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To people of a certain age, Randy Newman is little more than the adenoidal delivery system for the soundtracks to Disney/Pixar movies like Toy Story, A Bugs Life and Monsters Inc.
To their parents, he’s the guy that had a huge novelty hit with the acerbic ‘Short People’ in 1977.
Those people, well, there’s a slight possibility that were they fairly hip, they might have owned some of Newman’s early records, or would at least be familiar with covers of his more famous songs, like ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’ (a hit for Three Dog Night) or ‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Damcing Bear’ (a hit for Alan Price in his post-Animals career.
Among that group exists a very small subset of people that knew of Randy Newman’s early work under his own name (as opposed to a bunch of very early work writing and or arranging songs for artists like Jackie DeShannon, Irma Thomas, Lou Rawls, the Walker Brothers, the Tokens or Judy Collins) and maybe, just maybe owned his 1968 debut LP.
Newman was born and raised in Los Angeles, where three of his uncles, Lionel Newman, Alfred Newman and Emil Newman were all Hollywood film composers.
He had his first break as a songwriter when the Fleetwoods recorded ‘They Tell Me It’s Summer’ in 1962.
Over the course of the next five years, his songs were recorded by a wide variety of performers (including those listed above) and before he ever recorded a note (aside from a weird 1962 novelty called ‘Golden Gridiron Boy’) his extremely distinctive compositions preceded him in the world.
Newman went into the studio with Van Dyke Parks (with whom he would collaborate on the opening track to Parks’ 1967 LP ‘Song Cycle’, with Newman writing and arranging ‘Vine Street) and made his own recordings of his songs.
This Randy Newman is a far cry from what most people are familiar with today. Though the dark humor of some of his later solo work (i.e. ‘Davy the Fat Boy’) is already present, much of the album sees his sophisticated melodies wrapped around lyrics that alternate between stark confessional and arty pastiche.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Newman was making music pretty much unlike anyone else at the time (Parks excepted), which is probably why not a whole lot of people were listening to it (the musical hive mind not yet having settled in on the idea of a literate, baroque singer/songwriter) . His self-titled album didn’t make it into the Billboard Top 200, and until he started to break through as a singer-songwriter a few years later, it was all but forgotten until it was reissued with the different cover (the original features a collegiate looking Newman, surrounded by pieces of sheet music and a pencil) in 1974.
The two songs I bring you today went onto to be among his most covered tunes.
The first, ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ was originally recorded by Julius LaRosa (?!?) in 1966, and appears on countless albums in the late 60s and 70s (there are well over 60 versions) by people as stylistically far reaching as Jack Sheldon, Peggy Lee, Leonard Nimoy, Cass Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, and Manfred Mann.
‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ is – depending on how you choose to read it – either an extremely dark expression of depression and pessimism, or a frame around a glimmer of hope. The beautiful arrangement (by Newman) and delivery suggest the first. It’s not hard to imagine why someone would have signed and recorded Newman, since his songs are brilliant and his talents as an arranger are remarkable, but you have to wonder if anyone, who wasn’t running a slow boil on hallucinogens thought that anyone was going to buy it in a year filled alternately with hippy sunshine and bad trips.
Even today – no matter how beautiful and finely crafted it is – it still seems like an acquired taste.
‘Living Without You’ is another dark one, a letter of loss written for someone that probably isn’t going to read it, by someone writing it with his tears.
That Newman was a performer of (very) limited vocal range was immaterial, since his voice was perfect for his songs, which were also classic enough to give themselves over to the wide variety of singers mentioned above.
Listening to this album makes me wish that the singer/songwriter wave had carried more people like Randy Newman with it, instead of flooding the airwaves and the bargain bins with longhaired guitar strummers, stacked up like so much cordwood.
I hope you dig it, and I’ll see you next week.