Perhaps more than any other contemporary songwriter, Randy Newman has pinned down the slippery entity known as the American psyche. His uncanny ability to get under the skin of lovers, haters, heroes and fools has been universally lauded by critics and revered by fans. In recent years, Newman has garnered broad acclaim for his work in film, cementing his reputation as one of the world’s most expressive melodists and establishing himself as a leading architect of America’s unique musical identity.
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Bad Love (DreamWorks Records) finds Newman’s Twain-like wit and Swiftian knack for satire in fine form. Produced by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Suzanne Vega), its June 1, 1999, release is just the most recent highlight in a banner year for the singer-songwriter.
In the fall of 1998, Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman was issued to resounding praise. The four-CD box set features the cream of his album and motion picture work, including “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Sail Away,“ “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” “Rednecks,” “Marie,” “Short People,” “It’s Money That I Love,” “I Love L.A.,” “I Love to See You Smile” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” The 35-song Randy Newman Anthology Songbook debuted in early 1999. Another Newman milestone was reached in 1999 when the Grammy and Emmy award winner was nominated for three Academy Awards, in three separate categories, for three different films: “Pleasantville” (Best Original Dramatic Score), “A Bug’s Life” (Best Original Comedy Score), and “Babe: Pig in the City” (Best Original Song, for “That’ll Do”). The triple play brings his nomination total to an even dozen.
Newman’s success in cinema may have been predestined. He was born in Los Angeles to a prestigious musical family. Two of his uncles, Alfred and Lionel Newman, were legendary film composers. He began playing piano as a boy, then moved into songwriting and recording as a teenager. While a music student at UCLA, he cut his first single, 1963’s wry “Golden Gridiron Boy” (it was co-produced by Pat Boone). This period also marked his entry into professional songwriting, as a $100-a-month staff writer for Metric Music (a division of Liberty Records), and the first recordings of his work by other artists (“They Tell Me It’s Summer,” by The Fleetwoods, and “Somebody’s Waiting,” by Gene McDaniels).
Having posted a number of chart hits for the likes of Gene Pitney, Judy Collins, Manfred Mann, Frankie Laine, The Walker Brothers, Cilla Black, Jackie DeShannon, Jerry Butler, Alan Price and The Nashville Teens, Newman was signed as an artist in his own right to Reprise Records in 1967. The following year, his self-titled debut album appeared. It boasted the standouts “The Beehive State,” “Love Story (You and Me)” and “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” In 1969, Newman was honored with his first Grammy nomination, for Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist, for Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”
Twelve Songs made its premiere in 1970. It introduced “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which went on to become a #1 hit for Three Dog Night. One measure of the respect Newman had earned among his fellow musicians after only two albums was Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), a tribute by Harry Nilsson, one of the most gifted singers and songwriters of the era (the LP continues to be highly prized by collectors).
In 1971 Randy Newman Live was recorded at New York’s famed Bitter End. Its revelatory nature – Newman’s stage show, with its often rambling and hilarious asides to the audience, had always been highly touted – provided the artist with his breakthrough. Also that year, Newman first delved into film music, as music director for “Performance” (1970) and composer for “Cold Turkey” (1971). His commercial and critical stature grew with the influential classics Sail Away (1972) and Good Old Boys (1974), but it was Little Criminals (1977) that brought Newman to real mass exposure. The song “Short People” rocketed to #2 on Billboard’s singles chart and was certified gold, as was Little Criminals. Newman followed up this success with the equally sardonic Born Again (1979), which made waves with its cover art: a close-up shot of Newman in KISS makeup, dollar signs painted over his eyes. Appropriately, the single “It’s Money That I Love” was a hit on the rock charts.
Newman emerged as a serious film composer with his work on 1981’s “Ragtime.” His score for the picture and his song “One More Hour” earned him his first Academy Award nods. The “Ragtime” soundtrack, meanwhile, was nominated for a Grammy. After issuing his 1983 pop album Trouble in Paradise, which spun off the anthemic “I Love L.A.,” he scored “The Natural” (1984). The album incarnation of the music from “The Natural” won Newman a Grammy and earned him a third Oscar nomination. 1987’s “Three Amigos” saw him excel in yet another creative area – screenwriting. He also contributed songs to the comedy.
His next album, regarded as his best by Billboard editor-in-chief and longtime Newman fan Timothy White, was the quasi-autobiographical Land of Dreams, released in 1988. In cinema, he received yet another Academy Award nomination, for the song “I Love to See You Smile,” from his score to the 1989 film “Parenthood.”
The following year, Newman scored the critical favorites “Awakenings” and “Avalon.” His work on the latter racked up another Oscar nomination. Also in 1990, he wrote for the musically adventurous (though short-lived) NBC television series “Cop Rock,” winning an Emmy for the song “He’s Guilty.” Newman scored “Maverick” in 1994. His Oscar nomination cavalcade continued that year, with “Make Up Your Mind,” from “The Paper.” The music for “Toy Story” (1995), too, earned the Academy’s consideration, as did the picture’s Newman-penned theme song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
Just prior to the release of “Toy Story,” Newman’s long-awaited musical based on Faust premiered at the distinguished La Jolla Playhouse, in La Jolla, Calif. Its album accompaniment, Randy Newman’s Faust, featured performances by James Taylor, Don Henley, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Newman, who saved the plum role of Mephistopheles for himself. The show’s 1996 opening at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago prompted Time to name “Faust” one of the Top 10 theatrical events of the year.
In 1996, Newman composed the music for “Michael.” The year also delivered a duet with Lyle Lovett, “Long Tall Texan,” from Lovett’s widely hailed The Road to Ensenada. “Long Tall Texan” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals. And for the third year in a row, Newman received an Oscar nomination, this time for his score to “James and the Giant Peach.” Also in 1996, Newman received the first Henry Mancini Award, bestowed for lifetime achievement by The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), for his body of film music. He unveiled new material in 1997’s animated feature “Cats Don’t Dance.”
Bad Love is Newman’s response to those fans who feared he had forsaken the album form for theatrical projects. The collection finds his credentials as a songwriter intact (his facility with orchestra, long a key hue in his sonic palette, has actually been sharpened by his film work).
In typically pointed fashion, Bad Love navigates some of the darker alleys of our most heralded emotion. “My Country” suggests television as a stand-in for human connection; “Shame” mocks the folly of an older man falling under the sway of a younger woman; “I’m Dead” pokes fun at the excessive self-love that prevents rock stars from knowing when to quit; “Great Nations of Europe” shines a spotlight on mankind’s lust for land (and hungry microbes’ craving for fresh meat); “I Miss You” sends a love letter to the wrong place at the wrong time; and “The World Isn’t Fair” sets Karl Marx straight with the news that sometimes “froggish men, unpleasant to see” – if they’re rich enough – end up with beautiful young wives.
Clearly, success has not spoiled Randy Newman.
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