Randy Newman – Master Songwriter

“There isn’t anything more important to me than writing well. It’s how I judge myself and how I feel best.” – Randy Newman. He cites Ray Charles as his greatest influence growing up, stating, “I loved Charles’ music to excess.”

Wikipedia: Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles (“I Love L.A”) on November 28, 1943. He lived in New Orleans as a small child and spent summers there until he was 11 years old when his family returned to Los Angeles. The paternal side of his family includes three uncles who were noted Hollywood film-score composers: Alfred, Lionel, and Emil Newman.*

With that pedigree, I guess it was inevitable that Randy would become a songwriter with tunes that ranged from moving to weird to cries for social justice. He even has a song (“Political Science”) advising the US to “drop the big one and see what happens.” Fortunately, he never became Secretary of State.

The interesting thing about Newman is he would write many of his songs as if he were the character in the song. This caused him some trouble when, say, he wrote “Short People.” And he has no less than two songs that use the ‘n’ word in character, neither of which, frankly, I felt comfortable using. They’re his songs. Let him fucking sing them.

Newman has been a professional songwriter since he was 17, in 1962 writing a catchy ditty called “They Tell Me It’s Summer” by the late ’50s, early ’60’s singing group The Fleetwoods. From there he had success as a songwriter, penning tunes for Gene Pitney, Pat Boone, Jerry Butler, Petula Clark, and Dusty Springfield among others

Randy Newman’s eponymous debut album was released in 1968. Co-produced with childhood friend Lenny Waronker and Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, the album didn’t have a great deal of impact. But it did leave us with at least one standard, the melancholy “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”

Newman later admitted that he signed away publishing rights to this album and hence never sees any royalties from it. (But makes up for it, I think, from his Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. income.)

I don’t feel obligated to go with Newman’s raspy, nasally vocals for every song so this list has a few covers I dig. Here’s a nice version of “Rain” by Norah Jones:

Spotify link

In 1970, Harry Nilsson did an entire cover album of Newman’s songs with Randy on piano.** While again, not a great success, it led the way for the album 12 Songs that was sparer sounding. This one included “Mama Told Me Not To Come” with Ry Cooder on slide guitar. It’s the tale of a naive innocent afoot in the party scene of L.A. Three Dog Night had a pretty big hit with this one too. I’ve always dug it so I put it on the full Spotify list at post’s end.

Spotify link

Newman’s star was ascending and around this time he did his first film score for a Norman Lear/Dick Van Dyke movie called Cold Turkey. (About quitting smoking.)

Newman’s next album, 1972’s Sail Away ultimately wound up on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. I used to play guitar and sing the song to my girlfriend which is amusing when you realize it “presents the American dream of a promised land as it might have been presented to black Africa in slave running days.” I am nothing if not romantic:

Spotify link

As mentioned, Newman’s writing style was to take on the voice of the character no matter how offensive (“Rednecks”) or insensitive, as in the aforementioned “Short People” Prior to his success with the Toy Story franchise, “Short People” was his biggest hit, ubiquitous on the radio in its day. It didn’t make him any friends with the vertically challenged and the 6-footer has admitted in interviews that he didn’t realize the effect it might have such as say, short kids getting taunted or even beaten up. Way to go, Randy!

Spotify link

I’ll leave you with two more songs here (nine total on Spotify list.) “I Love L.A.” was a big flashy hit about Newman’s, um, mixed feelings about the city of his birth. He name-checks not only the hot spots but the seedy, run-down parts of that day. The “We love it” parts are shouted out by none other than Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. Song inspired by a conversation with Don Henley who was bitching about no longer being able to travel in a Lear Jet.

Spotify link

You’ll recall that at the end of the wildly entertaining movie The Full Monty that the working class Brits strip to a Tom Jones’ version of Randy’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Couldn’t find that one on Spotify but Joe Cocker’s version will do just fine I think:

Spotify link

Randy Newman has received twenty Academy Award nominations in the Best Original Score and Best Original Song categories and has won twice in the latter category, contributing to the Newmans being the most nominated Academy Award extended family, with a collective 92 nominations in various music categories. He has also won three Emmys, seven Grammy Awards and the Governor’s Award from the Recording Academy.

Newman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2013

*In addition to composing the 20th Century Fox fanfare, Alfred Newman composed scores for over 200 movies including Wuthering Heights, How the West was Won and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Lionel wrote and/or conducted hundreds of scores and won an Oscar for Hello, Dolly! Emil also worked on hundreds of scores including The Best Years of Our Lives.

**Randy returned the favor later by spearheading an album called For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson.

22 thoughts on “Randy Newman – Master Songwriter

  1. I really don’t like Cocker’s ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ – kind of misses the winking humour of the original and turns it into a boring sleazefest. Newman’s great though, especially Good Old Boys and Sail Away. There’s a new-ish song called ‘Putin’ that I’m very fond of too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I dunno, for me Cocker’s version hits the note. I kinda like the sleazefest part. Plus makes me wanna see “Full Monty” again. It’s interesting though, if you listen to This is Randy Newman on Spotify it’s jacked up with his Disney movie songs. Misleads a newbie I think.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I find it always amazing how concise and factual Randy Newman calls things by their name, brings it to the simple denominator. “In America every man is free to take care of his home and his family …” (‘Sail Away’). The subliminal cynicism bores into the brain. Newman often complety misunderstood is and remains an unique artist.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I never really connected with any of the Randy Newman stuff I listened to (still don’t), but I do like the Nilsson album a helluva lot. I’m all for holding my hands up and saying the guy knows how to write a song, but I just don’t particularly enjoy listening to him. Shocker!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, his voice is an acquired taste for sure. I would go so far as to say, songwriter first, singer second. I’m just as satisfied to listen to covers. I actually don’t know the Nilsson album but Harry was a hell of a singer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Harry was one of the best vocalists I’ve heard. And though he certainly did wreck his voice, he knew how to use it when he was focused.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Two great tunes. Without You even avoids being schmaltzy despite it being a bit radio number. Or maybe I can ignore it cause I like Nilsson.


  4. There’s 3 or 4 tribute albums i listen to constantly, one to Don Covay, Arthur Alexander, Merle Haggard and the Nillson one.
    I’ll take Randy any day. Guys like him expanded my ear from the hard blues rock, rock n roll, jazz etc. Is there a better lyric than “A big nasty redhead at my side”? As usual we are crossing musical swords. I’ve been listening to a bit of Randy lately. I did not know that about his uncles. Big Earl loves Newman. It’s the sense of humor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I seem to be the only one who hasn’t actually heard the Nilsson album, just read about it. I’ll definitely have to give it a listen. We love LA! I also didn’t know that was Fleetwood Mac folks shouting that out. Randy seems to have been almost outside the mainstream in the 60’s. He himself couldn’t figure out how he was putting out albums that seemed to be from an era that didn’t have, say, the Stones.
      You being a big film guy should keep your eyes open on those old flicks you like. The Newmans will pop up fairly frequently.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I mention that album to you a long time ago. Peter Wolf has a great cut on it. I’ll be featuring a Wolfie cut off off the Covay album soon.
        The films you mentioned arent really my style but I;m sure I’ve seen others they scored. Amazing how many people Ray Charles had an effect on. I know Cocker was a huge fan.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. CB has good memory on that one. Wolf plays around Beantown a fair bit but I’ve never seen him solo. Some Newman film will crop up and you’ll go, a-ha! And as to Ray Charles, I don’t need to tell CB he was immense. I’ve got an Atlantic box set kicking around somewhere. Definitely on the blogometer one fine day.

          Liked by 1 person

        1. Now it knows what you’re thinking. I preach Spotify to anyone who will listen. My chiropractor switched over to it because I wouldn’t shut up about it.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I have “Trouble In Paradise” on CD and also know the “Land of Dreams” album and, of course, “Short People.” While I generally like the music, I’ve never taken a deeper dive on Randy Newman.

    It seems to me cynical lyrics and irony were his trademark, at least before he started writing music for children’s movies. Interesting turn artistically speaking – well, I suppose it’s more lucrative than writing cynical songs!

    I can see why some folks misunderstand his Newman’s songs. Oftentimes, you really need to listen carefully to the entire lyrics of a song to understand he is making fun of something and the many of the words actually don’t mean what they may suggest at first sight.

    The problem with that approach is many folks listen to music more casually, so may not pick up the nuances. I don’t think Newman cares much whether or not not people get his songs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed with all you said. I would add to the idea of “cynical lyrics and irony” the fact that he sings in character. As mentioned in the piece, he has at least two songs where he uses the ‘n’ word in character. I couldn’t bring myself to post those much less sing them if I had to. Does his audience get it and are laughing at those characters or are they enjoying singing that word?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you’re right. At least some of the stuff he is singing looks like a risky proposition – especially, given many people may not get his lyrics.

        I wouldn’t say or sing the n-word either. It’s just not appropriate!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There are things you could get away with in this country 40 years ago that you cannot now. To my knowledge, for example. Mick Jagger no longer sings “Hear him whip the women just around midnight.” And would a modern-day Lou Reed sing about “colored girls?”

          Liked by 1 person

What would you say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.