Randy Newman

From Academic Kids

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Randy Newman (born November 28, 1943, in Los Angeles, California) is an American songwriter, arranger, singer and pianist who is notable for his mordant, immaculately written pop songs and for his many film scores. His uncles Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman were noted Hollywood film-score writers, as are his cousins Thomas and David. At the same time, Newman's drawl is reminiscent of that of blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and of New Orleans rock-and-roll singers like Chris Kenner (he lived in New Orleans as a child and spent summers there until he was eleven years old).

His film scores include Ragtime and The Natural, and he scored the first four Disney-Pixar films, including Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc.


Newman is noted as a lyricist of considerable sophistication. He often writes songs from unusual perspectives: "Sail Away" is a slave trader's come-on, "Birmingham" is written from the perspective of a man--"a roller in a steel mill"-- who loves his ordinary life in Birmingham, Alabama, while "Political Science (http://laeren.zoggins.net/music/mpthree/RandyNewman-PoliticalScience.mp3)" complains of worldwide hate of America and proposes a final solution. His many place-name songs, many of which are archetypal examples of ambivalent Americana, include "I Love L.A.," "Baltimore," "Louisiana 1927," and "Dayton, Ohio - 1903." Newman is also a consummate musician whose deceptively simple songs mask an unparalleled craftsmanship, and he is a highly skilled arranger.

Newman had become a professional songwriter by the time he was seventeen, and landed a contract as a singer with Reprise Records. His 1968 debut album, Randy Newman, never dented the Billboard Top 200. However, many artists, including Alan Price, Judy Collins, the Everly Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Pat Boone and Peggy Lee, covered his songs. In 1970, Harry Nilsson recorded an album of Newman compositions called Nilsson Sings Newman. That album was a success, and it paved the way for Newman's 1970 release, 12 Songs, which abandoned the elaborate arrangements of his first album for a more stripped-down sound that showcased Newman's piano. 12 Songs was critically acclaimed, but Newman's take on racism, sexism, violence and other human follies was not commercially successful in the era of James Taylor and Three Dog Night (who made a huge hit of his "Mama Told Me Not to Come"). The following year, Randy Newman Live cemented his cult following and became his first appearance in the Billboard charts at #191. However, probably because it features no unique songs of note, it has never received the critical acclaim of his studio albums.

1972's Sail Away reached #163 on Billboard, with the title track making its way into the repertoire of Ray Charles. "Burn On" concerned itself with the pollution of Ohio's Cuyahoga River, while "You Can Leave Your Hat On" was covered by Joe Cocker and later, by Keb Mo. Good Old Boys was a set of songs about the American South; "Rednecks" pitted Lester Maddox against a "smart-ass New York Jew," and as usual it was somewhat difficult to tell with whom Newman's sympathies ultimately lay. Good Old Boys is, along with 12 Songs, some of his most accomplished work, and Newman's following had grown so consistently through touring that Good Old Boys became a commercial breakthrough, peaking at #36 on Billboard and spending 21 weeks in the Top 200. Little Criminals was a lesser effort, but "Short People" became a surprise hit: but for Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life", it would have gone all the way to the number 1 position. Nina Simone did a version of "Baltimore" on her 1978 album of that name. At the end of the 1970s, Born Again was a prescient commentary on the money-worship of the era of Reaganomics, and featured a witty song about the Electric Light Orchestra entitled "The Story of a Rock and Roll Band."

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Newman's work as a film composer began in 1971, with his work on the Norman Lear satire Cold Turkey. He returned to film work with 1981's Ragtime, for which he was nominated for two Academy Awards. His 1983 album Trouble in Paradise received greater critical acclaim than some of his previous work, and included the hit single "I Love L.A." This song is a good example of Newman's ambivalence toward what might be termed the American Dream, and demonstrates why those who dub him an ironist often miss the genuine affection Newman seems to have for his subjects. As he explained in a 2001 interview, "There's some kind of ignorance L.A. has that I'm proud of. The open car and the redhead, the Beach Boys....that sounds really good to me."

In the 1990s, Newman adapted Goethe's Faust into a concept album and musical, Randy Newman's Faust. The original 1995 stage version at La Jolla Playhouse was unsuccessful so he retained David Mamet to help rework the book before its relaunch on the Chicago Goodman Theatre mainstage in 1996. He was again nominated for an Academy Award for his work on "You've Got a Friend In Me" for Toy Story (1995). Also, his 1972 tune proposing nuclear war to eliminate anti-American sentiment abroad, "Political Science", became part of the soundtrack of the 1999 romantic comedy Blast from the Past, starring Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken, and Sissy Spacek.

Newman has the dubious distinction of receiving the most Oscar nominations without a single win (15). His streak was broken when he received the Best Song Oscar for the 2002 Monsters Inc. song "If I Didn't Have You."

Selected Discography

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