Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: How Randy Newman Behaves

Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: How Randy Newman Behaves

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

1968 – 2013

Randy Newman was and is a singer-songwriter. He is reputed for other things, like always on the Oscars (but not for his records), and his raspy voice and raspier comments on life.

But we’re sticking mostly to his works as a singer of his own songs. Records he made way back when (starting in the late 1960s), making records for Warner/Reprise.

He’d been a boyhood friend of his producer at WB, Lenny Waronker. And his uncles in Hollywood were movie score titans as well. He’d joined WB early as a member of early groups, like Harpers Bizarre.

But now, with his producing friends, he was ready to make an album of his own.

1968 – Randy Newman


1968 was when he first recorded an album of his own songs, an LP respectfully titled for its vocal star and his keen songs.

In it, Newman performed in his singular voice and style, like “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”

Lonely, lonely
Tin can at my feet
Think I'll kick it down the street
That's the way to treat a friend

Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it's going to rain today

The album didn’t sell many at all. The silence in sales drove us at Warners nuts. I even wrote a full-page ad about “what you all are missing.” It looked like this:


In that tiny body copy at the ad’s bottom, I told how we, in deep frustration, tried even repackaging the album. Maybe that first one was wrong? We wanted to be righter.

Cover Version Two


For some parts of American Ear, “righter” took quite a while to make Randy a star. Then, in the recent year 2013, it all climaxed, his voice and his songs: Randy Newman was elected into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

On stage at the awards ceremony, Randy leaned into the mike, looked at his trophy, and confessed in his same style that “I thought I’d have to die first,” and later explained why: that he was just a singer in his own style. “There’s all kinds of music, and no one kind’s better than the other,” he said. “Disco, it is not lousy. Classical, it is not superior.” And, ‘though he didn’t use this comparison, Randy Newman is not better or worse.

Only 45 years after his album came out, Randy Newman was in the Hall of Fame. And my ad, it finally, finally had done its job.

How it happened:

First: Stay Home at Your Piano

After his first album, Randy Newman continued to behave himself. Meaning, he behaved nobody else but himself. Ask him a question, you likely got back a sarcasm. A funny one.

Others were in back of Randy, pushing. Harry Nilsson made an entire album out of Randy-songs: Nilsson Sings Newman. Then in 1970, Randy did a small-ish, mostly piano backing album called 12 Songs. Sales remained ho-hum.

1971: Randy Newman / Live


As a songwriter, Randy stayed home by his piano, and resisted going out “on tour.” Finally in 1971, he finally said he would tour in public. He first played three nights in L.A.’s Troubadour club, then headed off to New York’s Bitter End East, and then Philadelphia’s Main Point. Throngs showed up!

At the Bitter End, Warner producers Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, recorded Randy. They hovered over tape machines for three nights. Fourteen songs from Randy’s past were specially selected, seven to a side, including “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Davy the Fat Boy,” “Lonely at the Top”…

Randy-Being-Randy remained reluctant about releasing a “live” album, with songs also in his prior albums, one that might confuse the public when his next, new album was coming out. We decided to make it a promo album, not for sale. Only our sales department now was frustrated.

Randy Newman/ Live came out and delighted radio DJs. More than one FM station played the entire LP uninterrupted, making Randy into a Rock Messiah. Critics condemned WB/R for having bottled up one of the Year’s Best. Consumers begged for copies.

Reprise felt it. Randy, still working on his next album, felt reassured. “Live” took off in stores. But even better was coming next.

1972: Sail Away


Randy continued to behave himself. His compositions amused … himself. He liked his biting, critical comments, thinking it was funny to be. (It was and is.) His sarcasm became his style. His style got him fans.

Randy recorded this next album “piano oriented.” The title – Sail Away -- came from a movie that never got made. Randy noted, “I was going to be in it, and Elton John, and Kristofferson, and some others. It was going to be a multi-million dollar spectacular, and each of them would have ten minutes to do whatever we wanted. My thing opened on a slave ship, and I would come off it in a while suit and glasses, with a band following me, and sing the song to the assembled natives.

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 happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog – Sail away with me.

Sail away – Sail away
We will cross the might ocean into Charleston Bay…

The people who were going to do the picture ran into some trouble with lawyers and contracts, though.”

Another strong song came from Sail Away: “Lonely at the Top.” Newman wrote this one for Frank Sinatra, the owner of his label, Reprise. Then, when he guessed that Frank Sinatra might find this song’s mockery of his public image, Randy pulled it back for himself. (He also played it for another on the top star, Barbara Streisand, whose reply was “Well ha ha…”)

I've been around the world
Had my pick of any girl
You'd think I'd be happy
But I'm not
Ev'rybody knows my name
But it's just a crazy game
Oh, it's lonely at the top

Listen to the band, they're playing just for me
Listen to the people paying just for me
All the applause - all the parades
And all the money I have made
Oh, it's lonely at the top

Listen all you fools out there
Go on and love me - I don't care
Oh, it's lonely at the top
Oh, it's lonely at the top

And again (third time!) from Sail Away comes “Political Science”:

No one likes us-I don't know why

We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try

But all around, even our old friends put us down

Let's drop the big one and see what happens

We give them money-but are they grateful?

No, they're spiteful and they're hateful

They don't respect us-so let's surprise them

We'll drop the big one and pulverize them

Asia's crowded and Europe's too old

Africa is far too hot

And Canada's too cold

And South America stole our name

Let's drop the big one

There'll be no one left to blame us

It took Joe Cocker until 1977 to make a hit from Sail Away’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” In it, Newman describes what men find most important in some relationships:

Baby, take off your coat, real slow.
Baby, take off your shoes. I'll help you take off your shoes.
Baby, take off your dress. Yes, yes, yes.

You can leave your hat on.
You can leave your hat on.
You can leave your hat on.

No one else in song writing was behaving like Randy. Randy was not a love-song composer, he was a sass. Song after song, hits (though often for others). That Newman sass came out big time in his next album.

Good Old Boys – 1974


This next album was a set of songs about life in the South. (Newman had been born there, and was an annual visitor to the South through his childhood. It was part of Randy’s roots. He recalled how his mother told him stories “about the big flood; and about Huey Long, all these imaginary tales of seeing him in his pajamas, standing in Baton Rouge…. I had to make an inroad into the South.”)

Randy again followed his own rules and behaved himself (Randy). He wrote “Rednecks” as some guy saying that the North has unfairly assumed a moral superiority about the treatment of black people. But really, the North has no claim on virtue where black people are concerned at all. There’s nothing much worse down South than there is in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or Denver,” he recalled.

The album’s two sides were divided. Side One is connected by the persona of a “typical” Southerner, and industrial worker, a “good old boy” as much in love with his country, his wife, his way of life as he is confused and frustrated by them.

Side Two leaves this character for a more panoramic tour of the Southern past and present, a tour which combines an imaginative view of history with the larger truth of art. Randy commented on “I used the word ‘nigger’ in ‘Rednecks’ because I needed it, but the word is something awful. I mean, I couldn’t write it down, when I was writing the song. Older people won’t even get that far, they won’t get past the first line, about Jews.”

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well he may be a fool but he's our fool
If they think they're better than him they're wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that's where I made this song

We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We're too dumb to make it in no Northern town
And we're keepin' the niggers down

We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol' boys from Tennessee
And colleges men from LSU
Went in dumb. Come out dumb too
Hustlin' 'round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin' drunk every weekend at the barbecues
And they're keepin' the niggers down

We're rednecks, rednecks
And we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
We're rednecks, we're rednecks
And we're keeping the niggers down

“But then the song turns around. When I’ve done it for people in the North, they’ll be laughing at the Southerner; then when the song changes and talks about the North, suddenly they stop laughing.

“I admit, my things are hard to understand.”

Experience “Rednecks” HERE:

Good Old Boys broke through the Newman zzzz, hitting #36 on Billboard, and dancing for 21 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200.

Little Criminals - 1977


This album became Newman’s most popular so far. His song “Short People” got lots of reaction. And again, no love songs in this LP. Mostly kinky characters and cynicism, usually songs with words from the viewpoint of a biased narrator.

The album went up to #9 on the Billboard 200.

Another interview, Randy? Once again, Newman chats away in his own style about the songs in Little Criminals: “There’s one song about a child murderer. That’s fairly optimistic. Maybe. There’s one called ‘Jolly Coppers on Parade’ which isn’t an absolutely anti-police song. Maybe it’s even a fascist song. I didn’t notice at the time. There’s also one about me as a cowboy called ‘Rider in the Rain.’ I think it’s ridiculous. The Eagles are on there. That’s what’s good about it. There’s also this song ‘Short People.’ It’s purely a joke. I like other ones on the album better but the audiences go for that one.”

“Short People” went up to #2 on the Billboard Top 150:

Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
To live

They got little hands
Little eyes
They walk around
Tellin' great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet

Well, I don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
`Round here

Watch Randy play “Short People” in concert with new glasses on:

Newman grew to dislike “Short People,” likening it to a novelty tune by The Chipmunks. However, when it came out on radio, it offended the short-tempered. The State of Maryland wrote a law making it illegal to play “Short People” on the radio.

Now that’s publicity.

Much More Newman

Much more kept coming Randy’s way, working as build up to that trophy moment at the Hall of Fame.

There were events like “I Love L.A.” in his 1983 album, Trouble in Paradise.

Like his focus shift over to making movie scores, and a garage now filled with Emmys and Oscars.

Like his 1999 moving song, “I Miss You,” written to his ex-wife during his second marriage. When asked how his second wife felt about this, Newman pledged his obedience to his wives except in one area:

“I write what I write.”

- Stay Tuned