Tommy Newsom, a jazz saxophonist and arranger who gained national visibility as a key member of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band for three decades, and whom Carson nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” for his stone-faced demeanor and somber outfits, died Saturday at his home in Portsmouth, Va. He had bladder and liver cancer. He was 78.
As a personality, Newsom pretended to have none. Carson gently taunted him for his deadpan expression and bland tastes – his suits ran the gamut from brown to navy.
“As a child one time, Tommy got lost, and his parents couldn’t describe him to the police,” Carson once said. On another occasion, Carson said Newsom “wants to come back as a plant, so somebody will talk to him.”
Periodically, Newsom topped Carson’s one-liners.
When Carson asked why Newsom kept his jacket buttoned, the saxophonist replied that his rear end would otherwise fall off. This prompted Executive Producer Fred De Cordova to remind Newsom that the host was supposed to get the bigger laughs.
Despite the gags, Newsom was a graceful musician and veteran of bands led by guitarist Charlie Byrd, clarinetist Benny Goodman and society bandleader Vincent Lopez. Newsom became an NBC studio musician, worked for Merv Griffin and soon after was assigned to the “Tonight” program in early 1962.
Newsom spent the next 30 years on the show, most of the time under the bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who was known for his loud outfits. Newsom took over the baton in Severinsen’s absence.
“I think the first night I took over for Doc, Carson recoiled,” Newsom told the Los Angeles Times. “He was so used to having foils on either side, Ed (McMahon) over here and Doc over there, and he needed somebody to bounce something off of, so the gags began. … One night, he said I was the only person who was going to reach puberty and senility at the same time.”