Cynical romantic, subversive political satirist, social commentator, champion of the underdog – and brilliant one-man medicine show in the bargain – Randy Newman has been one of pop music’s secret hidden weapons for more than four decades.
Randy Newman was born on November 28, 1944, in New Orleans. His mother, Adele, was a secretary, and his father, Irving George, was an internist, but his family had strong musical connections. Two of his uncles, Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman, both scored numerous films. The time he spent in New Orleans as a youngster had a profound influence on both his piano style and his songwriting, which in later years skewered Southern stereotypes in an ironic fashion that only an insider could get away with.
Newman’s family eventually settled in Los Angeles, and by the time he was 17, Newman was working as a songwriter for a California publishing company. In 1962, when he was 18, he released his first single, “Golden Gridiron Boy.” The record was not a success, and Newman chose to focus on songwriting and arranging. Then the Fleetwoods recorded his song “They Tell Me It’s Summer” and released it as the B-side to their hit single “Lovers by Night, Strangers by Day.” That success gave Newman great exposure, and several other artists – including Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, Jackie DeShannon, the O’Jays and Irma Thomas – began recording his songs.
Newman attended UCLA, where he studied music, but he dropped out one semester short of graduation. He was also briefly a member of the band the Tikis, who went on to become Harper’s Bizarre. Meanwhile, in the mid-Sixties, Newman began a close working relationship with Lenny Waronker, who was a childhood friend of Newman’s and who was also the son of Liberty Records’ president. Waronker was hired to produce albums by the Tikis, the Beau Brummels and the Mojo Men, and he brought in Newman to play on the sessions. In 1966, Waronker was hired as an A&R manager for Warner Bros. Records, and Newman would later sign with the label.
Newman released his first album, Randy Newman, in 1968. Though it was a critical success, it did not make the charts. Even so, numerous artists, including Alan Price, Van Dyke Parks, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, the Everly Brothers, Claudine Longet, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Lynn Anderson, Wilson Pickett, Pat Boone and Peggy Lee, covered his songs, and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" became an early standard.
In 1970, Harry Nilsson did an entire album of Newman’s songs called Nilsson Sings Newman. The album was a success, and Newman went on the road, opening for Nilsson. His next album, 1970’s 12 Songs, received great reviews but sold poorly. It featured such musicians as Ry Cooder, Clarence White and Gene Parsons, but the focus was on Newman’s piano playing. At the end of the Seventies, critic Robert Christgau ranked the album number six on his list of the best albums of the decade. And Three Dog Night had a huge hit with their cover of one of the album’s songs, “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”
Newman followed 12 Songs with Randy Newman Live. It was his first album to make the charts, hitting Number 191 on the Billboard album chart. Newman also began moving into film music, writing the song “He Gives Us All His Love” for Norman Lear’s 1971 film Cold Turkey.
In 1972, Newman released Sail Away. It was his first commercial success, hitting Number 163 on the Billboard chart. Linda Ronstadt and Ray Charles both covered the title track, and Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Keb Mo and Tom Jones have all recorded another track from the album: “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” The album also included “Burn On,” a song about Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire.
From that point, Newman’s popularity began to grow. His 1974 album, Good Old Boys, was a concept album about the South. It reached Number 36 and spent 21 weeks on the charts. And 1977’s Little Criminals contained the hit “Short People” and made its way into the Top 10. His 1979 album, Born Again, featured guest vocals by members of the Eagles, and 1983’s Trouble in Paradise included the hit “I Love L.A.” That song is still played at home games by the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings.
By this time, however, Newman was focusing more of his attention on writing music for films. His soundtrack for the movie Ragtime was nominated for two Oscars: Best Song and Best Score. He also recorded the soundtrack to the 1984 film The Natural. Two years later, in 1986, Newman co-wrote the film ¡Three Amigos! with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels. He also wrote three songs for the film, and he provided the voice for the movie's famous singing bush.
Newman has also worked on a number of Disney/Pixar films. He has scored six of the studio's films, including Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, and A Bug's Life,Monsters, Inc., and Cars. He has won Academy Awards for Best Original Song for two of those films, Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3. Newman has also written scores for Avalon, Parenthood, James and the Giant Peach, Seabiscuit, Awakenings, The Paper, Meet the Parents and its sequel, Meet the Fockers. Overall, Newman has received 20 Oscar nominations.
In addition to film scores, Newman continued his recording career, releasing the albums Land of Dreams (1988), Bad Love (1999), and Harps and Angels (2008). 2011’s The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2, featured re-recordings of some of his earlier songs.
In addition to his Oscar Awards, Newman has won five Grammy Awards and was the recipient, in 2002, of the Recording Academy’s Governors’ Award. He has also received three Emmys: in 2004 for the title theme to Monk, in 1991 for songs composed for the series Cop Rock and again for Monk in 2010 for Best Original Lyrics and Music for the song “When I’m Gone” which appeared in the series finale. In 2010, Newman received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Randy Newman (piano, vocals; born November 28, 1944)