Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


NEWBORN, Phineas Jr

Memphis, Tennessee has been the home of jazz musicians as well as blues authorities, from the great bandleader Jimmie Lunceford (who taught at Manassas High School in the 1920s), on through Frank Strozier, Hank Crawford, George Coleman, James Williams, Charles Lloyd, and many more. The local blues scene provided an entry into a full-time musical career. One of the most talented local families was that of drummer Finas Newborn, who played with Lunceford’s Chickasaw Syncopators during the Depression, and later with Lionel Hampton; Finas also had a musical instrument store on Beale Street, and his own band included his sons, pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. (b 14 December 1931; d 26 May 1989) and guitarist Edwin Calvin Newman (b 27 April 1933).

The boys grew up with musical instruments in their hands. Still in elementary school, they took first prize at the Palace Theater’s Amateur Night, where Calvin brought down the house singing 'Your Mama’s On the Bottom, Papa’s On Top, Sister’s In the Kitchen Hollerin’ ‘When They Gon’ Stop.’' They learned their chops on Beale Street, playing Blues alongside B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner, but fantasized about working with Count Basie.

For four years, the Newborn Orchestra performed at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis, Arkansas, before moving back across the river to Clifford Miller’s Flamingo Room in downtown Memphis. Photographs by Ernest Withers and George Hardin capture Calvin’s onstage energy: He danced, leapt, and slid across the floor with his guitar in his hands, never missing a note. 'My hang time was like Michael Jordan’s, but I was dunkin’ the guitar!' Calvin boasts today. 'I was known as Flying Calvin, the king of after-hours Blues on Beale Street.'  The young Elvis Presley was a fan, later borrowing some of the moves, and Hardin’s 'Flying Calvin' photo was later used as a logo for the Smithsonian Institution’s Rock’N’Soul exhibit.

Phineas formed a quartet and took it to NYC in 1956, made Here Is Phineas on Atlantic, Phineas Rainbow and Fabulous Phineas on RCA, and Downhome Reunion on UA, all '56-8 with Calvin on guitar. Other albums (without Calvin) included two on RCA with larger groups '57; he worked in a duo with Charles Mingus early '58 including the soundtrack of John Cassavetes's first film Shadows. Then trio albums included We Three '58 on Prestige with Roy Haynes and Paul Chambers and two on Roulette '59 with Haynes and John Simmons on bass, and there were four more on Contemporary '61-9 (some later on Fantasy OJC).

Phineas had relocated to the West Coast and his recording as well as live performances slowed down. He was highly regarded by critics for phenomenal technique, and even compard to Art Tatum, but some questioned a lack of warmth or soul; perhaps it depended on the listener. Look Out/Phineas Is Back! '76 was on Pablo, Phineas Is Genius '77 on Japanese Philips; also trio Phineas Newborn Plays Again '59 made in Rome for an Italian label. Solo Piano '74 was on Atlantic. Trio Tivoli Encounter '79 on Storyville was made in Copenhagen. Back in Memphis in 1987 he was said to be recording the sonatas of Alexander Scryabin (1872-1915) for VSOP Records. He died of cancer; a tribute Four Pianos For Phineas '89 had James Williams, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and Geoff Keezer as the Contemporary Piano Ensemble (with Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins on bass and drums); all four keyboards played on only one of nine tracks, but subsequently toured as a piano quartet. Mabern and Keezer did a live duo tribute For Phineas '95 issued on Sackville.

Calvin also worked with Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Forrest, Earl Hines, and on dozens of sessions with Crawford, Charles Mingus, Roy Milton, Ray Charles, and Sun Ra, traveling the country sponsored by Harmony Guitars, who supplied him with a Meteor Electric. When Calvin returned to Memphis to take care of an ailing Phineas in the early 1980s, he discovered an entirely different Beale Street. He saw 'tourists gazing at a map and looking puzzled outside the Visitor’s Information Center,' and 'a station wagon stopping at W.C. Handy’s house,' where its driver took a snapshot then sped off. Musicians like Calvin were no longer so welcome in a rebuilt entertainment district. He picked up gigs wherever he could, and began to focus on other outlets. He wrote As Quiet As It’s Kept, a biography of Phineas. Calvin worked as assistant director of Jazz Studies at LeMoyne-Owen College, where he earned a B.A. in Humanities; he taught underprivileged children at the Stax Music Academy, and he wrote a handful of stage plays and operettas. He also made two albums of his own: From The Hip (1983) on Rooster Blues Records, and Flying Calvin/UpCity, originally on his own Omnifarious label. Although he performed regularly in Memphis, he had largely slipped under the radar.

In 2007 Calvin Newborn still stepped lively, glowing with energy. He’s writing another book, Rock ‘N Roll versus Rock ‘N Soul: How the King Won, an account of his friendship with Presley; and he’s working on a documentary film called Triumph Over Chaos!, about his family’s musical legacy.

Calvin’s third album, New Born (2006), was released on Yellow Dog Records, which was also reissuing UpCity. The new album is a reminder of the legacy of Memphis’ often-overlooked crossover musicians. Tracks like 'Newborn Blues' and 'After Hours Blues' illustrate the lineage that began on Beale Street, and end with 'New Born,' recorded in Memphis more than half a century later. He sees no need to reconcile his two careers, playing both blues and jazz, an open-mindedness which informs the Memphis legacy.

'I always did like the blues because I could get attention playing the blues. I could do something with the guitar that a lot of guys couldn’t do. I had expression, and I moved with the guitar.  I got that from my granddaddy – he used to play his guitar in his church, and walk all over the church playin’. I guess I inherited that.'