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

Page 5 of 6

Something approaching an historic event was building this afternoon at Western Recorders on Sunset Blvd. A 45-piece orchestra, the largest collection of musicians since Randy's first album, had been assembled for this, his fourth. In the control room, a host of Warner Bros. executives, technicians and gophers, including co-producers Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, sat fidgeting around a 16-track console, a machine that looks scarier than the brains of a 747. Van Dyke Parks had just walked in.

Through the huge, soundproof glass you could see Randy at the piano, listening pensively in a blue work shirt, jeans and tan corduroy jacket. The conductor, gray-bearded Uncle Emil Newman, stood on the podium, comparing the score with the tape they'd just recorded. He was dressed soberly in a blue suit, light blue neckerchief and black shirt, possibly because his wife had just died that morning.

"It sounded like you slowed down at 17," said Emil to Randy when the tape was over.

"Seventeen?" Randy seemed surprised. "It must be my Jewish schmaltz, but I didn't mean to."

They tried another take. They were dubbing just the orchestra and piano tracks, no vocals, so it was impossible to know what the song was about. So far it sounded serious, like a Navy hymn or Morman Tabernacle spiritual, with kettle drums and broad strokes by the full orchestra. But knowing Randy's predilection for musical leg pulling, one could assume there'd be nothing religious about this one.

Which was correct. The song turned out to be "Sail Away," the album's title number and a ludicrous "singing commercial" for America that slave traders might have sung a century ago in Africa.

"See, there was going to be a movie with a few people in it," Randy explained later at home, "me and Elton John and Kristofferson and some other people. They were going to give us each ten minutes to do whatever we wanted.

"And my part opened up on this ship with these sailors running around yelling sailor stuff, you know, 'lubber the mainmast' and that type of shit. I was a recruiter for the slave trade – you know, white suit, dark glasses, sort of a Warren Beatty, brooding-type of part."

Randy couldn't remember all the lines, and the movie was never made anyway, but "eventually it cuts to the jungle and there's thousands of natives. And the band plays, you know, 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,' just to get the natives interested. And then I come out and have the band play 'Camptown Races,' and the natives go 'doo-dah, doo-dah' and get all excited.

"And then I'd have a tenor sing 'Did your Mother Come from Ireland,' and the natives would keep goin' 'DOO-DAH, DOO-DAH,' getting out of control until the band plays some real scary shit to shut 'em up. And then I'd sing a song about America.

"Finally in the last scene, as the natives are getting in the ship, I was going to hand one of 'em a basketball or something – I hadn't really figured it all out."

Well, it doesn't matter; we at least have the song, recorded for posterity, and it's a masterpiece. Like most of Newman's stuff, it says more about America than the Star-Spangled Banner:

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

Ain't no lions or tigers – Ain't no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev'rybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard little wog – Sail away with me

Sail Away – Sail Away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail Away – Sail Away

We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You'll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You're all gonna be an American

Sail Away – Sail Away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail Away – Sail Away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

Back at Western Recorders it was time for another take, and as usual, Randy was squirming and stalling. "I don't know, it's thin, awful thin," he complained, shaking his head.

"Listen, it's good," pleaded Waronker, "it really is."

Randy just stared at the control room floor, his hands wedged into his rear pockets.

"Let's do it, it's gonna be great," said Lenny.

"Maybe," said Randy, slouching from the control room to his piano.

The day was nearly over, and the musicians must have been growing tired of "Sail Away" after wrestling with it all afternoon. But whatever subtle problems marred the other takes apparently were ironed out in this one; for as soon as the orchestra finished, Titelman clapped his hands and shouted, "I knew it, I knew it," and Waronker, with a rare smile, said, "Wow, well I guess that's it."

The celebration stopped abruptly, however, as the control room door opened and the Final Authority slouched back in.

"Real nice, Randy," said Van Dyke, but Newman hardly acknowledged the remark, gazing blankly at the big Ampex as it started playing back the take. When it was over, he said nothing. Neither did anyone else, waiting instead for Randy's reaction.

Finally Waronker walked up to him and asked, almost meekly, "Well? . . . "

Randy Newman paused for a second, then beamed crazily, threw up his hands in mock enthusiasm and said, "I think it's the greatest thing I ever heard."

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