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The music of Randy Newman has always had a special significance in my life. Having grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, I always regarded "Burn On," his song about the flammable state of the Cuyahoga River, as something of an alternate anthem for a city that calls itself the Best Location in the Nation but is more widely known as the Mistake on the Lake. And then there was "Mama Told Me Not to Come." In the summer of 1971, as Three Dog Night's hit version received continuous air-play, I would absentmindedly sing along with the chorus when it played on the radio. This habit would lead to one of my most embarrassing moments when a friend informed me that the words were "That ain't the way to have fun," and not "That ain't the way to make fudge" as I thoughtlessly sang. But Randy Newman's songs are so unique that even when you hear the lyrics correctly, you still laugh or scratch your head in disbelief. Newman is a satirist at heart, whose songs are like mini-novels populated by eccentric and often detestable characters. Like many another satirist, his work is often misunderstood by listeners who are convinced that his song's often misanthropic attitudes are an expression of his own beliefs. It's little wonder that upon being inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Newman thanked Eminem, the controversial rap artist whom he called "a kindred spirit."

Born in Los Angeles, California on November 28, 1943, Newman came from a family with a rich musical history. Three of his uncles were composers, including those named Lionel and Alfred. It was Alfred Newman who composed the quasi-military theme heard behind the logo of 20th Century Fox, scored such classics as All About Eve, The Robe, and How the West Was Won, and won nine Oscars. In his youth, Randy observed his uncle at work:

"My uncle Al did 300 movies. He was the greatest there ever was, in my opinion. But basically he'd work till five every afternoon, then start drinking . . . And then he'd go to bed, get up, and do it all again."

He later concluded that his uncle was unhappy. "I have the same problem, you know, that my uncle Alfred had."

The unhappiness started early when Newman's poor vision made him squint, a habit that did not escape the notice of bullies. An operation meant to correct his vision during his teenage years was a failure and his father once suggested that Randy's "problems with his eyesight influenced his thinking a lot; influenced his sadness."

He began composing while still in his teens, and formally studied music at UCLA. At 19, he embarked on a professional career by signing with Metric Music where he cranked out songs, if not hits, for the likes of the O' Jays and Pat Boone.

If not for the example of Bob Dylan who proved that a songwriter need not possess a mellifluous voice to perform his own songs, Newman might have remained a songwriter behind the scenes, his success dependent on the appeal his compositions had for other artists. Considering that Newman's songs are far from typical top 40 fare, it's somewhat surprising that, like Dylan, his songs first came to the attention of listeners through cover versions by popular artists. Judy Collins helped turn "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" into an instant standard, and Harry Nilsson recorded an entire album titled Nilsson Sings Newman.

Newman's fans comprise a comparatively small cult, but they are rabidly passionate and include his fellow songwriters.

"I was very impressed with Randy Newman," Elvis Costello told Rolling Stone in 1982. "I was very impressed with those funny chord changes that he used to play and I was emulating them on guitar."

Bob Dylan is another admirer. "To me, someone who writes really good songs is Randy Newman," Dylan said in 1991, adding that Newman is "gonna write a better song than most people who can do it . . . it doesn't get any better than 'Louisiana' or 'Cross Charleston Bay (Sail Away).' It doesn't get any better than that."

As for the critics, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll spoke for many when describing his songs as containing "chromatic twists worthy of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill."

In 1968, Newman released his first album, the self-titled Randy Newman, on the Reprise label. The liner notes proclaimed that "Randy's songs do for pop music what Lenny Bruce did for humor: take a couple of ribs-showing, nervous characters, open their hearts, and let The Real pour out."

In addition to his own version of "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," the song that may have given the strongest clue to the composer's psyche was "Davy the Fat Boy," about a man who agrees to care for the title character after his parents die, then puts him to work in the circus:

"What do he weigh, folks?

Can you guess what he weigh?"

The heavily orchestrated album was hardly a hit, but it earned lavish critical praise. It was followed two years later by the stripped down 12 Songs which introduced "Mama Told Me Not to Come." One of Newman's rockingest numbers, the song detailing a night of woeful drinking and drugging would become a number one hit the next year for Three Dog Night.

Sail Away, released in May 1972, is widely considered Newman's finest work, a biting, frequently savage collection of songs whose title track is written from the perspective of a slave trader:

"In America you'll get food to eat

Won't have to run through the jungle

And scuff up your feet

You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day

It's great to be an American"

It's a testament to Newman's incomparable skill that a song with such a contemptible narrator could find its way into the repertoires of both Ray Charles and Linda Ronstadt. The funky "You Can Leave Your Hat On" became a ribald classic when covered by the likes of Joe Cocker and Tom Jones, but, not surprisingly, those artists may have misread Newman's intent. "I never thought anyone could take the guy in the song seriously. To me, he wasn't a sexual predator. He was a wimp. I never anticipated that strippers would use that music. I lack the instinct for hits."

"Political Science," in which the narrator complains of the world's ingratitude towards America and suggests a solution - "Let's drop the big one now" - exemplifies one of Newman's strengths as a composer. Whereas satire sometimes loses its sting with the passage of time, the song remains as topical as ever, and, as Newman observed, was quoted almost word for word by former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a recent box set of his work, Newman describes the song as "never out of date, unfortunately."

Sail On also featured "Burn On," Newman's paean to the flammable qualities of Ohio's Cuyahoga River.  

These songs are tame and inoffensive compared to the closer, "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" in which the Lord mocks the human race:

"I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee

From the foulness and the filth and the misery

How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me"

Of Sail Away, critic Robert Christgau said, "never before has Newman managed to yoke his orchestral command to his piano, and I hope the leap in listenability will attract new admirers." The title song, he wrote, was "a masterpiece even stranger and more masterful than Newman's other masterpieces." When compiling its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone placed Sail Away in position 321.

In light of the dark ambience of much of Sail Away, it's surprising that it took his next album, 1974's Good Old Boys, for Rolling Stone's Stephen Davis to conclude that "Newman is a troubled man." He also suggested that the songs, containing lampoons of political figures, as well as drunkenness and depression, "can leave the listener confused as to whether Newman means what he sings or not." That probably pleased the composer who said, "I love not being able to trust necessarily what the person's telling you. You have to figure out by its diction or something what the truth is. And since I'm not Faulkner, it's a little more basic and simple."

The album's songs all pertained to the American South, an area Newman knew first hand since his mother was born in New Orleans and the two would spend several years there while his father served in World War II.

In explaining how he came to write "Rednecks," Newman said, "I saw Lester Maddox on The Dick Cavett Show. The audience was rude to him before he said anything. I felt that they should have let him say something idiotic before they treated him like an idiot."

Among the album's standout and timeless songs was "Louisiana 1927" about a flood that nearly wiped the city off the map. Three decades later, Newman would perform the song when opening Shelter from the Storm, a telethon to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Reaching number 36 on the Billboard album chart, Good Old Boys would give Newman his biggest sales yet, but they would pale beside the success of 1977's Little Criminals. Composer James Newton Howard once suggested that the way for Newman to sell records was "to do an album of piano instrumentals with orchestra. Put a handsome guy on the cover, give him a name like Brian Hamilton, call it Starstreams and put it out without my name on it." Apparently, Howard did not suggest Newman write a song about short people. Little Criminals remains the best selling album of Newman's career thanks to the surprise hit single, "Short People" which rose to number two on Billboard'sHot 100 list.

In the liner notes for The Best of Randy Newman, the composer perversely ignored the controversy the song stirred up, saying only that "I needed an up tune for Little Criminals. This is what came out. I never expected anything from it."  By then, Newman was probably fed up with having to defend himself for having written the song. "Short People" stirred up plenty of ill feelings among those who failed to see that Newman was commenting on the absurdity of prejudice.

"There were people who were generally angry and still are," he remembered thirty years later. "I got death threats. My shows were picketed by midgets." He later admitted that "I underestimated people's sensitivity to it. It's so clear to me the guy is nuts that I just didn't think anyone would take it seriously." The song would appear to be something of an albatross for its creator who once observed that "If I were to die tomorrow, I think they'd say 'Newman, composer of the hit song, 'Short People.' Jumped off a mountain today.'"

1979's Born Again did not maintain the commercial momentum. For once, a Newman album also failed to earn the critical respect his work typically attracted. Clearly unbowed by the criticism of "Short People," Newman penned some of his nastiest lyrics yet. Though one of his weaker efforts overall, it included some superb songs, including "They Just Got Married," a cynical view of matrimony, the popular "It's Money That I Love," and "Ghosts," written through the eyes of an old man. There was also "The Story of a Rock and Roll Band," a sendup of the Electric Light Orchestra whose chief creative force, Jeff Lynne, would produce several tracks on Newman's Land of Dreams album.

Trouble in Paradise from 1983 would include "I Love L.A.," a song whose popularity would rival, and arguably surpass, that of "Short People." The song was adopted by many in the City of Angels as a love letter, but a close listen to the lyrics suggests it is as mocking of the city as the earlier "Burn On" was of Cleveland, Ohio. Nonetheless, "I Love L.A." was heavily featured at the 1984 Olympics, and, with revised lyrics, would become the theme of a promotional campaign for the ABC television network.

By the time "I Love L.A." hit the radio, Newman was concentrating more on composing for film. It is generally believed that Newman made his debut as a film composer with his score for Milos Forman's 1981 film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, but the film actually represented Newman's return to soundtrack work. Newman's earliest film credit was as the lyricist for the song, "Look at Me," from the soundtrack of the 1964 James Darren-Pamela Tiffin epic The Lively Set. In 1971, he composed the score for the Norman Lear directed comedy Cold Turkey. Neither of those credits attracted quite the acclaim of his score for the film in which screen legend James Cagney returned to acting after a 20 year absence. Newman's lilting, melancholic theme song, "One More Hour" won him a BAFTA for best original song, while also earning him Oscar nominations for original score and song.

"When I reach the public," he says of his popular film scores, "it's as the servant of someone else."

In the next two decades and continuing to the present day, Newman would establish himself as one of Hollywood's most prolific film composers with credits that include The Natural, Avalon, Parenthood, Awakenings, James and the Giant Peach, Maverick, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, Meet the Parents, and the Disney/Pixar productions, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., and Cars. Along the way, he would have the distinction of being the most Oscar nominated person never to have won the prize. After 15 nominations, however, Newman finally won an Oscar for "If I Didn't Have You" from the 2001 film Monsters Inc.

"I don't want your pity," he said as the audience gave him a standing ovation. "I want to thank first of all the music branch for giving me so many chances to be humiliated over the years." 

Writing music for films, he has said, "allows me to sort of drift into the mainstream a bit. My own aesthetic I guess over the years has seemed to have developed and it's not within any sort of mainstream - in any American river. I mean, the public has rendered its verdict: my thoughts are sort of odd."

Newman wasn't entirely done with making his own albums, though. 1988's Land of Dreamswas unusual in that it included several songs that were autobiographical, such as "Four Eyes," about a boy bullied because he wears glasses. In 1999, he released Bad Love which featured "I Miss You," a song he once introduced from the stage with the confession that it was "A song I wrote for my first wife, after I married my second. I ran out on my first wife and our children." In 1995, he recorded a musical adaptation of Faust that featured James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt, and, in 1998, his songs received the boxed set treatment in the form of Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman, on the Rhino label. In 2003, one year after he was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Newman recorded stunning new versions of some of his best work in The Randy Newman Songbook Volume I.

Despite his preoccupation with film scoring, Newman occasionally pulls another song out of the hat that bears his characteristic stamp. In 2007, he released "A Few Words in Defense of My Country" as an mp3 single. The lyrics, an abridged version of which constituted an Op-Ed piece in the January 24, 2007 edition of The New York Times, suggest our present leaders are "the worst that we've had" but are "hardly the worst this poor world has seen," they do not obscure Newman's pessimistic view of America's future.

"The end of an empire is messy at best

and this empire is ending like all the rest

Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea

We're adrift in the land of the brave

and the home of the free."

Like Leonard Cohen, another singer-songwriter with a devoted but small cult of devotees, Newman has never been prolific. He admits to having to force himself to sit down and compose. "I spent more time than anyone I know doing nothing," he said. "To get into the studio, I'd have to be running out of money, or they'd have to force me." Looking back, he says "I would have liked to produce more albums. I've made 11 or 12 records in 30 years. It's just not enough."

Those of us who cherish the work he has produced believe those 11 or 12 albums (the count comes to 9 when live albums, compilations, and soundtracks are subtracted) are more than sufficient. Like Cohen, or, for that matter, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who only made 13 films in five decades, Newman's output may be dwarfed by others in terms of quantity, but few are able to match its quality.


--by
Brian W. Fairbanks

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