Phineas Newborn, Jr.

In a city that birthed the careers of such household musical names as Elvis Presley, W.C. Handy, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Justin Timberlake, Jerry Lee Lewis, and countless others, sometimes the less famous but equally talented artists tend to be overlooked and underappreciated. According to most Memphis music and jazz aficionados, such is the case with one the world's greatest jazz pianists, Phineas Newborn, Jr.


Newborn’s life story is as dizzying as his unique style of piano playing. He was born in Whiteville, Tennessee, 60 miles east of Memphis, on December 14, 1931, but he was raised from infancy in Memphis among a musical family that included his equally talented brother, jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn. By his early teenage years at Booker T. Washington High School he was not only adept at the piano, but several reed and brass instruments as well.

Early Beginnings

From the mid-1940s through the early 1950s, Newborn performed with his father, Calvin, Tuff Green, Ben Branch, and Willie Mitchell at the famed Plantation Inn in West Memphis, Arkansas, where dozens of musicians got their start. During that stint as the club’s house band, the three Newborns also played on B.B. King’s first album, recorded in 1949, and followed that as session players at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. Shortly afterwards, Phineas enrolled as a music major at the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville. While there, he worked tirelessly on his classical repertoire and technique, developing a particular affinity for Franz Liszt, whose double and triple octave approach to linear melodies became characteristic of Newborn’s signature improvisations.

Phineas on Early Gigs

Phineas On First Recordings

Like A Bebop Bomb

The 1950s proved to be the most productive and acclaimed years of Newborn’s life and career. He moved back to Memphis and continued studying at LeMoyne-Owen College, spent time performing with Lionel Hampton’s band, and then, at the urging of Count Basie, moved to the East Coast to be represented by the enerable Willard Alexander agency. His style was bold and percussive while also being spare and feathery. He could wow an audience playing at length with just his left hand; he could rip through speedy renditions like a bebop bomb exploding with both hands.

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He recorded albums that drew both critical praise and stirring controversy. He was thought by many to be the only other jazz pianist in the world in the same virtuoso league as icons Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. In 1957 he recorded “My Lady Sleeps” with a symphony orchestra for RCA Victor. It was reported in the liner notes that the orchestra cheered his playing at the end of each take. The following year he recorded with Charles Mingus and their version of “Nostalgia in Times Square” was featured in the early John Cassavetes film Shadows. That same year he toured Europe with a group of musicians in a production titled “Jazz From Carnegie Hall,” and such was his popularity that he also performed solo concerts in Stockholm and Rome.

What Set Him Apart Was His Soul

Newborn moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to record on the Contemporary label and, while he enjoyed some success, many critics dismissed him as having become such a technical virtuoso with powerhouse chops that he had lost all emotion and feeling in his music. Whether it was the result of this kind of rejection, as some feel, or if Newborn simply suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, he fell into a slow and steady psychological decline. For the next decade he spent time in and out of mental institutions. His career was almost nonexistent. Compounding that was a hand injury that impaired his playing, as well as the fact that musical tastes were changing rapidly. Things weren’t the same for many of the world’s great jazz artists as they had been in the 1940s and 1950s. Newborn moved back to Memphis in the early 1970s, which, according to some, accelerated his mental decline. In 1974, while preparing to record the album Solo Piano, which was to be his comeback album, he was attacked and brutally beaten, leaving him hospitalized with several broken fingers, a fractured cheekbone, and other injuries that required surgery. Surprisingly, however, on the evening of his release from the hospital, Newborn went to Ardent Studios in Memphis and recorded “Solo Piano”. Although it received mixed reviews from critics, it was nominated for a Grammy Award the following year. The album was produced by Newborn’s close friend and colleague Fred Ford, a jazz pioneer himself who in the late 1970s traveled with Newborn to the Montreaux Jazz Festival and other European gigs. Ford also used Newborn on another album he produced, Vanilla, by actress Cybil Shepherd.

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Fred Ford on seeing Phineas play for the first time

His Own Verturesome Way

Newborn returned to New York City in 1978 for the first time in a decade for a run at the famed Village Gate jazz club. He earned favorable reviews from The New York Times, just as he did when he returned again a few years later to play at Sweet Basil.

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In an advance piece about his Sweet Basil gig, New York Times writer John S. Wilson described Newborn:

“Phineas Newborn Jr. is, in a way, an old-fashioned type of jazz pianist but a type that seems to be returning to favor. He’s old-fashioned in the sense that he enjoys melody and he plays and creates melody. But he is not the least bit old-fashioned in the way he does it. He has his own venturesome way that sets him apart from the general run of jazz pianists.”

Rediscovered Genius

Despite experiencing somewhat of a comeback, Newborn lived the rest of his life in Memphis in relative poverty and with ongoing mental illness. He died on May 26, 1989 from lung cancer and is buried in Memphis National Cemetery. His work, however, continues to inspire new generations of jazz pianists and he is still renowned among many critics who have rediscovered his genius.

His recordings include Back Home, New Blues and Sugar Ray among others. Theme for Basie continues to be performed internationally in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Greece, Japan, United Kingdom, Norway, South Africa, Spain and other countries.

“Newborn was an exquisite pianist in an age when clubs were jammed with towering talent,” says Marc Myers, who frequently writes on music for The Wall Street Journal and posts daily at “What set him apart was his soul, his speed and an uncanny ability to tell a heartbreaking story on the keyboard. The problem, of course, is that there were so many gifted jazz pianists in the 1950s that invariably some greats like Newborn wound up less celebrated than others. Newborn deserves a fresh listen, especially his late 1950s and 1960s recordings. He should be viewed on the same level as Bobby Timmons, Hampton Hawes and other church-inspired jazz pianists of the era.”

What Others are Saying

  1. Phineas Lajette Newborn Jr. suffered with an illness because of the medication he was given without being given the right therapy to go with it. He died on the front porch of the house he bought his mother, after being on Beale Street all night with friends and fans.

    Calvin Edwin newborn
  2. It is beyond heartbreaking that sooo many of our genius’s of black classical music suffered from three things that have never been properly addressed,neglect through racism,decline from mental illness’s that invariably were always treatable,and lastly physical beatings,and attacks that served to derail their careers,as well as hastening the sad decline of their health making all the more precious the memory,compositional works,and phenonominal genius of giants such as bud powell,mingus,phineas newborn,butch warren and countless others.GODS mercy on them,our thanks for blessing us with them and their matchless art,and may he bring low and humiliate in this life as well as the next,those who live to hurt others,and spread the poison of racism,pain,and misery.AMEEN Rasheed Al jawar musician,fan,and believer in GOD AND ALL HE COMMANDS AND DECREE’S. PEACE!

    rasheed n al jawar

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