Tommy Newsom Dies at 78

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Band Leader Tommy Newsom Dies at 78

Band Leader Tommy Newsom Dies at 78

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Tommy Newsom died last week. He was 78 years old. Mr. Newsom was the backup bandleader to Doc Severinsen on "The Tonight Show" for three decades. Now, the TV-watching public will remember him as a comic foil for Johnny Carson, who often teased his dull brown suits and deadpan demeanor, but many fellow musicians will remember him differently.

Ed Shaughnessy, who was the longtime drummer for "The Tonight Show" band, knew Mr. Newsom both as a friend and a skilled colleague. He joins us from the studios of KPCC in Pasadena.

Mr. Shaughnessy, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ED SHAUGHNESSY (Drummer, "The Tonight Show" band): Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: So please tell us about your friend, Tommy Newsom. He wasn't really that dull, was he?

Mr. SHAUGHNESSY: Oh, on the contrary, he was a barrel of laughs. He had a really good wit. And it often came out even when he was playing that, sort of, a quiet self-effacing foil with Johnny Carson, and many times he got us some really terrific lines. And Johnny just loved it because he was such a contrast to Doc, naturally, you know?

(Soundbite of scene from "The Tonight Show")

Mr. TOMMY NEWSOM (Backup Bandleader, "The Tonight Show" band): Are we wearing the same outfit?

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Mr. JOHNNY CARSON (Host, "The Tonight Show"): No, your trousers are darker. Where did you get yours?

Mr. NEWSOM: Oh, it was in my closet at home, Johnny.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Mr. SHAUGHNESSY: In person, he was a very witty, highly intelligent man. I'd even call him quite an intellectual. And he, kind of, covered this a little bit with his down-home accent and speech delivery. But as the more you got to know him, the more you realize what a widely read man he was, and not only in the area of music but many other things.

SIMON: He was a pretty well known saxophonist by the time he joined up with "The Tonight Show," wasn't he?

Mr. SHAUGHNESSY: Oh, yes. He loved to just get in the club with a small group. You know, rhythm and himself, and maybe one of their own, like Snooky Young. And he just loved to play that tenor sax. He was a real master of the soprano sax, which is considered the real mean relative of the saxophone clan. This is very hard to play. And here he is on a wonderful arrangement of "Three Shades of Blue."

(Soundbite of song "Three Shades of Blue")

SIMON: It must be hard to lose a friend like this?

Mr. SHAUGHNESSY: Oh, I can't tell you. I've been - I'd say, moderately depressed ever since I got the call on Saturday. But he is going to be so well remembered because of all these great, great music that he left. And I'll tell you the truth, Scott, I've played with at least 25 symphony orchestras - and with Doc mostly - and I've heard an awful a lot of great arranging and scoring for symphony orchestras by fine writers.

But I have never heard any better of contemporary music - jazz and/or pops -The Great American Songbook, than Tommy Newsom has done. So many people have commented on what an original version of "Just Friends" Newsom did. And you'll hear the treatment he gives to this old standard, "Just Friend."

(Soundbite of song "Just Friends")

SIMON: What made that version original? What do we hear in it when it (unintelligible)?

Mr. SHAUGHNESSY: What he did was, after an interesting intro and stating the melody, he stopped the rhythm section and did, sort of, what we call a chorale, which in big bands you don't do too often, and he stopped the rhythm. It's in rhythm but there's no rhythm section playing, and then he wrote this lovely chorale.

It's hard to describe how a person gets a different version. He has to hear other things in the song than we have heard before. And that's what Newsom could do. He just could expand on a great piece of music and give it something fresh. And I think that's a really rare skill that will live on for many, many years to come.

SIMON: Ed Shaughnessy from the old "Tonight Show" band, speaking with us from member station KPCC in Pasadena.

Ed, it's been so nice talking to you. Thanks for taking the time.

Mr. SHAUGHNESSY: Oh, Scott, thanks for allowing us to do this for good old Tommy.

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