Born in Corsicana, Texas, Newman's professional career as a musician began in 1954 as a member of the Ray Charles Band.While there are reports of Newman offering more than one origin of his nickname "Fathead", the commonly accepted explanation is that the nickname originated from his high school music class. Mr. Miller, his then music teacher, saw his music upside down on the stand, and knowing that Newman could not read music very well at the time, walked over and tapped him on his head with the conductor's baton and called him "Fathead". The entire classroom laughed and Newman, having good humor, did not find it derogatory. The name stuck with him, but he said he preferred to be called "David".
He moved to Dallas where he graduated from Lincoln High School. After high school, he started playing flute and tenor saxophone at local shows. He attended Jarvis Christian College, where he studied theology and music. Newman stayed in college for two years and decided to move onto the road to further his music career. He played and toured with Buster Smith, Charlie Parker's mentor, playing many one-nighters with musicians such as T-Bone Walker at dance halls all over the central United States.At one of these many gigs, he met Ray Charles, and, in 1954, Newman joined Charles in his band as the baritone saxophone player (although he is more famous as a tenor saxophone and flute player) and began a twelve-year period with Charles. He later joined Herbie Mann, with whom he played for another ten years.
Over the years up to 2008, Newman recorded over thirty-eight albums under his own name, including his first, Fathead, Ray Charles Presents David 'Fathead' Newman
, recorded in 1958, but not released until 1960, and the second, The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces
, with James Clay, produced by Cannonball Adderley, the following year.
Always a musicians' musician, Newman is best known for his hard bop style that has influenced generations of saxophone players of different genres. He also played R&B and blues, appearing on recordings with Stanley Turrentine, Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, the Average White Band, Jimmy McGriff, Eric Clapton, John Stein, Natalie Cole, Hank Crawford, Aaron Neville, Queen Latifah, Richard Tee, Dr. John, Cheryl Bentyne of The Manhattan Transfer and country/tex-mex artist Doug Sahm.
, the 2004 biographical film about Charles, Newman was portrayed by Bokeem Woodbine.On January 22, 2008, Newman sat in as a guest with the CBS orchestra on the Late Show with David Letterman.
On January 20, 2009, Newman died from complications of pancreatic cancer.