Fricke's Picks: Everyone Sings Newman

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After releasing Randy Newman's 1968 debut album, Randy Newman, to great acclaim and near-zero sales, the singer-songwriter's label, Reprise, ran a pair of comically desperate ads in this magazine — first all but apologizing for Newman's froggy, unsteady singing ("Once you get used to it, his voice is really something"), then offering to send readers a copy for the low, low price of nothing ("Can't sell 'em, so we're giving 'em away"). Ironically, Newman was already selling a lot of records as one of the most covered songwriters of the Sixties. On Vine Street: The Early Songs of Randy Newman (Ace) collects 26 singles and LP tracks by technically better singers and (at the time) more famous faces, including Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, Fats Domino, Scott Walker and even Fifties crooner Frankie Laine. Newman doesn't sing a note here and contributes only a few arrangements. But his gently sour romanticism, the angular melancholy in his melodies and the Louisiana-boogie roll of his piano figures bloom in these voices and productions: the mod vaudeville of "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" by ex-Animal Alan Price; the Beau Brummels' authentic Southern longing in "Old Kentucky Home"; the torrid hurt in "Love Is Blind," recorded by Erma Franklin (Aretha's younger sister) in 1963, when Newman was just 20. The kitsch overfloweth in the Tokens' 1965 single of "Just One Smile" (there are better versions by Pitney and Blood, Sweat and Tears), and Eric Burdon should have cut "Mama Told Me Not to Come" with a real band of Animals, not the floppy, falsely billed session cats on this '67 take. On Vine includes "So Long Dad," from Harry Nilsson's fine full-length salute, Nilsson Sings Newman, released in 1970 — the same year Newman made his classic second LP, 12 Songs, finally proving no one sang Newman better.