Randy Newman - Biography



By Scott Feemster

The career of singer, songwriter, arranger, composer and pianist Randy Newman has been a long and strange one, veering from brushes with fame to critically acclaimed albums that failed to connect with the general public, and all stops in between. He has also, over the years, built up an impressive resume of composing music and songs for Hollywood films. Newman has grown into a position as being one of America's most respected songwriters, and his penchant for dark humor and irony are as much a trademark as his New Orleans-influenced piano style and his unique vocal delivery.

 

            Randall Stuart Newman was born November 28th, 1943 in Los Angeles, California to parents Adele and Irving Newman. When still an infant, Newman and his family relocated to New Orleans, where his mother was from and still had family, but moved back to Los Angeles a few years later, though young Randy would spend summers in New Orleans up until his early teens. Both of his home towns would have an enormous influence on his songwriting in years to come. It was almost a foregone  conclusion that Randy would have something to do with music, as he came from a very musical background. Three of his uncles on his father's side where successful Hollywood film composers; Emil Newman, Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman, and later Newman's cousins Thomas Newman and David Newman, as well as his nephew Joey Newman, would all become Hollywood film-score composers. Young Randy took up piano lessons when rather young, and by the time he was a teenager, was writing his own songs. After graduating high school, Newman became a professional songwriter at the age of seventeen, knocking out songs for an L.A. Publishing house, while also attending UCLA and studying music. Newman had his first stab at being a performer with his 1961 single “Golden Gridiron Boy”, but the single flopped, and he soon returned to writing songs for other performers and arranging. Some artists who recorded some of Newman's early compositions include Irma Thomas, Cilla Black, Alan Price, Jerry Butler, Gene Pitney and the O'Jays. Newman briefly joined the band The Tikis in the middle sixties, a band that would later change it's name to Harpers Bizarre and have success with the Paul Simon song “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)”. Even though Newman didn't stay with the band long, he continued to write songs for them, and the group ended up recording a total of six of his compositions. Newman also continued to pursue his degree in music from UCLA, but dropped out one semester short of graduating when his longtime friend Lenny Waronker secured him a recording contract with Reprise Records.

 

            Newman's debut album, simply titled Randy Newman (Reprise), was released in 1968, and was a favorite among critics, but failed to connect to the general public. It seems, in retrospect, that Newman was trying to show all that he could do as a young songwriter, and wrapped all of the songs in heavily orchestrated settings. Though the album didn't make much of a dent sales-wise, it did get him noticed among other performers and songwriters, and songs off of the album were covered by such artists as Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Dave Von Ronk, The Everly Brothers, Dusty Springfield, and Peggy Lee. Greater success for Newman didn't come until 1970, when Harry Nilsson released a whole album of Newman's compositions called Nilsson Sings Newman (RCA Victor), which featured Newman himself on piano. This, as well as Three Dog Night's hit version of Newman's song “Mama Told Me Not To Come”, raised Newman's commercial profile considerably. Newman's next album, 12 Songs (Reprise)(1970), was much more stripped down than his previous album, and showcased not only his lyrics and piano playing, but also the contributions made by such notable collaborators as Ry Cooder and Byrds members Clarence White and Gene Parsons. The album also hearkened back in sound to some of Newman's Southern roots. Though the album was again a favorite among critics, it didn't sell very well generally, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout Newman's career. Newman, however, was attracting a bit of a cult following, and his next album, the live collection Randy Newman Live (Reprise)(1971), was his first album to break into the Billboard charts. Newman began to dabble with soundtrack work around this time by contributing to the score of the Norman Lear satirical comedy Cold Turkey.

 

            Newman's next album, 1972's Sail Away (Reprise), continued on the more stripped down sound started on 12 Songs, focusing more on Newman's lyrics and piano playing. The album was a middling success, but did appeal to critics and Newman's core audience, and contained the songs “Burn On”, a song about the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire, which was later used in the movie Major League, and the song “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, later covered by Joe Cocker, Tom Jones, Keb Mo and Etta James. Newman wouldn't really reach a commercial breakthrough until his next album, 1974's Good Old Boys (Reprise), a song cycle about the American South. The album captured the tension between the old system of Southern racism and the view of other Americans to stereotype all Southerners automatically as racists. The album was widely hailed by critics and became Newman's most successful album to date, reaching as high as #36 on the American Billboard album charts and spending 21 weeks in the Top 200. Though it would be another three years until Newman would release another album, Good Old Boys set the stage nicely for what would be one of Newman's biggest hits. The first single from Little Criminals (Reprise)(1977), was the song “Short People”, an evil satirical stab at the subject of bigotry that became a controversy among those who didn't read into the underlying subtext. People took the song so seriously, that a bill was introduced in the state legislature in Maryland that sought to ban the song from being played on the radio. Though not as big of a success, Newman upped the satirical ante with his next release, 1979's Born Again (Reprise), with the title poking fun at the rising Christian fundamentalist movement, the cover art depicted Newman sitting at a desk dressed as a businessman with Kiss-style face make-up depicting giant green money signs over each eye. The album also contained the song “The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band”, which parodied the arranging style of the Electric Light Orchestra, a band hugely popular at the time.

 

            Randy Newman spent the next few years rotating between film work and his more pop-oriented album work. Newman was tapped to write the score and songs for the 1981 film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, directed by Milos Forman, and featuring Jimmy Cagney's last screen performance. Newman's score was highly praised and earned him two Academy Award nominations that year. Newman followed Ragtime up with the album Trouble In Paradise (Reprise)(1983), which contained another satirical left-field hit, “I Love L.A.”. In the same spirit where his earlier album Good Old Boys both poked fun at and mythologized New Orleans and the South, so too did Trouble In Paradise do the same for Newman's native Los Angeles. Once again, the satirical bent of the song went over a lot of people's heads, and the song went on to be adapted for a successful promotional campaign run by ABC TV in the 1980's. In the years following Trouble In Paradise, Newman turned more towards his soundtrack work, but also entered a period of turbulence in his personal life, splitting from his wife Roswitha after almost twenty years of marriage, and contracting the Epstein-Barr virus, a common virus that can cause symptoms of sickness and fatigue similar to mononucleosis. Newman composed the theme song for the 1984 Robert Redford vehicle The Natural, then collaborated with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels in 1986 to write the film Three Amigos, and also contributed songs for the film and provided the voice for the Singing Bush character. Newman returned to album work again with the 1988 album Land Of Dreams (Reprise), a song cycle that mostly dealt with Newman's boyhood spent in New Orleans. From there, Newman went on to score an impressive number of films, including Parenthood, Awakenings, Avalon, The Paper, Maverick, Overboard, James And The Giant Peach, Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, Meet The Parents and its sequel Meet The Fockers, Leatherheads, and the five acclaimed Pixar/Disney films Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Cars. Newman was so prolific in his film career, that he had the distinction of holding the record for the most Oscar nominations, in his case fifteen, without a win. That changed in 2001 when he received an Oscar for Best Song for the song “If I Didn't Have You” from Monsters, Inc. He has also worked in television, winning an Emmy in 1990 for the music for the pilot of Cop Rock, and has also composed the theme song to the acclaimed cable series Monk. Though Newman became best known through the 90's for his soundtrack work, he also managed to complete a musical adaptation of Faust (Warner Bros.)(1995), with guest artists like James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley, and put together a career retrospective 4-CD box Guilty: 30 Years Of Randy Newman (Rhino)(1998). Newman rounded out the decade with the album Bad Love (Dreamworks)(1999), a darkly evocative album produced by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake that featured a mixture of nakedly confessional songs with Newman's bitingly accurate caustic takes on the state of his nation and the world. In 2000, the Southern California-based South Coast Repertory produced The Education Of Randy Newman, a musical theater production loosely based on Newman's life, for which Newman wrote some songs specifically for the production.

 

            At the beginning of the new decade and new millennium, Newman went back through his back catalog of songs and decided to re-interpret some of them with just his voice and his piano. The result was the album The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 (Nonesuch)(2003), an album that received glowing critical praise and reaffirmed Newman's stature as one of America's sharpest and most talented songwriters. As almost a continuation of what was started on Bad Love, Newman again teamed up with Mitchell Froom and his longtime associate Lenny Waronker and delivered the album Harps And Angels (Nonesuch) in 2008. The album was Newman's almost patented mixture of latter day confessional love songs and observations mixed with an even sharper-edged social commentary. One of the songs off of the album, “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country”, a darkly hilarious stab at the Bush administration that compared his tenure as leader of the U.S. to other historical leaders, (Stalin, Hitler, the Roman Ceasers, to name a few), had it's lyrics reprinted in the New York Times in an op-ed piece. Currently, Newman is playing dates in support of Harps And Angels, and working on the music for an upcoming Disney movie, The Princess And The Frog.

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