Randy Newman Biography

Randall Stuart Newman, 28 November 1943, Los Angeles, California, USA. One of the great middle-American songwriters, Newman is William Faulkner, Garrison Keillor, Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell rolled into one and set to music. Newman’s songs are uncompromising and humorous but are often misconceived as being cruel and trite.

Educated at the University of California, Newman’s early compositions were recorded by other people - he was paid $50 a month as a staff songwriter for Liberty Records housed in the famous Brill Building in New York. Early hit songs included ‘Nobody Needs Your Love’ and ‘Just One Smile’ by Gene Pitney, ‘I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore’ recorded by Dusty Springfield and P.J. Proby, ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, by Judy Collins, UB40 and again by Springfield, as was the superb ‘I’ve Been Wrong Before’ which was also a hit for Cilla Black. Meanwhile, Alan Price found favour with ‘Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear’ and ‘Tickle Me’, Peggy Lee succeeded with ‘Love Story’, and Three Dog Night and Eric Burdon did well with ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’. In addition, Newman’s songs have been recorded by dozens of artists including Manfred Mann, Harpers Bizarre, Irma Thomas, Billy Fury, O’Jays, Petula Clark, Melissa Manchester, Frankie Laine, the Walker Brothers, the Nashville Teens, Lulu, Van Dyke Parks, Sheena Easton, Blood, Sweat And Tears, Jackie DeShannon, Nina Simone, H.P. Lovecraft, Liza Minnelli, Vic Dana, Rick Nelson, Iain Matthews, Fleetwoods, Bryan Hyland, Ringo Starr and Ray Charles.

Newman’s debut album came as late as 1968 and was the subject of bizarre advertising from Reprise Records. In February 1969 they announced through a hefty campaign that the record was not selling; they changed the cover and added a lyric sheet. This bold but defeatist ploy failed to increase the meagre sales. In 1970 Newman contributed the excellent ‘Gone Dead Train’ to the Performance soundtrack. The same year his work was celebrated by having Harry Nilsson record an album of his songs. During the 70s Newman released acclaimed albums such as Sail Away, Good Old Boys and Little Criminals, which gained commercial as well as critical acceptance. On these albums his introspective lyrics were never self-indulgent; Newman writes in a morose way, but it all merely reflects the human condition. Songs like ‘Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Baltimore’ have hidden warmth. ‘Rednecks’ and the surprise 1977 US hit single ‘Short People’ are genuine observations, but on these songs Newman’s humour was too subtle for the general public and he received indignant protests and threats from offended parties. 1979’s Born Again was a lesser album, but did contain the witty ‘The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band’, on which Newman castigated both Kiss and ELO. ‘I Love L.A.’, from 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, was used to promote the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984.

During the 80s, however, Newman concentrated on soundtrack work (a family tradition - his uncles Alfred, Emil and Lionel were noted Hollywood composer). One of the first examples of his soundtrack work came as early as 1971, with the movie Cold Turkey. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1982 for his score to Ragtime, and again, in 1984, for The Natural. In 1986 he wrote ‘Blue Shadows’, the theme for The Three Amigos!, which was performed in the hit movie by Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. More movie scores followed, such as Awakenings, Parenthood, Avalon, The Paper, and Maverick. A rare studio album, 1988’s semi-autobiographical Land Of Dreams, was ironically co-produced by one of the victims of his acerbic wit, ELO’s Jeff Lynne.

Newman is often self-deprecating about his work, and bemoans that he is a commercial liability. This is far from the truth, as his output of scores in the 90s and beyond demonstrates what a key figure he is to the movie industry. He scored the music for the hugely successful Walt Disney movie Toy Story in 1995, and other recent credits have included Michael, James And The Giant Peach, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Meet The Parents, Monsters, Inc., Seabiscuit, Meet The Fockers, and Cars. With numerous Oscar nominations to his credit, Newman was finally rewarded when he won the Best Original Song trophy in March 2002 for ‘If I Didn’t Have You’, which was featured in Monsters, Inc.

Away from Hollywood, Newman released Faust in 1995, an ambitious project that enlisted Elton John, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley among a gamut of west coast superstars. Four years later, in 1999, Newman released Bad Love, a ‘proper’ album of new songs. The mixture was familiar to lovers of vintage Newman; ragtime Americana music and sparse vignettes of life and love. The lyrical power of tracks such as ‘I Miss You’ and ‘Every Time It Rains’ was awesome, ranking with the best of his back catalogue. Newman’s first studio album of the new millennium, and his first for the Nonesuch label, comprised solo re-recordings of a selection of tracks from his back catalogue.

One of popular music’s great songwriters, Newman continues to brilliantly observe, infuriate and mock, with his croaky voice delivering lyrics of great passion and ironic humour.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.