Randy Newman

The BluesTrouble In Paradise
Dixie FlyerLand Of Dreams
Harps And AngelsHarps And Angels
I Love L.A.Trouble In Paradise
It's Money That MattersLand Of Dreams
Louisiana 1927Good Old Boys
My CountryBad Love
RednecksGood Old Boys
Sail AwaySail Away
Short PeopleLittle Criminals


Randy Newman playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

Randy Newman has multiple careers. There’s the singer-songwriter and the successful composer of Academy Award winning film soundtracks, following his three film soundtrack composer uncles. He started as a songwriter in 1962, with Someone’s Waiting, which was the B-side of Gene McDaniels’ Spanish Lace 45. An incomplete selection of his early compositions fills two 26-track Ace CDs in their Songwriter series: On Vine Street: The Early Songs of Randy Newman (2008) and Bless You California: More Early Songs of Randy Newman (2010). Harpers Bizarre took a particular liking to his work, recording The Biggest Night Of Her Life, Happyland, The Debutante’s Ball> (No one gets stoned. It’s all chaperoned) and Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear, a UK hit for Alan Price. He contributed Gone Dead Train to the Performance OST in 1970.

Then there was Mama Told Me Not to Come (Three Dog Night, Eric Burdon), Old Kentucky Home (Beau Brummels), I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (Judy Collins, Dusty Springfield). Other Newman versions were by Liza Minnelli, Jackie DeShannon, Irma Thomas, Ella Fitzgerald, The Box Tops, Gene Pitney, Scott Walker, The Everly Brothers, Cilla Black, Rick Nelson, Bobby Darin. I keep finding more Randy Newman B-sides on 60s singles.

Nilsson did an entire album, Nilsson Sings Newman, in 1969. It’s clear that Randy Newman was making a reasonable living from writing alone.

His first singing/playing album, Randy Newman, aka Randy Newman (creates something new under the sun) came in 1968, and personnel involved more than seventy musicians, with LA’s top session guys among them: Larry Knechtel, Carole Kaye, Jim Gordon, Nick DeCaro, James Burton, Jim Horn. I Think It’s Going To Rain Today is the standout, his most covered song and one on all his live albums and videos. The album must have lost a load of money, selling only 5000 copies initially.

12 Songs has several that others covered successfully too: Mama Told Me Not To Come, Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield, Old Kentucky Home. Ry Cooder and Clarence White were on guitars. The short Randy Newman Live album rounds up early songs, and Randy Newman is such a brilliant arranger and orchestrator, that I don’t really like just him and piano, as here.

The next three albums are my favourites. Sail Away has Simon Smith, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Lonely At The Top, Political Science (aka Let’s Drop The Big One Now) and the sublime title track, Sail Away. Snotty Brits who complain about lack of irony in America have never listened to Randy Newman. The cooing tones of the Sail Away slavemaster recruiting Africans:

In America, you get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet
You just sing about Jesus, drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American …

Political Science adopts a right wing persona wanting to bomb the world. There’s the sentimental decision to wipe out every country except Australia (don’t want to hurt no kangaroo … they got surfing too!)

By Good Old Boys (1974) Randy Newman was already running into some listeners’ annoying tendency to take his lyrics at face-value with people taking umbrage at the N-word in Rednecks. It was to continue with the next album with Short People being banned, then I Love L.A. was taken to promote Los Angeles tourism and is played before Lakers games. If I could only have one album, Good Old Boys is it with Louisiana 1927, Kingfish, Birmingham, Marie and Rednecks. The piano on Birmingham deserves a place on its own. Throughout Randy Newman’s work we have the contrast between L.A. (place of birth) and New Orleans (where he grew up). Rednecks has it all. Three of The Eagles backed Randy on vocals (Henley, Frey, Leadon). Are you laughing at the redneck protagonist who doesn’t ‘know his ass from a hole in the ground’? Or are you laughing with the protagonist at the Jewish liberal on the TV chat show? (Newman is of Jewish descent), or is he turning it all on its head and pointing out that the north is no different?

Down here, we’re too ig’rant to realize
the North has set the nigger free!
He’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem, New York City …

Little Criminals (1977) gives Short People, Baltimore and In Germany Before The War. Short People has Glenn Frey and Tim Schmit of The Eagles singing backing with J.D. Souther. Lenny Waronker, his producer all the way through, says they agonized trying not to open the album with Short People but bowed to the inevitable.

Born Again (1979) is the one all the critics hated at the time, perhaps because he was more interested in pastiching other styles. The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band is the best ELO song that ELO didn’t write, while It’s Money That I Want reflects on KISS and their ilk.

Trouble In Paradise (1983) is all about Los Angeles, and leads off with I Love L.A., and has a duet with Paul Simon on The Blues. My Life Is Good is the song of the aggressive L.A. go-getter.

Land Of Dreams comes in 1988. Dixie Flyer is his autobiographical account of moving from L.A. to New Orleans. New Orleans Wins The War is the other standout, with the full New Orleans sound too. It’s Money That Matters uses a cod-Dire Straits style to picture another US generation:

Of all of the people that I used to know
Most never adjusted to the great big world
I see them lurking in book stores
Working for the Public Radio
Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back
Moving careful and slow

By this point, the film composing career is taking over and Newman has received twenty Oscar nominations. The soundtracks are for major films, seven for Pixar alone: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Cars, Toy Story 3, Monsters University. Then Disney’s The Princess And The Frog was a perfect match, bringing New Orleans back in. Add Three Amigos, Ragtime, Pleasantville, Maverick, Parenthood, James And The Giant Peach, Seabiscuit, Meet The Parents, Meet The Fockers, The Natural. A decision had to be made to exclude Randy Newman film scores from the Topprmost list. It deserves to be a different one.

The singer/songwriter career was taking second place, and Randy Newman’s Faust (1995) was a stage musical. The album features Don Henley, Elton John, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt. Randy himself plays The Devil. It’s rather like Paul Simon’s Capeman to me. It sounds stretched to fit lyrics which have to convey narrative as musicals so often are, except for a couple of standout songs.

Bad Love in 1999 was more than a decade after Land Of Dreams. It’s a strong album, and My Country sounds as if follows right on from that last full studio album. I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It) sits on an early Kinks-like riff and takes the piss thoroughly out of ageing but still touring rock stars. Big Hat, No Cattle allows a bash at a C&W send up.

Harps And Angels appeared in 2008. The title track Harps And Angels has a narrator having a heart attack in a street and going up to the pearly gates, but being allowed back after a series of instructions about how to live a better life. All with heavenly choir, piano, Hammond, and a bluesy verse, because if he doesn’t follow the advice:

There won’t be no harps and angels comin’ for ya
There’ll be trombones, fiddles, drums, pitchforks and tambourines.

Feels Like Home had appeared on Faust, done by Bonnie Raitt, but he takes his song back to finish Harps And Angels. A contender.

The Randy Newman Songbook featured stripped down solo versions of his songs, with Volume 1 in 2003, and Volume 2 in 2011. I bought them, but I always prefer the full-backing versions.

The box set Guilty: 30 Years is the compilation to have. CD3 is ‘odds and ends’ like Gone Dead Train. CD4 is devoted to the film music skipped here.

In spite of refusing all that excellent soundtrack stuff, I think a songwriter of Randy Newman’s stature deserves a cover version Toppermost Ten too. Note that from about the Sail Away album, covers dry up, as the original versions are so fixed in the mind as unbeatable, though Bobby Darin did a contemporary cover of Sail Away.

Down In New Orleans – Dr John & The Dirty Dozen Brass Band (The Princess And The Frog) I’ve cheated in an OST song because Randy Newman isn’t on it.

Happy New Year – Beverley (Deram single). This was the first Deram single of all. Beverley became Beverley Martyn.

I Think it’s Going To Rain Today – Dusty Springfield (Definitely Dusty 1968)

Kingfish – Levon Helm (Electric Dirt)

Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield – Etta James (Come A Little Closer). Lou Rawls does a good one too.

Louisiana 1927 – Aaron Neville (Warm Your Heart, 1991). The Band did this, and Kingfish, on a bootleg from a New Orleans show. But Aaron Neville’s a local. He changes ‘poor cracker’s land’ to ‘poor farmer’s land’.

Mama Told Me Not To Come – Eric Burdon & The Animals (Eric Is Here, 1967) The party is so ridiculously wild here that it even beats Three Dog Night’s huge hit cover in 1970.

Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear – Alan Price Set (single)

The Biggest Night Of Her Life – Harpers Bizarre (Feelin’ Groovy: Best of). They commissioned Randy Newman songs.

You Can Leave Your Hat On – Etta James (Chess single, 1974). She just eases out other incredible versions by Joe Cocker, and the most famous one, Tom Jones from the The Full Monty OST.


Randy Newman official site

Randy Newman biography (Apple Music)

Peter Viney has been an educational author and video scriptwriter since 1980. He has written articles on The Band, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. He also writes novels under the name Dart Travis and writes on popular music, theatre and film at his website.

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