'Tonight Show' musician Tommy Newsom dies at 78

Tommy Newsom, is shown in a 2001 file photo in Portsmouth, Va. Newsom, the former backup band leader whose "Mr. Excitement" persona was a running joke by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, has died of cancer at his Portsmouth home Saturday, April 28, 2007, according to his nephew, Jim Newsom. He was 78.

The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 30, 2007 at 10:57 p.m.

Tommy Newsom, the saxophone player who served as a comedic foil to Johnny Carson for 30 years, died on Saturday at his Portsmouth home at age 78, his family announced Monday.

His nephew, local jazz musician Jim Newsom, said the cause of death was complications of cancer. He said Newsom had been diagnosed with bladder cancer about three years ago.

Tommy Newsom continued to play music until as recently as last month.

‘‘He played with me at a benefit show,’’ Jim Newsom said, ‘‘and he still sounded great as of March 18.’’

Tommy Newsom was a studio musician who was hired to tour with Benny Goodman in the early 1960s. By 1962, he had joined the NBC-TV staff orchestra that played on several shows, including ‘‘The Tonight Show,’’ which was in the process of changing hands from Jack Paar to Carson.

The NBC gig was supposed to be temporary, but as Newsom told the Daily Press after Carson died in 2005, ‘‘They hired me for a week — and 30 years later, it ended.’’ Newsom retired when Carson left the show in 1992.

Newsom was part of the ‘‘Tonight Show’’ band and occasionally filled in for bandleader Doc Severinsen.

Carson gave Newsom the nickname ‘‘Mr. Excitement’’ as a sarcastic tribute to the musician’s drab wardrobe and quiet demeanor.

‘‘What you saw was what you got with Tommy,’’ his nephew said. ‘‘He put on no airs. He was a very gifted musician but very humble about his talents. The humor you saw on ‘The Tonight Show’ was just what you saw in person.’’

He won two Emmy Awards for musical direction — first in 1982 as part of the directing team for NBC’s ‘‘Night of 100 Stars,’’ and again in 1986 as part of the team that worked on the network’s telecast of the Tony Awards. He was nominated for two other Emmys.

When the city of Norfolk instituted a Legends of Music Walk of Fame, Newsom was among the inaugural inductees.

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