Written by Kevin Birge
I was ten years old when “Short People” went to number two in the country on the Billboard charts and made Randy Newman a household name for about a nanosecond. For most people, it was another of the decade’s signature novelty songs. Like “Disco Duck” and “Convoy“, the song burned white-hot as a single and for a couple of months you heard it everywhere. How long ago was it? 1977. For most of the world, this song was Randy’s introduction. In reality, Newman had been slugging it out in the trenches of pop music since 1968. His career was and is the kind that is measured more in terms of good work than big sales numbers.
Or as Neil Young once remarked, “lack of success breeds longevity.”
It’s a fact that some of his songs were already well-established in the popular culture long before “Short People” brought his name to the attention of people that work record store clerks and critics. We’ll examine this interesting bit of trivia in the list proper.
Newman did Saturday Night Live while the single was on the charts. I was elated because I got to see him play. The band got down on their knees during the chorus of “Short People.” I remember that they also did “Rider In The Rain.” Since I am getting old and forgetting details, I don’t remember if he did more than those two tracks.
I do remember that I thought “Rider In The Rain” was actually a better song than “Short People.” I was one of the folks that decided the single wasn’t enough of this particular artist and bought the Little Criminals LP.
I knew from listening to artists like Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, and Merle Haggard that music could tell stories. Most of my favorite songs going back to my earliest childhood did just that. But what I heard on that LP was light years beyond what I was used to.
Newman could pack a novel into a three and a half minute song. The songwriting was several orders of magnitude more sophisticated than anything I’d ever heard.
And it still is. At this much later date, forty years on from that album, I can state that I believe Randy Newman is to American music what Samuel Langhorne Clemens was to American letters.
Peerless, never to be duplicated. A phenomenon whose art is more likely to be praised than consumed by the public. Too talented and honest and smart for the lowest common denominator corporate pop culture wasteland, and probably too smart for his own good.
Newman’s influences are not rooted in blues, rock, gospel, country, or bluegrass, although he can and does borrow from all of them when it suits his purposes. He loves and is familiar with all of it. He’s good at all of it. But these aren’t the bedrock of his art.
To really get where Newman is coming from, you have to go back farther. Back to and past Tin Pan Alley, to the days before recorded media when sheet music was king and if you wanted to hear a hit song, you had to play it yourself.
The earliest form of American pop music, drenched in ragtime and the beginnings of jazz, form the foundations of Newman’s music. I didn’t know anything about that back then. Newman’s compositions contained a musical history lesson that broadened my mind and made me far more open to the past than I would have been otherwise.
Being a Randy Newman fan has been a very rewarding experience for me. I don’t know him personally, but if he showed up at my door and wanted to borrow twenty bucks, I wouldn’t hesitate. He’s that familiar to me now.
So here you go. Seven notable tracks from a body of work like no other, and I am including both his performances and noteworthy examples of his work recorded by others. They aren’t in any order, and you could very easily create an infinity of such lists for his songs using different choices. Call this a good representative sample.
When She Loved Me
“Randy, this song absolutely cannot be happy.”
I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what they told him. Newman is not an artiste when it comes to this sort of work. You want sad, he’s going to deliver more than your money’s worth. Along with Sarah McLachlan‘s superhuman vocal, this song creates the most emotionally powerful scene in a Disney film since the death of Walt. Compare with the death of Bambi’s Mother, the Pinocchio Pleasure Island scene, or Dumbo being taken from his mother. That power is there. Watch this scene in a room full of kids to see what I mean.
Davy The Fat Boy
Originally hailing from the self-titled album “Randy Newman” released in 1968, this song is Newman at his mean and sarcastic best. The titular Davy is a fat boy being exhibited as a dancing carnival freak by his alleged only friend in the world. The song draws you into the story, as you laugh along with the cruel narrator and ultimately pity poor Davy. “I think we can persuade him to do the famous fat boy dance for you.” This line, followed by the sad, quiet string arrangement that follows, provides one of the single most cinematic moments ever done in a song.
Also a prime example of how Newman makes extremely challenging musical and lyrical moments look like child’s play.
Living Without You (from Nilsson Sings Newman)
The challenge for this list was not picking a song off of this recording. It was not filling the whole list with songs off of this album. Nilsson‘s decision to record an entire record of Newman covers? Genius. The result? An artistic triumph and a commercial failure. The record was deeply loved by both critics and audiophiles, and has slowly gained stature over the ensuing years. Nilsson’s take on every song on this record stands as the best and most definitive take that exists, and this song is arguably the highlight. Composed entirely of Newman on piano and Nilsson’s vocals overdubbed in studio until he has constructed a virtual choir, this song can transport you. A perfect track from a perfect album. As good as anything off Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper? Oh, yes. Go find out for yourself.
Mama Told Me Not To Come (Three Dog Knight version)
An instant hit when it was released, straight into heavy rotation. That was in 1970, and the song is still in heavy rotation. While everyone in the English speaking world has heard this song, not everyone knows Newman penned it. Turn on the radio, start going through stations. Odds are good it’s being played right now.
You Can Leave Your Hat On (Tom Jones version)
Tom Jones, Tom Jones, ladies and gentlemen, Tom Jones. I can recommend the use of Tom Jones in all situations, but for best results, hand him a Randy Newman song. Newman himself laments that his approach to the song was too low key, and that he cheated himself of a hit thereby. Tom Jones take on the song is raunchy and soulful, impossible not to crank the volume on. Ain’t no shame in being upstaged by Jones, Mr. Newman. None at all.
Tom Jones could probably upstage the Second Coming, if you gave him a big enough horn section. And he has such a horn section on this song.
You’ve Got A Friend In Me
Probably the song Randy is best known for now, and that’s just as well. If “Short People” was a monster hit song, it was also (as Newman himself describes it) “the worst hit you could possibly have.” This song is sweet, catchy, and timeless. If Randy ultimately has to be remembered by the general public for just one track, this is a good one. So good, in fact, that the kids who grew up singing along with it might one day decide to see if the man who wrote and sang it had any more like it.
What? Whaddya mean, that song’s not on Hair of the Dog?
Well, you got a point. I’ve owned a copy of Hair of the Dog continuously since 1978, and I can attest, “Guilty” wasn’t on it–until I got the import remaster.
The British release had “Guilty” as track three on side one. “Love Hurts” was released as a stand-alone single. Pretty standard practice back in the halycon vinyl era. By the time the album was being prepped for American release, “Love Hurts” had become a huge hit in America. The record company decided to bump “Guilty” from the running order to use the momentum from the single to drive album sales.
Nazareth takes Newman’s take on Chicago piano blues and makes it an unearthly blues rock masterpiece. Dan McCafferty‘s voice was superb during this era; fully the equal to the likes of Mercury, Bowie, Rogers, or Daltrey.
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Randy Newman has a new album out called Dark Matter. I haven’t had a chance to buy it, absorb it, and place it in the canon yet, but I am going to. I’m glad that he’s still around, still writing, and still the best songwriter in America.
It’s been a long trip. There have been albums, and soundtracks, and even a concept album that serves as his adaptation of Faust. I’ve been a fan long enough that even hearing the instrumental material in the background of a film or another artist covering the song, I know him when I hear him.
I’m sure gonna miss him when he’s gone.