Tommy Newsom was a saxophone player and the assistant music director on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992. He was also known as “Mr. Excitement” by Carson, who often teased him for his low-key personality and conservative suits. Newsom died of bladder and liver cancer at his home in Portsmouth, Virginia, on April 28, 2007. He was 78 years old.
A Gifted Musician and a Witty Foil
Newsom was born on February 25, 1929, in Portsmouth. He earned degrees from the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and Columbia University. He served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War, where he played in the band. Later, he toured with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and performed with Vincent Lopez in New York.
Newsom joined the Tonight Show Band in 1962 and rose from band member to assistant music director. He retired along with Carson in 1992. Newsom was as well known within the music industry as an arranger as well as a performer. He arranged and composed music for Skitch Henderson, Woody Herman, Kenny Rogers, John Denver, Beverly Sills, and other performers. Newsom won two Emmy Awards as a music director: in 1982 with Night of 100 Stars, and in 1986 for the broadcast of the 40th Annual Tony Awards. He also recorded several albums as a bandleader.
Newsom was frequently the band’s substitute director, whenever music director Doc Severinsen was away from the show or filling in for announcer Ed McMahon. He was also a regular target of Carson’s humor, who nicknamed him “Mr. Excitement” as an ironic take on his reserved persona. Newsom often played along with Carson’s jokes, delivering deadpan responses that cracked up the audience. For example, one night Carson asked Newsom why he always had his hands clasped together behind his back. Newsom replied, “vapor lock”, bringing down the house with laughter. Carson quipped, “I’m out here busting my buns to get a laugh, with one joke after another, and you just say ‘vapor lock’ and crack us all up!”
A Loving Husband and Father
Newsom had been married to his wife Patricia for 49 years. They had a daughter, Candy, and a son, Mark, who died in 2003. Newsom was devoted to his family and enjoyed spending time with them. He also loved fishing, gardening, and playing golf. He was active in his community and supported various charitable causes.
Newsom was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2005 and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. He later developed liver cancer and decided to stop treatment. He died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his loved ones. He is survived by his wife, daughter, and three grandchildren.
Newsom’s death was mourned by his fans, friends, and colleagues. Severinsen said, “He was a great musician, a great arranger, and one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.” Carson’s successor, Jay Leno, said, “He was a wonderful guy and a terrific musician. He always had a smile on his face and a kind word for everyone.” Newsom’s nephew, Jim Newsom, said, “I hope he will be remembered as a gifted musician. I’m sure he will be remembered for his wit and deadpan humor on The Tonight Show. And to some of us of a certain age, he will always be remembered as Mr. Excitement.”
According to Wikipedia, Newsom’s funeral was held on May 2, 2007, at the Churchland Baptist Church in Portsmouth. He was buried at the Olive Branch Cemetery in Portsmouth. A memorial service was also held on May 6, 2007, at the Old Dominion University Theatre in Norfolk, where Newsom had taught music for several years. The service featured performances by Severinsen, Henderson, and other musicians who had worked with Newsom. A scholarship fund was established in Newsom’s name at the Old Dominion University Foundation.