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Randy Newman
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Randy Newman

Randy Newman (born November 28, 1943, in Los Angeles, California) is a United States songwriter, arranger, singer and pianist who is notable for his mordant, immaculately written pop songs and for his many film scores. His uncles Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman were noted Hollywood film-score writers. At the same time, Newman's drawl is reminiscent of that of blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and of New Orleans rock-and-roll singers like Chris Kenner (he lived in New Orleans as a child and spent summers there until he was eleven years old).

His film scores include Ragtime and The Natural, and he has scored all the Disney-Pixar films to date, including Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc.

Newman is noted as a lyricist of considerable sophistication. He often writes songs from unusual perspectives: "Sail Away" is a slave trader's come-on, and "Birmingham" is written from the perspective of a man--"a roller in a steel mill"-- who loves his ordinary life in Birmingham, Alabama. His many place-name songs, many of which are archetypal examples of ambivalent Americana, include "I Love L.A.," "Baltimore," "Louisiana 1927," and "Illinois." Newman is also a consummate musician whose deceptively simple songs mask an unparalleled craftsmanship, and he is a highly skilled arranger.

Newman had become a professional songwriter by the time he was seventeen, and landed a contract as a singer with Reprise Records. His debut album, Randy Newman, was unsuccessful upon its 1968 release (see 1968 in music). However, many artists, including Alan Price, Judy Collins, the Everly Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Pat Boone and Peggy Lee, covered his songs. In 1970, Harry Nilsson recorded an album of Newman compositions called Nilsson Sings Newman. That album was a success, and it paved the way for Newman's 1970 release, 12 Songs, which abandoned the elaborate arrangements of his first album for a more stripped-down sound that showcased Newman's piano. 12 Songs was critically acclaimed, but Newman's take on racism, sexism, violence and other human follies was not commercially successful in the era of James Taylor and Three Dog Night (who made a huge hit of his "Mama Told Me Not to Come").

1972's Sail Away was a moderate hit, with the title track making its way into the repertoire of Ray Charles. "Burn On" concerned itself with the pollution of Ohio's Cuyahoga River, while "You Can Leave Your Hat On" was covered by Joe Cocker and later, by Keb Mo. Good Old Boys was a set of songs about the American South; "Rednecks" pitted Lester Maddox against a "smart-ass New York Jew," and as usual it was somewhat difficult to tell with whom Newman's sympathies ultimately lay. Good Old Boys is, along with 12 Songs, some of his most accomplished work. Little Criminals was a lesser effort, but "Short People" became a surprise hit; Nina Simone did a version of "Baltimore." At the end of the 1970s, Born Again was a prescient commentary on the money-worship of the era of Reaganomics, and featured a witty song about the Electric Light Orchestra entitled "The Story of a Rock and Roll Band."

Newman's work as a film composer began in 1981, with Ragtime. For this, he was nominated for two Academy Awards. His 1983 album Trouble in Paradise received greater critical acclaim than some of his previous work, and included the hit single "I Love L.A." This song is a good example of Newman's ambivalence toward what might be termed the American Dream, and demonstrates why those who dub him an ironist often miss the genuine affection Newman seems to have for his subjects. As he explained in a 2001 interview, "There's some kind of ignorance L.A. has that I'm proud of. The open car and the redhead, the Beach Boys....that sounds really good to me."

In the 1990s, Newman adapted Dr. Faust into a concept album and musical, Faust.   He was again nominated for an Academy Award for his work on "You've Got a Friend" for Toy Story.  

Newman has the dubious distinction of receiving the most Oscar nominations without a single win (15). His streak was broken when he received the Best Song Oscar for the 2002 Monsters Inc song "If I Didn't Have You."