Randy Newman may not have contributed a huge amount to the panoply of pop hits in terms of numbers, but has certainly done his bit in terms of quality. Newman is the songwriter’s songwriter, a master craftsman of the lyric and much more than the usual purveyor of fast-food tunes and words.
He first made his mark in the UK with Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear, a hit for Alan Price and quite an oddity in the 1967 world of psychedelia, when everyone was vying to be the coolest cat. Randy Newman was never concerned with being cool. He’s the musical equivalent of the nerd, writing about whatever he feels like in whatever style suits the lyrics. He looks more like a school chemistry teacher than a supplier of superior songs to the stars and he certainly doesn’t look like a star himself. He never did. But Price was so impressed with the nascent songwriting talent that he put no fewer than five Newman songs on the album A Price on his Head. Even the B side of Simon Smith was a Newman song: Tickle Me.
American megastars Three Dog Night brought Newman back into the UK charts with 1969’s Mama Told Me Not To Come, a nerd’s eye view of a party where everyone else is drunk and smoking dope and the narrator doesn’t know what the hell is going on.
The Newman CV includes a long solo career with limited commercial success but a core of devoted admirers, and sporadic outbreaks of hits for other people.
He’s Got The Blues, sung in part by Paul Simon, is typical, or typically different, with Newman’s character raising a cynical eyebrow at the way a smooth singer tugs on the heartstrings, while Simon’s bits demonstrate just how that is done in his sweet, effortless voice. It’s like a practical seminar at a college of popular music.
This song bends this series’ rules in not being a cover version, but Paul Simon is so perfect for his part that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t written for him, and it’s also hard to imagine a Simon completist not considering this a bona fide part of the collection.
I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today, which Newman originally recorded in 1968, has been covered by dozens of artists, from Judy Collins to Leonard Nimoy, Barbara Dickson to Barbra Streisand and Chris Farlowe to Peter Gabriel.
One that has become a standard of sorts, nor least in karaoke, is You Can Leave Your Hat On, an amusingly suggestive little number ruined, in my opinion, by such leering fools as dirty old uncle Tom Jones, who leaves no nudge unnudged and no wink unwinked. Millions of people disagree, and I hope I don’t sound prudish, but really, it’s the kind of performance that merits a slap in the face. Good for the Newman pension fund, though, and he needs it, because he signed away the rights to his early songs and doesn’t receive a penny in royalties for them.