Back in 1968, Paul McCartney phoned Randy Newman to tell him how much he liked his new album. Though the record received praise from fellow songwriters, musicians, and critics, it proved less than popular among the public. Promo tags like “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something” didn’t help. Eventually Reprise redesigned the cover and gave the album away to those willing to write for it; sales have still not passed 4500 copies.
Today, with the release of Twelve Songs, Newman remains virtually unknown, save within the recording industry itself, where artists and producers have been aware of his music since 1961, when the Fleetwoods recorded Randy’s “They Tell Me It’s Summer” as the flip of their smash, “Lovers By Night, Strangers By Day.” Since then a strange brew have recorded his material: Blood Sweat & Tears, Judy Collins, Alan Price, the Everly Brothers, Vic Dana, Cilla Black, Eric Burdon, Vicki Carr, Manfred Mann, Dusty Springfield, Three Dog Night, Gene Pitney, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino, Rick Nelson, Trini Lopez, Van Dyke Parks, and Nilsson, whose new album, Nilsson Sings Newman, features ten of Randy’s songs with the composer himself on piano.
Since moving from New Orleans at two and a half, Randy has lived in Los Angeles, majoring in music at UCLA, missing out on a degree when he refused to take finals. Cole Porter and Ray Charles mattered to Randy as he developed his music, but the experience of his uncles — Emil, Lionel, and Alfred Newman — in film scoring, conducting, and arranged shaped Randy’s career as much as any other factors. Music from supper clubs, Broadway, movies and rhythm and blues led Randy to the point where his influences were fully absorbed; with the possible exception of Van Morrison and Neil Young, no one is writing a more unique and personal music.
Seventy-five musicians were used to augment Randy and his piano on his first album. The strongest cuts, “Love Story” and “Davy, the Fat Boy,” open and close the record, fixing the mood of a bitter longing for affection that characterizes the album. Denny Cordell has called Randy “the foremost practitioner of suburban blues,” and certainly “Love Story” is the blues of Middle America. The song marks out a simple pattern of life: boy meets girl, gets married, lives in suburbia, has children, dies. Randy moves in on The Dream in an uncommon way: “When our kids are grown/They’ll send us away to a little home in Florida/ We’ll play checkers all day/Till we pass away.”
With “Davy, The Fat Boy,” Randy fashioned a strange portrait of a man in a trap. Davy’s parents, fearing death, have entrusted their child to his only “friend.” The friend, now a caretaker, put Davy on display. Within a sideshow setting that seems surprisingly more real than surreal, Davy’s keeper yells out, “You’ve got to get this fat boy into your life!” Then, with Randy’s piano laying the foundation, the orchestra creates the terrible image of the “famous fat boy dance,” as Davy clumsily attempts to move with the grace of a ballerina. The audience is delighted.
Randy Newman experimented in 1969; besides writing new songs, he arranged Peggy Lee’s hit “Is That All There Is?”, of which Mick Jagger was heard to say, “If I could write a song as sick and perverse as that, I’d be really happy.” And finally, with the prompting of friend Erik Jacobson, Randy made his performing debut last fall. Virtually no publicity surrounded the date, but Randy still filled the Lion’s Share, a folk club north of San Francisco. After a brief introduction, a smiling figure, looking extremely nervous, walked toward the stage. With Newman accompanied only by his piano, one was forced to direct attention to his singing. Performing with sensitivity rather than sentimentality, Randy’s gentle but often gutty phrasing helped his lyrics of unfulfilled love or false friendship. Along with his own composition he did Arthur Alexanders’ “You Better Move On” and Fats’ “Blue Monday”; he sang the last as if it had been written expressly for him. The reaction of the audience seemed more like devout worship than mere adoration; Randy left the stage looking more confident than he had when he’d walked on.
“I was on for only twenty-five minutes? Good, that’s just right. I like to get on and off. No need to draw things out. This club seems perfect, and the atmosphere is so much more relaxed than in LA. Yeah, I came up to see what it’s like in front of an audience. . .. Touring would be a hassle, especially doing the same stuff night after night. Your rap has got to be spontaneous. There’s a possibility that I will play the Troubador in the Spring [he did a few weeks ago], but I’ll have to wait and see. Laura [Nyro] ‘s asked me to play with her, but I’m not sure we attract the same audience …”
Randy headed back to LA to conduct the orchestra for Mick Jagger’s film Performance, and to finish work on his second LP, produced by Lenny Waronker. It has been out for a short time, and while the material is not always as strong as on the first record, 12 Songs is by far the more successful album.
The subtle nuances of the music and the unique phrasing of the singer require careful listening, and Randy’s performance is much more effective without complicated orchestration. Though the arrangements are by no means pedestrian, the sharpness produced by piano, guitar, drums and bass supports Randy’s moving and sometimes fragile voice perfectly. Even the packaging was handled with more care this time, and Newman’s skill in creating the incongruous image is reflected on both the jacket and the lyric sheet inside.
There are three strong rockers this time: “Have You Seen My Baby,” “Old Kentucky Home,” and “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” which might make one flash on the party scene in Midnight Cowboy. Some may remember Eric Burdon’s far less successful version of this song from three years ago. “Old Kentucky Home” has the kind of humor that these days is associated with the Band: “Sister Sue, she’s short and stout/She didn’t grow up, she grew out.”
Randy’s concern with stereotyping led him to include “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” the only song on the album he didn’t write. Composed in the Twenties, every line contains some of the most blatant racial typing ever set down in song: “They just live for dancin’/They’re never blue for long/It’s no sin to laugh or grin/That’s why darkies were born.” Newman follows this cut with his own contemporary parallel, “Yellow Man.” After performing these songs at the Lion’s Share, Randy said, “I was afraid I might be misunderstood and someone would jump on stage and beat hell out of me.” Randy Newman’s songs are not heavy-handed, and his humor is rarely direct. He comes at you from corners.
“Lover’s Prayer” might be considered John Wayne’s lament, but it’s really the plea of every man who’s looking not for companionship or conversation, but a good lay. “I was entertaining a little girl up in the rooms, Lord/ With California wine and French perfume/She started to talk to me ’bout the war, Lord/Said, ‘I don’t wanna talk about the war, Lord/Don’t send me nobody with glasses/ Don’t want no one above me/Send me nobody takin’ night classes/Send me somebody to love me.'”
Newman’s nightmare of a rapist who picks “Suzanne” off a phone booth wall is a masterpiece. A strange musical paradox forms a matrix for Randy’s voice, merely soft acoustic and steel guitars accentuated by an off-key organ, all extremely effective in sharpening the chill of the lyrics. Newman’s actor doesn’t want to touch Suzanne’s “perfect body,” he wants to engulf it.
Randy’s most vivid impressions of the pleasure and pain of women come with “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfields” and “If You Need Oil.” “Cornfields” is most direct, an impulse toward fire that is both social and devastatingly erotic: “Let’s burn down the cornfields/ Let’s burn down the cornfields/ And I’ll make like to you while it’s burning.” One gets the impression Newman’s burning cornfield is no metaphor. The music winds out of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar — it could hardly me more understated, or more effective.
12 Songs is the announcement of 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.