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LEGACY: Floyd Newman III – the famed Stax saxman – nurtured young musicians

As a point of reference, the late Floyd Sidney Newman III had made his imprint on Stax Records long before Isaac Hayes made his way there.

“As a matter of fact, Floyd was the one who discovered Isaac Hayes,” said Stax Museum of American Soul Music Communications Director Tim Sampson. 

“Floyd was playing at the widely popular Plantation Inn in West Memphis with such big names as Ben Branch, Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller, and Willie Mitchell. One night he gave a young, promising musician (an invite) to join the band. 

“It was Hayes’ first paid gig as a professional musician. Floyd then brought Hayes to Stax to play studio sessions in 1962.”

Newman, considered one of the linchpins for Stax, died May 23, about three months shy of his 92nd birthday, which is Aug. 17. 

The beloved bandleader and saxophonist had another important title added to his resume: He was a high school band instructor. It was a job he loved, Sampson said.

“He never told his students about his professional background,” said Sampson. “Floyd didn’t want to undo all the good he had done with those kids. He poured himself into those young people.”

Newman finished high school in 1949. As an up-and-coming musician, Newman was deeply committed to completing his college degree. 

B.B. King called Newman to play in his original band at the Plantation Inn. It was an offer too good to pass up. 

But while playing with the band, Newman pursued his bachelor’s degree at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. 

Newman played studio sessions at Stax and slept a couple of hours before he got up and did it all again.

Completing his college degree paid off. Newman enjoyed a long and fulfilling career as, not only a band instructor, but also as a guidance counselor. Newman worked at Humes Jr. High and Northside High School.

Many Stax fans will remember that Newman played on Stax’ first major hit, which was “Last Night,” by the Mar-Keys.

“You know when you hear that voice say, ‘Awww, last night,’ that was Floyd,” said Deanie Parker, a former Stax singer and Soulsville’s first president and CEO. 

“‘Last Night’ was before ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MGs. When I was at Stax working during the day, Floyd was at school teaching his students, so I did not get a chance to interact with him like the other musicians who came in for studio sessions.”

According to Sampson, “Last Night” was the reason the recording studio ended up with the “Stax” name.

“After ‘Last Night’ sold a million records, the label attracted the attention of Satellite Records in California. Rather than engage in a long and costly court battle over the name, founders, Jim Stewart, and his sister, Estelle Axton simply took the first two letters of their last names and formed ‘Stax Records.’”

In 2018, Newman donated his very first saxophone to the Stax Museum. It was this particular sax he played with The Mar-Keys, Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs, Eddie Floyd, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Etta James, and other major artists. 

That sax is now a part of the museum’s permanent collection. Newman’s father bought the instrument for him in the late 1940s from a pawn shop on Beale Street. 

During the sax donation event, both Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris proclaimed it “Floyd Newman Day.”

Newman was honored with a note on the Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame in 2014.

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