At first glance, Randy Newman would not seem a likely candidate for a mass consumption. As a composer, his work is saturated with dark humor and irony—the lyrics often portray bigoted rednecks, perverts, and other assorted losers—backed by chromatic flourishes more typical of George Gershwin than Top Forty songs. He sings with a lazy drawl accompanied by simple piano chords and subtle, impressionistic orchestra arrangements. Nevertheless, his material is widely covered by other artists and his own recordings generally sell well.
Born in New Orleans, he grew up in a musical family; his uncles, Alfred and Lionel, scored many post-World War II films. He became a staff writer for a California-based publishing company as a seventeen-year-old, dropping out of UCLA one semester short of earning a B.A. in music. A friend and staff producer at Warner Bros., Lenny Waronker, helped him secure a recording contract with the label.
Newman first gained fame as a songwriter; his songs were recorded by Judy Collins, Peggy Lee, and Three Dog Night, whose rendition of "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" (Dunhill 4239; 1970) reached number one on the pop charts. Harry Nilsson would record an entire LP with Newman at the piano, Nilsson Sings Newman (RCA; 1970). Touring with Nilsson helped him develop a cult following on college campuses.
His early albums—including Randy Newman (Reprise 6286; 1968), 12 Songs (Reprise 6373; 1970), Randy Newman/Live (Reprise 6459; 1971), Sail Away (Reprise 2064; 1972), Good Old Boys (Reprise 2193; 1974), and Little Criminals (Warner Bros. 3079; 1977)—were all critical successes; as a result, each release sold a bit better than its predecessor. The furor created by his first hit single, "Short People" (Warner Bros. 8492; 1977; #2)—which attacked bigotry, but was taken literally by an offended minority—made him a popular culture phenomenon. While his albums continued to sell well, he began receiving offers to compose movie soundtracks, most notably Ragtime (Elektra; 1979)—nominated for two Oscars (Best Song, Best Score), Trouble in Paradise (Warner Bros.; 1983), The Natural (Warner Bros.; 1984), Three Amigos ((Warner Bros.; 1987), Parenthood (Reprise; 1990), Avalon (Reprise; 1990), Awakenings (Reprise; 1991), and The Paper (Reprise; 1994). Although much of his time was now taken by film projects, he returned to the singles charts with "I Love L.A." (Warner Bros. 29687; 1983)—which achieved anthem status largely due to an iconic video clip directed by his cousin, Tim Newman—and "It’s Money That Matters" (Reprise 7-27709; 1988).
|Back to Singer/Songwriter Tradition||Back to Table of Contents|