Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Southern California. His career in music began while he was at UCLA, thanks to his childhood friend Lenny Waronker, whose father owned a record company called Metric Music.
Metric engaged Newman to write songs for them, for a hundred dollars a month. In the years to come, his songs would be recorded by scores of famous performers, including Ray Charles, Judy Collins, Three Dog Night (Mama Told Me Not To Come), Fats Domino, Joe Cocker, Harry Nilsson and many others.
Newman’s 1968 self-titled debut album eschewed all things Laurel Canyon for a sardonic roll through Tin Pan Alley and the rootsy R’n’B of his N’awlins childhood. Co-produced by Van Dyke Parks, Newman’s sagas of death, cruelty and obesity were sweetened by lush orchestration.
His early albums such as 12 Songs (1969) and Sail Away (1972) were carefully crafted, intelligent works that attracted immediate critical acclaim, but were not hugely successful from a commercial perspective.
Newman created a furore when he made repeated use of the word “nigger” in a composition called Rednecks on Good Old Boys (1974). The record was a scathing attack on racism and bigotry of all kinds, but for some reason, a huge chunk of the public did not catch Newman’s drift.
In 1978 he was beset with a similar wave of heated misunderstanding following the release of Short People, a single from Little Criminals in which he parodied bigotry on – or so he thought – an absolutely ridiculous level.
Filled with confidence, Newman put out his next LP – a seething, nihilistic critique of the record industry titled Born Again, without doing interviews or a tour. It died a shockingly speedy death.
The nephew of two heads of music at 20th Century Fox, Randy Newman always felt he had a musical in him. But as the most ironic of American singer/songwriters he was never going to write a We Will Rock You-style opus. Instead he opted to re-work the Faust legend as a comedy, casting himself as the Devil, The Eagles‘ Don Henley in the title role, James Taylor as a golf-playing God and Elton John as a bitter archangel.
Even if the tunes are not some of Newman’s best, the 1995 album – simply titled Randy Newman’s Faust – was certainly one of the funniest records ever made.
Always a songwriter first and a performer second, Newman continued to earn a tidy wage – and 16 Oscar nominations – writing scores for movies both memorable – Toy Story (1995) – and abysmal – Three Amigos! (1986).
“My music has a high irritation factor. You can’t put it on and eat potato chips to it and invite the neighbours over for a barbecue. It’s got ‘prick’ in it, and ‘wop’ in it, and ‘I’m gonna take off my pants.’ I entertain.”
Randy Newman. 1979