Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 28 November 1943, New Orleans) Singer-songwriter, pianist, film composer with devoted cult following for his wry, ironic lyrics and deceptively gentle humour. He began with a writing contract at age 17, and arranged sessions at WB, leading to a solo contract. Alan Price had a two-sided UK hit '67 with Newman songs 'Tickle Me'/'Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear'. His songs have been covered by Ray Charles, Ringo Starr, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee ('Love Story') and Three Dog Night, whose version of 'Mama Told Me (Not To Come)' was no. 1 USA '70. His debut LP Randy Newman '68 was stylishly orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks; Twelve Songs '70 featured sideman Ry Cooder and consolidated Newman's fame as a writer. He contributed a chilling performance of 'Gone Dead Train' to soundtrack of Mick Jagger film Performance '70. Harry Nilsson paid tribute with the album Nilsson Sings Newman '70, with Newman on piano. Randy Newman Live '71 displayed him at his acerbic best in concert, accompanied only by his piano; the poignant 'I Think It's Going To Rain Today' (covered by Judy Collins), caustic 'Davy The Fat Boy', 'Old Kentucky Home'. Sail Away '72 is one of his best, with Cooder, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Wilton Felder, sax solo by Abe Most on the ironic 'Lonely At The Top'; it also included 'Simon', 'Sail Away' (beautifully orchestrated for a yearning nostalgia, eulogizing the slave trade; less intelligent listeners took it literally), also sexy, slow rock'n' roll 'You Can Leave Your Hat On', 'Political Science' (American provincialism), much else.

He played devil's advocate to some of the simpering, denim-clad bards of the era whose simplicity was not much to the point, demonstrated again with 'Dayton, Ohio - 1903' on Sail Away, and the next LP Good Old Boys '74 (with background vocals by members of the Eagles): if Newman had real sympathy for American myths or Southern rednecks, perhaps the real world is too complicated for single-issue fanatics and comfortable middle-class liberals. After a sabbatical, Little Criminals '77 again included some Eagles, 'In Germany Before The War' and the hit single 'Short People', in which those of less than average height stood for all victims of bigotry ('They don't deserve to live'). Foolish listeners of various heights fuelled a controversy which took the song to no. 2 (he allegedly had to cancel a tour because he was being picketed by midgets). Born Again '79 took on Kiss fans and other targets, had harmony vocals by Stephen Bishop; Trouble In Paradise '83 was star-studded, with Christine McVie, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger and others taking part: a duet with Paul Simon on 'The Blues' reached the Billboard chart, the album also including 'Christmas In Cape Town', 'I Love L.A.' (used in the soundtrack of Down And Out In Beverly Hills '86 and became an international hit single). Land Of Dreams '88 was his seventh chart album, co-produced by Mark Knopfler, who also played on it.

Newman was nominated for an Oscar for his Ragtime score '81, also did music for The Natural '84, Avalon '90, Awakenings '91, following his screen-composer uncles (and Cooder, another artist who deserved more than cult fame) into more film work. Meanwhile, talent like Newman's could breath life back into Broadway; his musical show Faust premièred '95 in San Diego after 15 years' work, with Don Henley as Faust, Elton John as an angel and James Taylor as God; a recording was released but a transfer to Broadway fell through. Roll With The Punches '96 was a songbook show directed by Chris Bond in London, using 30 songs and a cast of three to illustrate a minimal plot about a man and a woman in L.A.: Sheridan Morley liked it, praising the evil barman (Paul J. Medford) for his 'breathtaking, show-stopping tribute to Las Vegas', and the principals George Costigan and Belinda Lang, who proved that 'actors who can sing are so much better an idea than singers who can act'. Newman won an ASCAP award and an Oscar for Best Song in 2002 for 'If I Didn't Have You', from Monsters Inc.

He took time off from the film work to release Harps and Angels 2008 on Nonesuch, his first album of new material in a decade. The title track is about getting a dressing-down from God at the pearly gates: 'You ain't been a bad man, but you've been pretty bad.' 'A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country' is a series of back-handed compliments. The political incorrectness is in full flow, according to Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune: 'When Newman looks at a social issue, he rarely takes the holier-than-thou approach...The most egregious example on the new album is 'Korean parents', in which the narrator advocates an outrageous cure' for the shortcomings of American schoolchildren. 

Three Newman uncles were Hollywood composers, scoring around 250 films. Emil Newman (d 30 August 1984) conducted an orchestra on tour and on some of Randy's album tracks. Lionel (b 4 January 1916; d 3 February 1989, L.A.) was nominated for five Oscars and won for best musical adaptation (Hello, Dolly! '69). Alfred Newman (b 17 March 1901, New Haven CT; d 17 February 1970, L.A.) was the most prolific, winning nine Oscars for Mother Wore Tights '47, work on Call Me Madam '53, The King And I '56, Camelot '67 etc.

One of Alfred's compositions became one of the most familiar pieces of film music of the century: he wrote the score for the 1931 King Vidor film based on the Elmer Rice play Street Scene (Kurt Weill later wrote an opera on the same subject), and it became one of the first film scores published as a Tin Pan Alley concert-style work, both as a piano solo and as an orchestral arrangement, arranged by the series editor Domenico Savino in the Robbins Modern American Music score series. While Alfred wrote similar scores (e.g. Dead End '37), 20th-Century Fox recycled the Street Scene theme as the opening title music for several movies from the mid-1940s through the early '50s, such as The Dark Corner '46 and How to Marry a Millionaire '53, and other mostly noir-type films. It became a pop song, 'Sentimental Rhapsody', when Harold Adamson put words to it in 1942.

Randy Newman's cousins, Lionel's grandson Joey and Alfred's children David, Thomas and Maria, are all film composers. Thomas's score for Road To Perdition (2002) was nominated for an Oscar.