Adrift in Cosmic Quarantine: Randy Newman Turns 77

November 28, 2020   •   By Tim Riley

RANDY NEWMAN’S SONGS carry a scorpion’s sting, but he sings them with a piquant charm. He recently performed his pandemic verse “Stay Away” for a public service announcement, crooning “wash your hands and don’t touch your face” with a Toscanini box set sitting on a shelf behind him and a book about Alban Berg in a pile to one side. He’s shy until he starts playing, and then you hear the bracing candor of that familiar voice adrift in cosmic quarantine. The title rhymes nicely with 1972’s “Sail Away,” and the song’s novelty brings back the ironic glory of Newman’s only pop hit, “Short People,” from 1977.

As he turns 77 on November 28, Newman’s career continues to toggle between over a dozen keenly wrought rock albums — from his eponymous 1968 debut up to 2017’s Dark Matter — and smooth Hollywood scores: Toy Story (1995), Marriage Story (2019). That he projects authority and comfort in such disparate musical zones speaks to both his range and his disquiet. He’s a musical intellectual who has managed to get by without the typical celebrity headaches. There didn’t seem to be much new to learn about Newman, starting with his early breakout numbers (“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” from 1966), to the tribute album Nilsson Sings Newman (1970) that turned him into a brand, to the standout number from the soundtrack for the 1970 film Performance, “Gone Dead Train,” that rang out completely unintimidated next to Mick Jagger.

But then, strangely, one of his early numbers from a forgotten ’60s songwriting gig resurfaced on television recently to break this tidy frame, summoning the ghosts of Newman’s salad days and giving us a glimpse of his early sensibility in development. In the second episode of the dystopian British sci-fi series Black Mirror, Jessica Brown Findlay enters a TV talent show and sings an Irma Thomas track from 1964, “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).” The show’s producer, Charlie Brooker, used the original recording of the criminally underrated New Orleans soulster, with the chirping backup singers giving the song’s stylistic kitsch strange new depths. But check that songwriting credit: Jeannie Seely and Randy Newman. At the time, he was a nobody, and Seely had to wait until 1966 for her breakthrough with “Don’t Touch Me,” which won her a Grammy.

Seely worked as a secretary for Imperial Records, which handled Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and a lot of Dave Bartholomew productions. Imperial had bought the Minit label (where Thomas cut many exquisite soul sides), and then got absorbed into Liberty, where Newman worked. Her one and only Randy Newman session was a moment of pop kismet, when the Gods smile on pure chance and a minor classic spills out. “I had stayed after work because I had this idea for a song,” Seely, now 80, recently told me over the phone.

Now, first of all, you need to know I’m not a musician. I can hear these chords. And I had the verse written and I could hear where I wanted that melody to go. And I stayed after work to use the piano. I still couldn’t find it and then I heard Randy come down the hall. So I hollered at him.

I said, “Will you come in and help me figure out what I’m hearing on this?” And Randy was such a great guy. He was always just so quiet and incredibly talented. So anyway, he came in and helped me, he heard what I was hearing …

The phrase was something she’d seen in a magazine ad for pantyhose.

But, whatever, the ad said, “Anyone who knows what comfort is, will understand.” And that is it, man, I said, because I was going through this little situation here where everybody told me I was crazy, you know, but I was crazy over this guy. I was hearing “You’re crazy.” And I’m like, well, anyone who knows what love is would understand, you know.

The moody dip the singer takes on the parenthetical hook (“will under-stand”) conveys a pregnant, throbbing fate, catching the listener up in the song’s dilemma: love can hit strongest when it defies reason, becoming more irresistible as it looms out of reach. Seely can’t remember how the song found Irma Thomas, but the result creates a vortex of feeling whenever it plays. Unfortunately, the song’s reception got upended by its B-side, “Time Is on My Side,” which the Rolling Stones quickly covered for an early hit, and then “Anyone…” mostly disappeared for three decades. (Covers from Boyz II Men and Seal passed by, respectful but inconsequential.)

Thomas followed up with another smoky Newman number, “While the City Sleeps,” in 1965, but like a lot of R&B acts by that point, Thomas’s indomitable frailty got plowed under by the British Invasion. As a staff writer at Liberty, Newman placed numerous songs with acts like Gene Pitney and Jackie DeShannon. Like a lot of young writers, he made quickie demos, gave them to song “pluggers,” who shopped them around to producers, and crossed his fingers. Newman’s trek through this labyrinth proves revealing, as his songs began to carry his signature “voice,” a coherent fictive persona.

Newman’s onstage bio starts with his first solo album in 1968, arranged by Van Dyke Parks. Listening to this old material, some of which remains absent from both YouTube and major streaming services, you can start to hear Newman as a major songwriter; even his lesser material throws off expressive static. You can measure his talent and taste not only by what he wrote but by who picked him up: see the two handsome Ace compilations, On Vine Street: The Early Songs of Randy Newman (2008) and Bless You California: More Early Songs of Randy Newman (2010).

His first charting record came via Vic Dana, who sang “I Wanna Be There” in 1961, the singer complaining bitterly about not getting invited to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. Then the Fleetwoods picked up “They Tell Me It’s Summer,” with its command of pop’s evanescence, and soon top-shelf singers were grabbing on to Newman’s sturdy material: Erma Franklin, with “Love Is Blind” (1963); the Walker Brothers, with “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” (1964); Jackie DeShannon, with “She Don’t Understand Him Like I Do” (1964). Some songs, like “Nobody Needs Your Love More Than I Do” (1965), featured a sure pop strut that elevated Gene Pitney’s reedy, pinched delivery. Newman’s material crossed deftly from pop into soul, with “Big Brother” by The Persuasions (1965), “Love Is Blind” by Lou Rawls (1964), “Friday Night” by the O’Jays (1966), and especially Jerry Butler’s “I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore” (1964). He even placed a song with his guru, Fats Domino, who sang “Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better” in 1968.

It was only when Newman began singing his own songs, with their gently authoritative mixture of snark and ambivalence, that people began to realize numerous hits by others had emerged from his intriguing and precarious sensibility. Three Dog Night cranked “Mama Told Me Not to Come” into their first number one in 1970, but Newman wrote it back in 1966, and Eric Burdon and the Animals tracked it, struggling to stay afloat (their version veers from a harpsichord prelude into a corny horn arrangement). “I’ve Been Wrong Before” holds up nicely, too, even though Cilla Black’s original (from 1965) quickly found itself embarrassed by Dusty Springfield (who withholds the flimsy Picardy third ending, resolving the minor mode into major). Springfield returned to Newman for two outstanding numbers on her towering 1969 album Dusty in Memphis: “I Don’t Want to Hear it Anymore” and “Just One Smile” suddenly sound grown up, beyond their years. Elvis Costello revived “I’ve Been Wrong Before” on his 1995 cover album, Kojak Variety, placing Newman next to Burt Bacharach, Mose Allison, and Willie Dixon. Costello keeps the descending piano motif to illustrate how much the song relies on Newman’s original arrangement.

Unlike many other hacks working the same racket, Newman finally penned a number that found traction as a vocal standard. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” began life as a chart miss for pop singer Julius La Rosa in 1966. (La Rosa had sung “Eh, Cumpari!” for a number-two pop hit back in 1953, and never breached the Top Ten again; his recording of Newman’s “Rain” remains curiously absent from YouTube.) But this ambitious number soon turned into an insider favorite, and perhaps a model for Peggy Lee’s exquisitely louche 1969 hit with the Leiber and Stoller song, “Is That All There Is?” (Newman arranged and conducted that session). Cross-pollinating romanticism with foreboding, “Rain” came into view slowly as a minor classic: rock ’n’ roll distrust dressed up in Cole Porter threads. The song seemed to burn on its own ambitions: verses outlined a searing betrayal (“Broken windows and empty hallways…”), making the song’s only repeated line — “Human kindness is overflowing” — painfully ironic. Then the bridge steps outside the house for a smoke (“Tin can at my feet / Think I’ll kick it down the street / That’s the way to treat a friend”). The lyrics haven’t held up as well as the frame, which still strikes a strange, malicious elegance.

“Rain” proved tremendously difficult to pull off, so singers pounced: first Judy Collins, then Bobby Darin, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone. (Irma Thomas finally broached it, with Newman at the piano, on Simply Grand in 2006.) Bette Midler covered it in the soundtrack to her 1988 film Beaches. But only UB40 charted the number, with an upbeat, reverse-novelty take in 1980. Barbra Streisand didn’t deign to cover it until 2012, by which point it was a totem, a symbol of how rock had created a vast underrated catalog for singers to plunder.

While “Rain” felt like a new standard, as sturdy in its way as the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” with a bridge that unlaced what the verses had sewn up, Newman’s voice didn’t really manifest until he started singing his own songs. They clicked into focus when he sang them, even if he would be the first to tell you he didn’t have pipes in the traditional sense. Like Lou Reed or Jimi Hendrix, he made non-singing his signature. Newman included his own version of “Rain” on his ’68 debut, with a blues phrasing that dramatizes his songwriting finesse. Listen closely and you’ll hear him dropping consonants and slurring words, yet in a way that’s gently attuned to meaning and subtext, just like the most highly attentive stylist. His producer Lenny Waronker once called him the “King of the Suburban Blues.”

Newman’s version of “Rain” shows a deeply skilled pianist and arranger imagining how blues artists can approach “straight” material. Where Sinatra might not have fully mastered the blues (and cluelessly turned down Newman’s “Lonely at the Top”), Newman’s approach brought the rock ’n’ roll sensibility a new panache, a heightened formality that rivaled Lennon-McCartney or Brian Wilson’s work with the Beach Boys. And even though his career needed some push, a key piece of his triumph is how it all starts to sound inevitable in retrospect. If you only know Newman through his Pixar movies, or via the work of other singers, you don’t know the half of his wayward, beguiling smirk.

On his 2017 album Dark Matter, Newman delivers up a power-crazed, Ralph Steadman lithograph of a song called, simply, “Putin.” Expertly orchestrated and sung with glee, it evokes the eponymous tyrant’s vast and vulgar ego as a sprawling, unhinged cartoon. “Putin” does to song craft what its namesake does to law and order. His almost comforting ode to COVID-19, “Stay Away,” has none of this spite: instead, it gurgles gently on the zeitgeist’s ripples, as sweet and cozy as a hot cup of tea: “If you’re angry about something let it go / If the kids are frightened, tell them not to be afraid / But don’t let ’em touch your face…” (This from the same guy who wrote titles like “I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do” and “I’m Bleeding All Over the Place.”) “Stay Away” has the kind of rarefied simplicity that only a very great songwriter can aim for, never mind hit. And it distills Newman’s hedging generosity into a salutary gesture, at precisely the moment we need it most.

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Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. It’s the first college textbook on the music of the Beatles. See his personal website for details.