By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Randy and Lenny Waronker--whose father, Simon, was the head of Liberty Records--spent hours watching Alfred work. They lived in the studio, and Randy would often say he knew his uncle's music as well as he knew Brahms or Mozart, whom he studied as a young child and as a music student at UCLA. That he would go into the music business was as inevitable as his last name.
But Randy was "intimidated by the standards" his family had, he says now. "They would hear some music and go, 'Anh, that's shitty,' and I'd think, 'Oh, Jesus, I thought that was good.' It's tough. It's tough having a family in the field."
But that didn't stop him from signing on as a songwriter with Metric Music, Liberty's publishing arm, in 1960. His first songwriting credit came with the Fleetwoods' "They Tell Me It's Summer," about a lonely teenage boy who didn't get the girl, and if it wasn't a confessional tune, it sure as hell was autobiographical. His first solo single, "Golden Gridiron Boy," released in 1962 and featured on the boxed set (much to Newman's chagrin), told almost the exact same story: Newman was the kid "too small to make the team," so he ended up in the band, losing the girl of his dreams to the football hero.
When it's suggested to him that "Golden Gridiron Boy" (which was produced by Pat Boone) isn't so different from the rest of his catalog--it's touching and bitter all at once, the sound of a broken heart sneering at the rest of the world--Newman pauses. "Really?" he asks. "I was mainly reminded of Bobby Vee, but I guess it does have something a little extra. It's such an odd, anachronistic thing--a football song. The last one was, like, in the '40s. It was such a weird thing to do."
Eventually, his earliest songs would end up being covered by the likes of exotica world-pop instrumentalist Martin Denny, R&B crooners Irma Thomas and Jerry Butler, former Animals pianist Alan Price, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, and such pop stars as Jackie DeShannon, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Harpers Bizarre, and the Everly Brothers, whose 1968 Roots Newman also produced. His buddy Van Dyke Parks would record the marvelous "Vine Street" for his 1967 debut (the demo appears on the box for the first time); meanwhile, Newman also scored episodes of Peyton Place, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Judd for the Defense, which occasionally surfaces on TV Land.
But Newman wasn't happy writing for others, even if he hated his own voice. As he describes it now, most of the singers who covered his songs simply didn't understand them. On her 1966 In My Life album, Judy Collins turned "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" into a soft, mushy ballad; it was as though she never even listened to the words, the cynicism concealed by the silk. When it came time for her to sing the bridge--the words "lonely, lonely," moaned in a desperate last gasp--she was far more impressed with her voice than with the song.
"Those who understood the songs were frightened, and others who didn't give a shit sang right through them," Waronker says.
"What got me to start recording was, I was complaining so much, I was just wearing myself out," Newman explains. "I said, 'If someone's gonna mess these things up, I ought to mess them up myself.'" Newman insists these other singers didn't necessarily misunderstand his songs; they just wanted to distance themselves from the sentiments contained within. "I am willing to completely subordinate everything to the song," he says, "and maybe they can't afford to do that."
So Newman signed to Warner Bros. in 1967 and began work on his first album, which carried the title Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun, with Waronker, then a junior A&R exec at Reprise, and Van Dyke Parks co-producing. Parks had just finished recording his own debut, Song Cycle, which featured Newman's "Vine Street" and was so majestic it sounded as though it belonged in another time--say, 1853.
The album they made together was this inexplicable creation, something never before heard and subsequently never copied. (Its only true antecedent is composer-arranger Gordon Jenkins' epic love letter to New York, 1945's Manhattan Tower. Or Parks' own debut.) Newman's 1968 debut was such a bizarre, brilliant piece of work--a soundtrack without a film, a record thick with opulent orchestrations that owed everything to Randy's Uncle Alfred. You could hear the locales: the carnival of "Davy the Fat Boy," the pier where "Linda" stood, the alley of "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."
Parks, Waronker, and Newman were aware of how out-of-step the record sounded, but it turns out each had his own idea of what it meant. Waronker talks about how it was a continuation of the musical adventures found on Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He speaks of how they were "just trying to break the rules," how they were "making a record not necessarily just for the hits, because it was more for your peers and how they would hear it."