PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — Tommy Newsom, the former backup bandleader on “The Tonight Show” whose “Mr. Excitement” nickname was a running joke for Johnny Carson, has died. He was 78.
Newsom died of cancer Saturday at his home in Portsmouth, the city of his birth, according to his nephew, Jim Newsom.
Newsom, who played saxophone, joined “The Tonight Show” in 1962 and rose from band member to assistant music director. He retired along with Carson in 1992.
Newsom won music direction Emmys for “Night of 100 Stars” in 1982 and “The 40th Annual Tony Awards Show” in 1986. “The Tonight Show” received five Emmy awards during Newsom’s years on it.
“I hope he will be remembered as a gifted musician,” Jim Newsom said Monday in a telephone interview. “I’m sure he will be remembered for his wit and deadpan humor on `The Tonight Show.’ And to some of us a certain age, he will always be remembered as Mr. Excitement.”
That was the name Carson gave Newsom to make light of his low-key personality and drab brown and blue suits — a sharp contrast to the flashy style of bandleader Doc Severinsen.
“He became a running character in Carson’s monologue,” Jim Newsom said. “Tommy enjoyed that.”
Not long after the Carson era ended in 1992, Newsom remarked that his image as an ordinary guy was “fairly accurate — compared to Rambo.”
“I realize things have to end sometime,” Newsom said at the time. “I felt regrets at it ending and there was a sense of relief in a way.”
Along with his work on “The Tonight Show,” Newsom arranged and composed music for Skitch Henderson, Woody Herman, Kenny Rogers, John Denver and other performers.
He also released several albums as a bandleader, including “Live From Beautiful Downtown Burbank” in 1978 and “I Remember You, Johnny” in 1996.
Newsom was born in 1929 and got his first horn for Christmas at age 8. He graduated from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, then toured with a U.S. Air Force jazz ensemble during a four-year enlistment.
Before landing his “Tonight” gig, he toured the Soviet Union and South America with Benny Goodman and played in “The Merv Griffin Show” orchestra.
Newsom is survived by his wife of 50 years, Patricia, and their daughter, Candy Newsom.