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Randy Newman

One of the great composers of the 20th century, and beyond, if one counts his plethora of Pixar/Walt Disney scores/soundtracks, the idiosyncratic RANDY NEWMAN sardonically summarized, in song, the class system, yuppies, governments et al; pitching for the poor, the cast-offs and the misfits of society. An outspoken and observant singer-songwriter/satirist who could tie-in history to the day’s troubled times, his influence has spread into the work(s) of NILSSON, ALAN PRICE, WARREN ZEVON, TOM WAITS, ELVIS COSTELLO, LYLE LOVETT, MARK KNOPFLER, and so many others. While fans will have their own favourites that connect the dots to their individual lives, one couldn’t argue the longevity of `I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, `Sail Away’, `Mama Told Me (Not To Come)’, `Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear’, `Love Story (You And Me)’, `Lonely At The Top’ and `Short People’.
Born Randall Stuart Newman, November 28, 1943, Los Angeles, California, Randy was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, although at the age of 11, he returned with his Jewish mother to L.A. His paternal uncle, Alfred Newman, had written over 200 scores for 20th Century Fox films, including How Green Was My Valley, Wuthering Heights and The Greatest Story Ever Told, whilst another uncle, Lionel, was also a noted conductor and movie composer.
In 1962, having become a professional songwriter (VIC DANA covered `Looking For Me’ and The FLEETWOODS borrowed `They Tell Me It’s Summer’ for B-sides), Randy issued a one-off 45 for Dot Records (`Golden Gridiron Boy’), which was produced by singer PAT BOONE. After its flop, the young man joined the ranks of UCLA, pursuing a B.A. degree until he jumped ship one semester shy to become a staff-writer at Liberty Records; supplying mid-60s Top 20 hits for CILLA BLACK (`I’ve Been Wrong Before’) and GENE PITNEY (`Nobody Needs Your Love’ and `Just One Smile’). Almost swept under the carpet, was his first introduction into TV soundtracks, “Peyton Place”, which was released in ‘65, unbeknown to the man himself (by Epic Records) as The Randy Newman Orchestra.
In the meantime, NEWMAN briefly joined The Tikis, who were soon to become bubblegum-pop combo HARPER’S BIZARRE, a group who’d utilise the man’s songs: `The Debutante’s Ball’, `Happy Land’ and `Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear’. The latter was also a UK Top 5 smash for The ALAN PRICE SET (led by the ex-ANIMALS pianist), who started buying up several of Randy’s songs for `A Price On His Head’ (1967) set. Through his friendship with buddy Lenny Waronker, NEWMAN took the job of staff arranger/producer at Warner Bros., which saw him work with the likes of The BEAU BRUMMELS, VAN DYKE PARKS and LEON RUSSELL.
In 1968, the bespectacled Baroque-pop artist finally issued his eponymous RANDY NEWMAN {*8} debut for Warner Bros subsidiary Reprise. Co-produced by the aforementioned Waronker and PARKS, the critically-acclaimed set highlighted songs already in the domain of his peers: `I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ (respectively sung by Julius La Rosa, JUDY COLLINS and ERIC BURDON), `Bet No One Hurt This Bad’, `Living Without You’ and `So Long Dad’ (from that PRICE set!), and the latter track spun out by MANFRED MANN. Randy’s versions were of course the Real McCoy, the definitive, literate takes, drawing from the colourful characters of his sketch-pad song-book, but sadly neither `Beehive State’ nor opening salvo `Love Story (You And Me)’ were hits.
His name now synonymous with songwriting genius, Randy was paid homage by another breakthrough songsmith on `Nilsson Sings Newman’, accompanying HARRY NILSSON on piano for several songs from his own debut LP, and on `Dayton, Ohio 1903’, `Vine St.’ etc. A few months later, in April 1970, NEWMAN issued his sophomore set, 12 SONGS {*9}, a record which included `Mama Told Me Not To Come’, a track that went on to become a chart-topper for THREE DOG NIGHT, having been covered in 1966/67 by ERIC BURDON & THE ANIMALS. A much-improved affair, NEWMAN finally began to formulate his unique style against a backdrop of classy slide guitar (provided by RY COODER); the arrangements more bluesy and economical; the brilliant `Old Kentucky Home’ (later covered by COODER in fine style on his debut album), a darkly comic tale of everyday family dysfunction, while the warped tragedy of `Suzanne’ and the racial undercurrents of `Yellow Man’, was Randy at his subversive best.
After an album intended as a radio promo, LIVE (1971) {*6} – recorded the previous year at the Bitter End in NY on 17-19th September – 1972’s SAIL AWAY {*9} was another early classic in the songwriter’s canon; its lavish title track finding NEWMAN in one of his most convincing character roles to date, that of a slave trader in Africa. By this point, the man’s slyly ironic sense of humour and idiosyncratic musical orchestrations (`Lonely At The Top’, `God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)’, `You Can Leave Your Hat On’, `Last Night I Had A Dream’, `Dayton, Ohio 1903’ and his own `Simon Smith…’) were garnering considerable critical acclaim and a cult following, if not exactly endearing him to folks who took his work a bit too literally.
A case in point was his 1974 quasi-concept set, GOOD OLD BOYS {*8}, weaving together a cast of characters from the American south; his adoption of a racist perspective for `Rednecks’, for example, baiting liberals while simultaneously mocking the attitudes of the song. In `Louisiana 1927’, `Guilty’, `Kingfish’ and `Birmingham’ meanwhile, NEWMAN showed how affecting his writing could really be when he wasn’t satirising – well, almost.
The album marked his first foray into the Top 40, while LITTLE CRIMINALS (1977) {*6}, his poorest studio set to date, ironically reached the Top 10 on the strength of the near-No.1 hit, `Short People’. Possibly the most controversial of NEWMAN’s stabs at twisted humour, its blunt send-up of bigots was understandably misinterpreted by some; perhaps the end didn’t justify the means in this case. Less pathos and irony-induced (the EAGLES and/or J.D. SOUTHER in tow), `Rider In The Rain’, `Baltimore’ and the title track, proved Randy was no soft-rock slouch.
BORN AGAIN (1979) {*5} brought further criticism that NEWMAN was crossing the fine line between clowning satire and self-satisfied condescension; his move towards a more typical L.A. sound solidified on commercially-targeted flop 45s, `It’s Money That I Love’ and `The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band’. If one dug deeper into his measure of the misfits, one could learn from `Pretty Boy’ and `William Brown’, although too often he leant on the “depression” aspect of his song’s manifestos.
The “City of Angels” formed part of the inspiration for the semi-conceptual TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1983) {*8}; NEWMAN deconstructing the facade around the world’s more exotic cities against a slick schmooze-rock backdrop. One that got away hit-wise, but played to death on FM radio, `I Love L.A.’ opened the Top 75 set, whilst modest chart compensation came his way on his duet with PAUL SIMON: `The Blues’. Poignant songs about apartheid (`Christmas In Cape Town’) and a soldier’s tale of woe burying his compadres-in-arms (`Song For The Dead’), clawed back the respect lost with his previous effort.
While one shouldn’t bypass his SCOTT JOPLIN-esque, Grammy-nominated soundtrack to RAGTIME (1981) {*7}, RANDY NEWMAN duly concentrated on film work, mainly with a score for another period-piece, THE NATURAL (1984) {*6}. Contributions to 1986’s !Three Amigos!, the piano player was also co-writing the script for the latter as well as making a cameo appearance (as The Singing Bush); his previous film credits included contributions to cult classic, Performance (in 1970), and an unreleased score for the satirical 1971 comedy, `Cold Turkey’ – finally delivered on CD in 2007.
His only other pop/rock set at the time was 1988’s LAND OF DREAMS {*7}, a curious and odd affair which nevertheless found NEWMAN in unprecedented autobiographical form on `Dixie Flyer’, `New Orleans Wins The War’ and `The City That Time Forgot’, the triptych tracks concerning his childhood flits between L.A. and N’Orleans worth the price of admission alone. Not a massive seller by any stretch of his own imagination, it nonetheless spawned a minor hit in `It’s Money That Matters’ (featuring producer MARK KNOPFLER on guitar).
Inevitably, NEWMAN’s gravitational pull into soundtracks, led to more than moonlighting projects to wile away his love of the movies. The turn of the decade saw him scoring a further three major productions; PARENTHOOD (1989) {*6}, AVALON (1990) {*7} and AWAKENINGS (1990) {*6}, all gleaning Oscar nominations.
Fast-forward to the mid-90s and NEWMAN worked feverishly on a couple of other OSTs, THE PAPER (1994) {*5} and MAVERICK (1994) {*4}, plus his very own musical rock-opera project, RANDY NEWMAN’S FAUST (1995) {*4}. An ambitious update of the German literary classic by Goethe, with the L.A. old guard (DON HENLEY, JAMES TAYLOR, LINDA RONSTADT, BONNIE RAITT and ELTON JOHN) in starring roles, the predictable results proved OTT, while a Broadway performance was duly canned.
Donning his classical composer cap for several other scores (maybe unwarranted criticism for his characteristically croaky vocals had gotten to him), a widescreen range for all ages and film music buffs could argue over the merits of the soundtracks to TOY STORY (1995) {*6} – featuring a duet with LYLE LOVETT on `You’ve Got A Friend In Me’, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996) {*6}, the unreleased “Michael”, CATS DON’T DANCE (1997) {*4} – shared with various artists, A BUG’S LIFE (1998) {*6} and PLEASANTVILLE (1998) {*6}.
On the Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake-produced BAD LOVE (1999) {*7}, NEWMAN finally popped back to what he did best: pared down character sketches which rarely flinch from deadbeat, deadpan realism. Sure, there were chinks in his satirical armour with the likes of `I Miss You’, `My Country’ and `Every Time It Rains’, but the bespectacled chronicler sounded more candid and convincing than he had done for years.
Yet another batch of animation or family-type film soundtracks kept his musical conveyor-belt running in good order: TOY STORY 2 (1999) {*5}, MEET THE PARENTS (2000) {*5}, MONSTERS, INC. (2001) {*5} and SEABISCUIT (2003) {*6}, once again swept up Oscar nominations for attendant songs; one in particular, `If I Didn’t Have You’, winning for Pixar/Disney connections in 2002.
A natural follow-on from the resumption of his songwriting career, THE RANDY NEWMAN SONGBOOK VOL.1 (2003) {*7}, found the don of irony – on the cusp of his 60th birthday – taking a relaxed, lingering trip through his back catalogue, sketching the foibles of humanity with perhaps more grace and subtlety than any writer of his generation.
Umpteenth soundtracks by way of MEET THE FOCKERS (2004) {*4}, the various artists share-pool CARS (2006) {*4}, and LEATHERHEADS (2008) {*6}, were all commendable in their simplistic and derivative film formula, but good old fans of NEWMAN were happy that the VIP OAP could once again share his drip-dry sense of irony on HARPS AND ANGELS (2008) {*7}. A sequel to Land Of Dreams, he confronted the administration of George W. Bush on the rag-tag pop of `A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country’, while personal gripes against `Potholes’, and JACKSON BROWNE in the shadowy `A Piece Of The Pie’, still gave Randy an edge over his patriot peers.
Squeezed in between his day-trips to Disney-land for THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009) {*4}, TOY STORY 3 (2010) {*5} and MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013) {*5}, the piano man couldn’t resist taking his fans on the trip of a lifetime for the re-worked sequel THE RANDY NEWMAN SONGBOOK, VOL.2 (2011) {*6} and the obligatory CD/DVD package LIVE IN LONDON (2011) {*6}.
While one can’t imagine that he’ll have nothing to sing about until 2018’s Pixar piece, “Toy Story 4” (with his nation and the world in such a poor state), surely there’ll be another magnum opus around the corner for NEWMAN before we all see the significance of `Political Science (Let’s Drop The Big One)’ – a song that could yet be “Trumped”!
Political machinations aside and expanding on his popular re-workings catalogue, 2016’s THE RANDY NEWMAN SONGBOOK VOL.3 {*6} was just as one would expect to hear from a man who’s content to live out his twilight years in a reflective mode. Keeping the bare-bones best-of’s down to under three minutes max, the songsmith and his “amazing dancing piano” performed endearing faves and some not so recognisable in `Burn On’, `Rollin’’, `Love Story’ and the set’s splash of colour, `Red Bandana’.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Feb-Sep2016

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