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Randy Newman: My Life in 15 Songs

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

randy newman my life in 15 songs

Randy Newman posed in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1975.

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“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.” 

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“A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”

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?

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“Putin”

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.

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“She Chose Me”

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.

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