Randy Newman is a raconteur of the first order. He sings in the voices of his characters, which can sometimes get him into trouble with less than discerning audiences. He writes songs with beautiful melodies and sings them in the tired voice of a man who’s got the blues.
Slightly disheveled, grey-haired and stooped, famed singer-songwriter Randy Newman shuffled across the room and sat down wearily at the grand piano in Studio #5 at New York City’s WNYC radio station. With a 30-minute, live interview only minutes away and the sound engineer scurrying around him, Newman had yet to pick the three songs he was to play. Instead, he joked at the piano, playing snippets of older songs. Then, without fanfare, he settled on a playlist, adjusted his thick glasses and cleared his throat. He was good to go.
In a recent Washington Post article, it was noted that the new Randy Newman album Dark Matter released on August 4th is only his fifth album since the Carter Administration – hard to believe from a man who has garnered more awards and accolades than most. He’s been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He’s won six Grammys, three Emmys and two Oscars, yet he says he writes songs “only when I have to,” describing his work habits as bad. Yet others describe him as hard working and someone who works through a series of good ideas to get to great ones.
There is a thread of contradiction that runs through a lot of Randy Newman’s work. His records include songs that are tall tales – funny and full of irony and sarcasm one minute and heartbreakingly tender and real the next. He writes songs with beautiful melodies and sings them in the tired voice of a man who’s got the blues. He’s talked about in revered tones, yet remains more of a cult figure than a bona fide star.
Newman is a raconteur of the first order – his songs are narratives with well-defined characters and a sense of place and time. He sings in the voices of his characters, which can sometimes get him into trouble with less than discerning audiences. The best known of such songs was “Short People,” the hit from his 1977 album Little Criminals. The song was sung as an attack on short people by someone who was obviously crazy, though many listeners took the song as a true expression of Newman’s feelings. Similarly, an earlier song written in 1974 was also misinterpreted. Newman wrote “Redneck” after seeing Alabama Governor Lester Maddox on a TV talk show. His song begins,
“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”
Newman has said he always felt he had to explain the background of the song, as many listeners felt he was singing in his own voice, his own opinions.
On the new Dark Matters, Newman includes his ode to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an interview on WNYC, Newman, who wrote the song well before his meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, joked that his “Putin” could well have been his campaign song and that he didn’t know why it turned out “so positive.” He does mock Putin for his seeming desire to be “George Clooney” with so many shirtless photographs.
He also wrote a song about Donald Trump but did not include it on the album. He’s said he regrets ever mentioning it.
Newman does add a new technique to his songwriting on his new album. On a number of tunes, he sings in the voices of multiple characters, something he says is difficult to make comprehensible. Two such songs on the album are “Brothers” and “Sonny Boy”. “Brothers” imagines John and Bobby Kennedy in the White House on a late night before the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Having an Irish whiskey by the fire. As Bobby lays out the plan for a middle of the night raid on the island, Jack professes his love of the great singer, Celia Cruz and how the raid must include liberating her from communism and bringing her to the U.S. “Sonny Boy” tells the story of how blues harmonica player Rice Miller appropriated the name of another blues harmonica player named Sonny Boy Williamson. The original “Sonny Boy” had to become “Sonny Boy Williamson I” while Rice Miller became “Sonny Boy Williamson II,” the more famous and successful Sonny Boy.
Back in the studio of WNYC, talking and answering questions, Newman plays his most poignant song on Dark Matter, “Wandering Boy.” He says it is a song written in the voice of parents talking about their child, its origins rooted in an annual Labor Day party Newman went to from the age of 10 until he was 60, held in his boyhood neighborhood in Los Angeles.
“He went off of that high board there
When he was 5 years old
Laughing like a maniac
Shining in the sun like gold
He was afraid of nothin’ then
He was loved by everyone
I see it clear as I see you
That day there in the sun.”
And just as quickly, the innocent boy disappears — to adulthood, to homelessness. Wherever he is, Newman recalls, two decades later he’d ask about the child and the “light would go out of the parents’ eyes and they’d say the child was gone.”
Listen to Randy Newman perform live on The Leonard Lopate show below: