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Randy Newman: You've Got to Let This Fat Boy In Your Life

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Anyway, when 12 Songs was released in early 1970, it seemed the entire rock industry, as if on cue, automatically bestowed stardom on Randy without, of course, checking with the buying public. The album was hailed even more wildly than the first; Robert Hilburn called it "the best I've heard since The Band." Another critic called it "the full emergence of a leading innovator in rock and roll; hopefully, with the release of this album, Randy Newman will no longer have to worry about being misunderstood." Wrote another critic "It, hopefully, will make him a major star." Warner Bros. went beyond hope and announced quite simply in a crisp new press release, "Randy Newman is about to become truly famous."

About the same time, Harry Nilsson released a whole album of Newman's stuff, Nilsson Sings Newman, an unprecedented tribute from one young leading innovator to another that included Randy himself on piano. And to everyone's happy surprise, Randy decided to perform live, just him and his piano on the cozy stages of small, hip nightclubs. He started timidly, limiting himself the first year to places like the Lion's Share in San Anselmo, California, the Troubadour in Los Angeles and the Bitter End in New York. But by the end of 1971 he had toured much of the country.

Randy found he enjoyed performing – it was easier and more profitable than writing or recording – and he usually left his audiences raving and almost dangerously committed. People dug his piano virtuosity, his loose, deadpan style and his voice – a rough but extremely agile croon that breaks just enough to add credibility to his downtrodden characters. It's an unusual voice, combining the best elements of Fats Domino, Melanie, and Sam Yorty.

But again the expert predictions proved premature; 12 Songs more or less bombed, and the tour audiences, while fanatic and often sold out, failed to expand beyond cult proportions.

"I mean, I wouldn't be able to fill something like Boston Garden," Randy admitted a little resentfully. "Santana was playing Boston Garden when I was there at Harvard – which I didn't fill, which was like a thousand people. And Santana drew 15,000 people, and Carlos wasn't even at the concert, he didn't play.

"And later I asked them what happened, and they said, 'Oh, a few people yelled out, "Where's Santana?" ' but it didn't matter, you know?"

"Well," I told Randy, "at least you can take heart in the fact that if you hadn't shown up it probably would have caused a lot of trouble."

"Well, it might have filled the place," he said, smirking.

His continued commercial impotence must have been discouraging for Randy, and when he wasn't touring, he tended to retreat even further into the indolent privacy of his home. He developed an almost pathological fear of studios and a perfectionist's obsession with self doubt. Never a prolific composer, he started devoting whole days to television – Rocky and Bullwinkle, The New Zoo Review, Courageous Cat, three hours of news, Japanese variety shows on educational TV – and reading, newspapers cover to cover and books like Winesburg Ohio, John Toland's Rising Sun: the Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, and lighter stuff by Agatha Christie and Herman Wouk.

When he failed to deliver a third album in 1971, Warner Bros. packaged one of his Bitter End performances and released it as Randy Newman/Live, still many critics' favorite album and ironically his best seller up to then – a boffo 50-60,000.

"He's not your normal, everyday artist who likes to groove around in the studio," explained producer Lenny Waronker, an intense, baby-faced man of Randy's age who wears V-necked sweaters and plain brown shirts. "It took him a year to do the last album. Half of the time was spent in cancellations and crap-outs, you know, a lot of midnight calls: 'Jesus, this is shit. Can we cancel?'

"And I have to assure him his stuff's great and everything's OK, and he'll say, 'Ah, you really think so? and finally hang up."

For a while it seemed Randy was using most of his creative energy composing excuses.

"He used to get the flu every two weeks," said Lenny.

"You mean he's a goldbricker?"

"No, just a liar. You know, it's not easy; we have to coax him."

"How?"

"Different types of tactics – going over to his house and dragging him out of bed, telling him things like "Think of your kid, think of me, think of the company, but do something."

Waronker, who also produces Gordon Lightfoot, Arlo Guthrie, Van Dyke Parks and Ry Cooder for Warner Bros., has spent much of his life coaxing and reassuring Randy. He's been the first to hear most of Randy's songs hot off the piano, usually on the phone about seven in the morning. So he speaks not with anxiety but sympathy, almost reverence, about his troublesome friend.

"Of course, it was tougher for someone like Randy than for the average puke," he said. "When he's arranging a song for a studio orchestra, he has to take it apart and start all over again. Like on the song 'Sail Away,' it took us six months to get that thing. He wrote six different arrangements of it, each kind of valid in its own way. On the first album he did three different versions of 'Davy the Fat Boy' and five introductions for 'So Long Dad.'

"Eventually we have to kind of trap him. We know he'll always show up once the musicians are booked, so I'll casually ask him something like, 'Well, if we went with this version, what musicians would you use?' And as soon as he tells me I'll run out and book them, and that's that."

Then there's the problem of dealing with Newman, the brooding perfectionist, once he's in the studio. Waronker remembered the time Randy walked in after they'd just finished mixing 12 Songs.

"We were all really happy about the album, and he starts listening to it and saying things like, 'I can't stand me; it's awful,' and we had to pick ourselves up off the floor. Some people were thinking, well, maybe he's right, and we'd have to say, 'Naw, don't listen to him, he's not right, he's crazy.' Finally, after five minutes he'd brought the whole building down. We had to throw him out.

"Two weeks later he calls up and says, 'Hey, you know? It's not bad.'"

But so what if the morale of a whole team of engineers and musicians is jeopardized? Lenny figures the price is worth it.

"I don't think there's a composer who comes close to him; there's not anybody who has the ability he has. Most guys don't know what an orchestra is, but he does, he grew up with orchestras. Even on the live album, those piano parts are like orchestrations; they affect the meaning of what he's singing."

Waronker was reluctant to compare Newman with American composers of the past.

"I always hate to do that, you know, it's so misleading. But, yes, his music does have some of the great things Cole Porter's has, although, of course, it's totally different. But the same wit and humor. And, like Gershwin, he has the ability to eventually reach a large group of people. Someday he will have as strong an influence as Gershwin; I've always believed that, I've always believed that."

Weren't Randy's songs getting a lot more cynical, I asked.

"They are becoming darker, a little more grim, perhaps," said Lenny with a faint sigh. "But, you know, that's just where he is at the time."

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