Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, to J. Holt and Margaret W. Newsom on February 25, 1929, Tommy Newsom fell in love with music as a little boy. The saxophone was his favorite instrument, and he got his first horn for Christmas when he was eight years old. A natural talent, he was able to play melodies by ear from the beginning.
He attended Cradock High School, where he played in the small school band and was cartoonist for the newspaper and yearbook, graduating in 1945. He also played with local big bands while a teenager, always the youngest musician on the bandstand.
He subsequently attended the Norfolk Division of William & Mary, now Old Dominion University, playing in the band there with musicians who had returned from World War II. He then spent four years at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he received a B. A. in Music Education in 1952.
After graduating from Peabody, Tommy joined the U. S. Air Force, where he served as a member of the prestigious Airmen of Note, performing throughout the United States, Europe and the Middle East for four years and getting a taste of life as a full-time musician.
Following his honorable discharge, he headed for New York City where he earned a Masters degree at Columbia University and began playing in bands and doing studio and commercial work. He was a member of the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, worked with bandleaders including Les Elgart and Skitch Henderson, and toured the Soviet Union and South America with Benny Goodman in the early ‘60s. He also played in The Merv Griffin Show television orchestra.
In 1962, he was hired for the staff orchestra at NBC in New York. There he became a member of The Tonight Show band a few months before Johnny Carson began his lengthy stint as host that fall. Tommy remained with the popular late night television program until Carson’s retirement in 1992, moving to California in 1972. During his 30 years with the show, Tommy became a national television celebrity in his own right as Carson nicknamed him “Mr. Excitement” for his conservative blue and brown wardrobe and deadpan humor. He often traded barbs with Carson and was incorporated into skits, jokes and comedic dialogue.
After retiring from television, Tommy moved back to Portsmouth, where he continued to write arrangements for artists like Doc Severinsen, Beverly Sills, Rosemary Clooney, Maurice Hines, Jack Lemmon, Diva, the Cincinnati Pops, Louie Bellson, Marilyn Horne and Ann Hampton Callaway. He also performed locally and at jazz festivals around the country.
He has a lengthy list of recording credits, beginning with a 1957 session at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary living room studio with Suffolk native Charlie Byrd for an album released as Jazz Recital. When Byrd later became famous for his takes on Brazilian music, he enlisted Tommy to write arrangements for popular ‘60s albums including Brazilian Byrd, More Brazilian Byrd and Hollywood Byrd. Other credits include playing on Paul McCartney’s second post-Beatles album, Ram.
Tommy released several albums as a bandleader himself: Live from Beautiful Downtown Burbank in 1978; Tommy Newsom and His TV Jazz Stars in 1990; I Remember You, Johnny in 1996; The Feeling of Jazz in 1999; Friendly Fire in 2001; and Tommy Newsom and His Octo-Pussycats in 2005. He won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction for Night of 100 Stars in 1982 and the 40th Annual Tony Awards Show in 1986. He received two other Emmy nominations in 1985 and 1988.
Although he spent most of his professional music career far from home, Tommy often returned to Hampton Roads to play for special events and benefits for old friends. He was honored by his hometown in 1980 when the city of Portsmouth proclaimed “Welcome Home Tommy Newsom” day. In 2002, he was among the first inductees into Norfolk’s Legends of Music Walk of Fame.
Tommy Newsom will always be remembered by late night television viewers for his witty repartee with Johnny Carson and the many musical arrangements he wrote for the band. Fellow musicians will remember a gifted but humble saxophonist, flutist and clarinetist, whose self-deprecating humor and genuine friendship made him a pleasure to work with and to know.