Randy Newman’s uncles Lionel, Andrew, and Emil Newman were all composers of Hollywood movie scores. As opposed to their sweeping, cinematic sounds, Randy became known for understated, sardonic lyrics with simple harmonies, performed at the piano with his unremarkable but expressive voice. Yet he has always been able to get to the heart of any topic he tackles, making him an award-winning film score composer in his own right. Add to that his 11 studio albums, and you have one of America’s hardest-working, widest-ranging composers.
Newman, born in Los Angeles in 1943, spent a lot of time with family in New Orleans while he was growing up. A southern spark and a jazz sensibility are important elements of his style, both inspired in part by his love of Ray Charles. His ambition to be a performing artist was temporarily dashed when his first single, “Golden Gridiron Boy,” didn’t sell. But he already knew he had a gift for songwriting, and also had the connections and determination to convince other artists to record his works. That effort has succeeded stunningly over the decades, with dozens of A-list singers making hits out of Newman songs.
At first he was active in the recording industry primarily as a session pianist, largely thanks to his friendship with record producer Lenny Waronker. He made his debut album, Randy Newman (1968), on Reprise Records. Critics were intrigued, and the songs – “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Love Story,” and “Living Without You” in particular – took on a life of their own through other singers. Sales, however, were not stellar; the record never entered the charts.
This might have been the fault of the arrangements, which force Newman into a stylistic corner that doesn’t suit his actual or metaphorical voice. Rather than just accompanying himself on piano with a couple of other instruments as support, he is swimming in the restless ocean of a large orchestral sound. The personnel list is nearly 80 strong.
If you listen past that overly busy sonic atmosphere, the album offers a clear view of Newman’s quiet darkness, the challenges of everyday life served up with off-beat humor. Take “Davy the Fat Boy,” for example:
Producer Waronker took a markedly different approach to the album 12 Songs (1970), using a tight little band, which lifted up Newman’s singing and piano playing instead of burying them.
In “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the slide guitar, played by the great Ry Cooder, has a conversation with Newman. The lyrics are jam-packed with detailed imagery and snide attitude, characteristic of Newman’s unique approach to songwriting. He’s describing that awful, stultifying party we’ve all been to and regretted the moment we set foot in the door.
Newman’s universal success as a songwriter has had an unusual effect on the function of his studio albums. Unlike most singer-songwriters, who introduce strong material in their albums and might expect royalties from covers as a result, Newman has often provided songs to other artists before he has a chance to record them himself. On Sail Away (1972), for instance, the single “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” had already sold well in recordings by Alan Price and Harry Nilsson.
A lesser-known gem on that album is “Lonely at the Top,” a sarcastic look at celebrity that clearly contains a large kernel of truth. Newman’s connection with New Orleans flavored the arrangement of tuba, banjo, snare, and mournful trumpet.
The commercial floodgates finally opened when Good Old Boys was released in 1974 and entered the No. 36 spot on the Billboard 200, by far Newman’s best sales at the time. It’s hard to say whether the original concept for the album, a portrait of a Southern man named Johnny Cutler, would have fared quite so well. Although Newman changed his mind and held back those thematic songs, he did release them in a special-edition CD in 2002 called Johnny Cutler’s Birthday.
What did get released as Good Old Boys includes some rich string orchestrations; Newman had by now figured out how to balance that sweet sound with his intimate, introverted style. “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” – a plea to Richard Nixon – is a good example of that balance.
The commercial success grew with Little Criminals (1977), which charted at No. 9 and included the hit single “Short People.” Born Again followed in 1979, its cover famously featuring Newman with dollar signs painted over his face in KISS-like fashion. You’d think that photo and the first track’s title, “It’s Money That I Love,” would have been a clue that the underlying theme was capitalism in the music industry, but critics didn’t get it.
Track 2 takes on the topic of fandom in “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band,” presented as a biography of ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) that gets its facts a bit wrong. It’s that gentle Newman satire, fun to admire in retrospect but apparently puzzling at the time.
Trouble in Paradise (1983) is mainly known for its big horn sound as well as the duet with Paul Simon on “The Blues.” Residents of Southern California still appreciate “I Love L.A.” The album Land of Dreams (1988) is unique for being autobiographical rather than presenting the perspectives of fictional characters as Newman usually does. The songs focus on his own childhood in New Orleans.
Although “It’s Money That Matters” was a single, it did not make much of a splash. Unlike the earlier “It’s Money That I Love,” which is aggressively comical in its criticisms, this song is an empathetic observation about the unfair distribution of wealth and what it does to society. The distinctive guitar sound is provided by Mark Knopfler.
After Land of Dreams, Newman took a long hiatus from the studio to work full-time in Hollywood. His Oscar-nominated film scores of that period included Avalon, Toy Story, and Pleasantville. Pixar Animation decided Newman had exactly the right touch for their stories. In 1999 he released the album Bad Love before taking another break to score Monsters, Inc. and Cars.
Although Newman’s studio output has slowed to once every nine or ten years, his skill as a songwriter for his own purposes – as opposed to the needs of a film – has not diminished. Harps and Angels (2008) includes some of his best work, including the song “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.” Only Newman could have combined a genuine concern for his fellow citizens with such a hilarious satire on the history of world leadership.
The 78-year-old Newman continues to work, both in the studio and in movies. His most recent album is Dark Matter (2017), recorded with a streamlined band comprising his own piano plus four other musicians. Waronker is still his producer, this time sharing the load with David Boucher and keyboardist Mitchell Froom.
The wistful “Wandering Boy,” full of hushed emotion and wonder, is the perfect ending to this retrospective. Here’s hoping for lots more songs down the road.
Header image of Randy Newman courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Rob Bogaerts (ANEFO).