Tommy Newsom, the former backup bandleader on “The Tonight Show” whose “Mr. Excitement” nickname was a running joke for Johnny Carson died April 28 in Portsmouth, Va. He was 78.
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.
Carson gave Newsom the name Mr. Excitement 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.
Not long after the Carson era ended in 1992, Newsom remarked that his image as an ordinary guy was “fairly accurate — compared to Rambo.”
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 Portsmouth 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 a daughter.