“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:
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.
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:
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!
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.
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:
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.