Randy Newman: My Life In 15 Songs

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Here’s how a comic genius built one of American music’s greatest catalogs

“It’s almost always something I play on the piano,” singer-songwriter Randy Newman tells Rolling Stone of the genesis moment in his craft, the first step he takes into a new tune and story. “It inspires a code of some kind – maybe dummy lyrics, something I can get rid of. But after a couple of lines, it will become what it’s going to become.

“It’s always been a job,” says Newman, 73, one of American pop’s greatest and most acclaimed songwriters for more than a half-century and an Academy Award-winning composer for animated films. “I go to the piano, and I’m supposed to think of something. It’s always been that way – maybe because of the way I grew up.”

Born in Los Angeles and raised for a time in New Orleans, Newman – who has just released Dark Matter, his first studio album in nine years – was fated to go into his family’s business. His uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman were famous Hollywood composers with ten Oscars and more than 50 nominations between them. Randy’s father was a doctor. But “as a kid, studying music,” Newman says, “that’s where I hoped I was headed.”

He took the long road, starting in the early Sixties as a songwriter for other singers. Many of his early, classic songs were first recorded by or successes for artists such as Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield and Three Dog Night. Newman’s only major hit under his own name was the jaunty 1977 satire “Short People.” But his six Grammys and 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reflect the greater, enduring impact of Newman’s slippery storytelling, pointed, social observation and rapturous melodies, delivered in a singular, deadpan-Everyman voice.

Newman’s only problem as he looked back through this list: He couldn’t always remember when he wrote what, if it was “1967 rather than ’65 or ’66. Lenny [Waronker, Newman’s longtime producer] would know. I should have asked him before I did this.”

“I Love L.A.”

Trouble in Paradise, 1983

I wrote “I Love L.A.” because Don Henley said to me, “Everybody’s writing L.A. songs, people not from here. You’re from here. Why don’t you write one?” There is an aggressive ignorance to the song – ignorant and proud of it. There’s nothing wrong with the Beach Boys and open-top cars. But the guy talks about the bum [“Look at that bum over there, man/He’s down on his knees”] and is still shouting “We love it”. My cousin, Tim Newman, did the video [a tour of L.A. beaches and hot spots with Newman driving a Buick convertible]. He did the ones for … what the hell’s the name of those blues guys with the long beards? [Long pause] ZZ Top! This was a cheerful shoot. Those people [singing the chorus] are pretty happy.

“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”

Randy Newman, 1968

This might have been 1964 or ’63. I may have had the first two chords of the tune, where the voice starts. I have always loved those vanilla-kind of chords, straight-ahead Stephen Foster. And once I had a style, I crystallized it: The music is emotional – even beautiful – and the lyrics are not. The honest truth is the song bothered me because of the darkness – it felt sophomoric, too maudlin. But Judy Collins did a great version [in 1966]. UB40’s [1980 cover] was interesting. And I played piano for Barbara Streisand when she recorded it [in 1970]. Boy, it’s real good. She has a hell of a voice.

It’s sung by a con man who is telling these parents that he is going to take care of their son, who is a freak – in the carnival sense of the word. There might be something to do with my own self worth, but I didn’t think there was when I wrote it. The narrator – it’s hard to have any sympathy for him. Most of my narrators have more to like about ’em. But not this one – he is not a good guy. I made mistakes with the orchestra, arranging it too slow. Then I had to record the vocals, and it was like building a mountain you can’t climb. It was brutal.

“Have You Seen My Baby”

12 Songs, 1970

I arranged the horns for Fats Domino when he recorded this in 1969. I wrote it for me. But when he did it, it was like him imitating me imitating him. He’s one of my Top Five artists of all time. Maybe the reason I love Fats so much is because I heard people talk that way in New Orleans. And it’s easy music to like. My natural mode of expression is the shuffle. Dr. John can play my stuff great.

I arranged the horns for Fats Domino when he recorded this in 1969. I wrote it for me. But when he did it, it was like him imitating me imitating him. He’s one of my Top Five artists of all time. Maybe the reason I love Fats so much is because I heard people talk that way in New Orleans. And it’s easy music to like. My natural mode of expression is the shuffle. Dr. John can play my stuff great.

“Mama Told Me Not to Come”

12 Songs, 1970

Eric Burdon [of the Animals] recorded this in 1966. It’s a guy going to a party, and he’s a little scared. The first line [“Will you have whiskey with your water/Or sugar with your tea”] was a vague connection to acid. I don’t remember being thrown off by that stuff then. If I was that unsophisticated – which is possible – I wouldn’t admit it. The piano lick is what kicked it off. Three Dog Night made the song a hit [in 1971], but I didn’t make a lot of money. Maybe I was behind [on publishing advances]. I remember getting a check for $6000. I said, “Where’s the rest?” They said, “Well, you know…”

“Sail Away”

Sail Away, 1972

There was a producer, the husband of [actress] Leslie Caron. He wanted to make a movie where he would give ten minutes to these artists – people like Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, me – to do anything we wanted. It never got made. But I had this idea of a slave ship and a sea shanty – this guy standing in a clearing, singing to a crowd of natives. These people in my songs don’t know they’re bad. They think they’re fine. I didn’t just want to say, “Slavery is awful.” It’s too easy. I wasn’t doing Roots. I knew Bobby Darin pretty well. He covered this [in 1972], but he was such a musical guy that he missed the point. He was like, “Little one, come to America.” Etta James did it, and I guarantee she knew what it was about, absolutely.

“Lonely at the Top”

Sail Away, 1972

I wrote it for Frank Sinatra. There was a massive drive at Warner Bros. Records to get Frank a hit. I thought – maybe stupidly – that he would be ready to make fun of that leaning-against-the-lamp-post shit: “Oh, I’m so lonely and miserable and the biggest singer in the world.” I never bought that part of him. I thought he’d appreciate that. I played it for him, at his office on the Warner Bros. lot. His reaction? Nothing. He said, “Next.” I also played “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” He said, “I like that one.” But he couldn’t hide his bitterness at young people’s music.

“Louisiana 1927”

Good Old Boys, 1974

I remember my aunt talking about that flood [the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927]. She worked for [Governor] Huey Long at some point, in New Orleans. Good Old Boys was meant to be a concept record. I wrote “Rednecks,” then felt I had to do more for the guy, explain why he was that way with “Birmingham,” “Whirlwind,” and “Louisiana 1927.” The chorus [“They’re tryin’ to wash us away”] – That’s the North. It’s the feeling that the rest of the country would like them to disappear. It’s much more relevant now. The whole country feels as if it’s a swamp.

“Short People”

Little Criminals, 1977

I needed an “up” song for that record, and that just popped out: “Short people got no reason…” I was bouncing off that [hums the piano line]. I was surprised by the reaction. Because it was a hit [peaking at Number Two], the song reached people who aren’t looking for irony. For them, the words mean exactly what they say. I can imagine being a short kid in junior high school. I thought about it before I let the record get out. But I thought, “What the hell?” I know what I meant – the guy in that song is crazy. He was not to be believed.

“One More Hour”

Ragtime soundtrack, 1981

I came into movies the back way, from songwriting instead of doing film first. In scoring, everything is for the picture. If it isn’t up there on the screen, you don’t do it. You do your best for the picture on any and every occasion. With this song [the first of Newman’s 20 Academy Award nominations], I already had the theme for the film. I added a counter-line so it would be a tune of some kind. It’s over the credits [sung by Jennifer Warnes], but it has to be of a piece with the rest of the picture. I wouldn’t have written that song for myself. But the songs for movies are a chance for me to walk right down the middle of the road with lyrics. I get to write things that are simpler.

“Feels Like Home”

Randy Newman’s Faust, 1995

I read the original, Goethe’s Faust Part One. It’s like bumping into a great mind, someone who wants to learn everything in the world. Something in me wanted to take the exaltation out. I made it about a freshman at Notre Dame who doesn’t know what he wants. I had a script and showed it to [film director] Mike Nichols. He said, “The kid doesn’t have any arc. Nothing happens to him.” But I liked that. It makes for a gruesome evening of theater [laughs]. I had Henley, Elton John and Linda Ronstadt sing the songs. I wrote this one for Bonnie Raitt to sing to the Devil, to trick him. Bonnie’s great in it. But something is wrong with me – that’s how convoluted it has to be for me to write a fucking love song.

“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”

Toy Story soundtrack, 1995

Toy Story was my first big, animated movie. It’s different from doing a regular feature. When Tom Hanks falls down in a movie, you don’t necessarily go [mimics the rhythm of someone tumbling down a flight of stairs]. But when [the toy cowboy] Woody falls down, it doesn’t look right if you don’t have that sound. The song [Newman’s first Oscar winner] is about the friendship of Woody and the boy, Andy. I asked for adjectives; they gave me “friendly,” “comforting.” I took them seriously. Cartoon figures have adult emotions, just like a character in Dunkirk. I have definitely found a place in animation. But I got typecast. I don’t get offered things like Out of Africa. I’d do them. They’re easier. You never stop in animated pictures. In a drama, they’re not skipping around all the time.

“A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”

Harps and Angels, 2008

This was in the New York Times [the lyrics were published as an editorial in 2007]. I wrote it because I thought the [second] Bush adminstration would be one of the worst of my lifetime, maybe the worst we’d ever have. Little did I know [Donald Trump] would make him look like Winston Churchill. The comparisons in the song are ridiculous, saying Bush is not as bad as the Caesars. He’s not as bad as [the Roman emperor] Tiberius, because he didn’t kill little boys. He’s not Hitler or Stalin. But I do that song now, and it gets a bigger reaction. Who could have prepared for this?


Dark Matter, 2017

I started it two and a half years ago. It was seeing [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin in those pictures with his shirt off. Like what the hell does he want? He’s the most powerful man in the world – and he wants to be Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt. The song is less critical than I thought it would be, although the tone gets menacing at the end. If it’s just a joke, it’s worth something to me. It’s worth less unless there’s something else. But I can’t tell people what to get from a song. When I’m doing “Rednecks” for a crowd and they’re like “We’re rednecks, yeah!”, that bothers me. It’s closer to home.

“She Chose Me”

Dark Matter, 2017

I wrote it a long time ago for a TV show, Cop Rock [a bizarre 1990 hybrid of police drama and musical numbers], about a guy who was relatively ugly and had a beautiful wife. One of the best things I do is assignments. I do it easily, and I do it well. People say, “Isn’t it a sellout?” No, it’s who I am. If you want me to write a song about an Albanian gardener who moves to Bulgaria, I’ll do it. I’m a professional songwriter. And that’s fine with me.

Presented by E.Cowan

Written by rollingstone.com

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