in memoriam: Jeff Newsom

By Jim Stanford on August 5, 2011

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Newsom on his trademark harp.

Jeff Newsom, the Teton Valley musician known for his harmonica playing, died Thursday after an 18-month battle with illness. He was 52 years old.

Newsom, who lived in Driggs, was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in February 2010. In April of that year, friends held a huge benefit for him at The Wildwood Room in Victor and celebrated the release of a CD of his music, called The Henhouse Tapes.

Newsom played blues for years with Bob Greenspan, as well as with Loose Ties, Derrik and the Dynamos, and U.S. Bluez. Earlier in his career, he blew the harp with Otis Rush and Gary B.B. Coleman. He often sat in with touring bands who passed through Jackson Hole, including Rick Danko, the late bassist for The Band.

Friend and fellow musician David Swift called him, “A brilliant mind, a monster wit, a true cat.”

In one of the remarkable stories from his life, Newsom was backstage at The Last Waltz, the star-studded farewell concert staged by The Band. His sister dated Garth Hudson, the keyboardist, and at 19 years old he drove Hudson to the gig in a Mercedes. If you listen closely to the album The Last Waltz, I’m told, you can hear Jeff yell, “Ophelia,” and Robbie Robertson replies, “You got it, kid.”

According to friends, Jeff passed on a clear night beneath a sky full of stars. His last choice of music was Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”

An Indian-style memorial is under way at his sister Ginny’s house, where family and friends are keeping a fire going for four days. Well wishers are invited to drop by for a potluck.

(Photo of Jeff at his 50th birthday party, by Dan Campbell)

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Posted under Deaths, Music

18 Comments so far

  1. Boat 1 Retired August 5, 2011 2:47 pm

    Never fun to lose a buddy. I first met Jeff in Teton Valley when I spent my winters as a Targhee patroller – enjoyed him play his harp many times in the Trap bar and at other venues and parties on the westside. RIP my friend. And the band played on…….

  2. jan tice August 5, 2011 10:55 pm

    what a fine beautiful friend you have been … love you jan tice

  3. Joel Peissig August 6, 2011 7:21 am

    Take care Jeff! It was a real pleasure to have spent time with you and your sister and family. Thanks for the laughs and hospitality! You will be missed.

  4. js August 7, 2011 11:44 pm

    It stung to hear that another well-known resident died last week after a battle with illness: Scott Smith. Scott was diagnosed with brain cancer last winter, and although the community rallied behind him and raised nearly $100,000 at a benefit this spring, he went quickly. It was only a matter of a few months ago that he first woke up with a headache. Incredibly sad. Scott was a devoted father and youth hockey coach, and operated his own cleaning business.

    An avid outdoorsman, he was on the Snake last fall on a combination hunting and fishing trip when I last saw him. Other hunters had cleaned out the area he planned to hunt, so he and a friend found an antler or two while hiking and then floated downriver instead. That’s how I’ll remember him, on a perfect fall day.

  5. galen August 8, 2011 2:28 pm

    It is always difficult to lose icons, and I am sure I am not alone in believing that Jeff was one of those for Teton Valley. Jeff’s death was amost to the day, 11 years after he and Derek played our wedding. The night would not have been the same without him blowing his harp well into the night, and well after the band’s obligations to continue playing were exhausted. Hard to believe such a stellar musician and great person, seemingly so full of energy, health and love for humanity is gone such a short time later. I hear that when the end came, Jeff was probably glad it was over. We will miss you Jeff, and here is to you sharing one with Danko and Emmanuel up there in the real shangri-la studio in the sky.

  6. Barney Bate August 8, 2011 3:32 pm

    A giant, my big brother’s dear friend in high school, I always looked up to him. Visited him in the summer of 1979, and he took me climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon. I wanted to be just like him. What an amazing person.

  7. Gigi Bate August 8, 2011 4:11 pm

    Ginny, Jane and the Newsom family and friends; my heart is with you.

  8. Gaye August 8, 2011 4:40 pm

    Farewell, Jeff,
    You made me laugh until I cried. Now I am just going to cry.

  9. Bruce in Boston August 9, 2011 8:53 am

    I’ve enjoyed reading postings by Jeff (aka Rollie) on The Band web site. My condolences to his friends and loved ones and I’ll be burning a fire tonight…

  10. Peter August 9, 2011 3:51 pm

    it is all about the love, and Jeff had a big heart. he is missed deeply by those he touched

  11. Beverly Gray Johnson August 13, 2011 5:05 am

    Jeff was a wonder person, he will be missed. Rest in peace.

  12. Peter Leusch August 15, 2011 12:35 pm

    Monster wit indeed……I remember hanging out at tommy’s coffee shop while he and Jeff cracked everyone up. Jeff and his bands always played my fundraisers for the buffalo and whatnot, no question, he was there! What else can be said, he will be missed greatly….

  13. Toby Barlow August 18, 2011 2:39 pm

    I’ve never met a person like Jeff and I don’t think I ever will. He was just a great primordial ball of great humor and good spiritedness. He changed my life in some way that is hard to describe, the way a massive planet’s gravitational pull changes the trajectory of small and ordinary comets. I will miss his presence here with us.

  14. John tretter August 19, 2011 6:49 pm

    Jeff. We go back 40 years. Our contacts may have been not as frequent as they should have been , i love you my old friend , john t

  15. Jeff Thayer August 31, 2011 9:41 pm

    Jeffrey will always be remembered for his great passion, incredible energy,amazing wit, and his love of music. I treasure the many memories of skiing the gnar with him from the early days in PC through our final times at the Ghee. Thanks for being my friend…

  16. gretchen Notzold December 29, 2011 10:21 pm

    Jefferson, Staying in your house so Jane can be with Maggie for Christmas. Man, I’ve been crying so hard. Crying missing you crying missing you. Just isn’t easy. Mr. Starman, I dont know what to say. Your life was not twinkling, no it was blazing with Stars. love love love

  17. Big Sandy January 11, 2012 3:00 am

    It was a shock to hear Jeff had gone. From that first meeting at Lone Peak with Collins in about ’82 Jeff (and John) made me laugh. He lived his life big- he lived the dream.

  18. Phil Round April 7, 2014 7:38 pm

    Jeff was a good friend in music, skiing, carpentry, politics, etc. I have a maple bush that my wife planted by the door of my studio and I say hi to Jeff every time I walk in. “If I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture!”

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