Randy Newman may be more well-known these days for his movie soundtracks to Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. than he is for his classic singer/songwriter albums such as Good Old Boys and Sail Away, but both aspects of his 50-plus-year career will be spotlighted when he performs a solo concert Friday night at Symphony Hall in support of his latest album, Dark Matter.
It will be something of a homecoming for Newman, who debuted his acclaimed 1974 album Good Old Boys at Symphony Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and still remembers the show as one of his favorite moments on stage.
Good Old Boys included string arrangements composed by Newman, and the concert was one of the first onstage marriages of rock music and symphony orchestra. “The record company wanted to premiere the album down there,” Newman said in a phone interview last week. “It was a thrill. I was scared and fairly nervous. It was a big night for me. It was one of my most memorable shows.”
These days, Newman — who has received 20 Academy Award nominations (with two wins for Best Original Song) — is one of the best known film composers this side of John Williams.
He said the transition to film scores was natural for him; three of his uncles were noted film score composers during the heyday of Hollywood. “It was our family business,” he said. “That’s what I thought I was going to do all along.”
After he graduated high school, Newman got a low-level job as the operator of a Thermo-Fax copying machine at a movie studio. On the side, he began to compose for such television shows as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Lost In Space and Peyton Place. He also began to play with and write songs for the band Harpers Bizarre that went far outside the norm of rock music. One of his first recorded songs was a ragtime-influenced ditty called “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” and another, “The Biggest Night Of Her Life,” was about a schoolgirl who had decided to lose her virginity on her 16th birthday.
Both of those early songs showed hints of the songwriter Newman would become: songs written with a wry, sardonic sense of humor, coupled with a deep sense of irony and insightful observation about characters from America’s underbelly. He was (and remains) simply unlike anyone else writing and recording songs.
Most rock artists of his generation will list influences that range from old blues masters to early rock ’n’ rollers. Newman does cite Ray Charles, The Beatles and Carole King as influences, but also ragtime music and film composers, along with Gershwin and Mahler and Beethoven.
One of his first big breaks was writing the orchestral arrangement for the Peggy Lee classic “Is That All There Is” in 1969. Then Three Dog Night had a hit with his song “Mama Told Me Not To Come” in 1970 just after his first solo album was released.
Four years later, Newman released his signature album, Good Old Boys, which dug into the ethos and complexities of the American South. In retrospect, the album is a perfect window to the subculture that would eventually evolve into Trump’s America. “Birmingham” looked at a modern white male who extols the virtues of the simple life in the South. “Louisiana 1927” was a beautiful ode to the most destructive river flood in modern history. The song was later often used as the soundtrack for post-Katrina New Orleans. The album also included songs about the openly corrupt Louisiana politician Huey Long and other Southern “characters” such as the man who habitually ran naked down the street on the coldest nights of the year and a businessman in a mental hospital sharing his delusions with a psychiatrist.
The opening song, “Rednecks,” set the tone as it recounted the night then-Georgia Governor Lester Maddox famously walked off The Dick Cavett Show after his supporters were called bigots by author Truman Capote and football great Jim Brown. Written in the voice of a Southern redneck who sardonically says he’s “too dumb to make it in no Northern town,” the song took pains to point out racism was as rampant in the North as it was in the South and shocked many for its seemingly sympathetic look at the South. “We’re rednecks,” Newman sang with a prideful mix of sarcasm and anger. “We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground / We’re rednecks . . . and we’re keeping the n——— down.”
Newman lived in New Orleans as a child before his family moved to Los Angeles, and he said watching Maddox’s appearance on the late night talk show propelled him to write an album about the South. “The audience hoo-ha’ed him. And irrespective of what he was saying, he was the governor of Georgia. I wrote that song, and then I had to explain ‘rednecks’ to people, so I wrote ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Rollin’ and the album began to come together.”
Today, he seldom performs “Rednecks” in concert because it is liberally infused with the n-word. “I don’t think I can do it now,” Newman said. “I used to make the speech that the North felt morally superior to the South, and I wanted them to see the fallacy of that. But people now know the problem is everywhere and you have virtually no excuse for using that word now, although I could bring out that song in Atlanta.”
Because Newman often takes the point of view of a character in his songs, they often take politically incorrect turns. His first hit, “Short People,” sparked outrage for making fun of the alleged inadequacies of height-challenged people and its conclusion that they have no reason to live. “God’s Song” was written from the point of view of an Almighty God who couldn’t care less about mankind and laughs at all the prayers sent up to him. “You Can Leave Your Hat On” is in the voice of a dirty old man who tries to convince himself that he is justified in his perversions. And “Political Science,” in which the narrator advocates dropping nuclear bombs on the rest of the world since no one likes us; he mercifully spares Australia because of his fondness of kangaroos and, besides, we could build an all-American amusement park there.
Newman’s hardcore fans always felt in on the jokes when the songs were first recorded, but many of those songs get different reactions today in our politically correct world. Some, in addition to “Rednecks,” he’s stopped performing.
“‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ gets about the same reaction that it always has,” Newman said. “But ‘Political Science’ doesn’t get laughs now the way it once did. People are too scared because of the administration in office now. Saying, ‘We’re going to drop the big one now’ has a totally different meaning.”
Newman hasn’t allowed the political times, nor his mainstream success with films, to dull his edge. His latest album, Dark Matter, kicks off with the eight-minute long and heavily orchestrated “The Great Debate” set in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where scientists and religious leaders have gathered to debate science versus faith.
“That one’s not a song, it’s a piece,” said Newman. “The idea came from that opening line, a guy saying, ‘Welcome to this great arena in North Carolina.’ That kicked the whole thing off. It ends up in a debate between faith and science, and faith wins. The scientists and atheists or agnostics almost have nothing to defend.”
In that song, Newman even pokes fun of himself. One of the debaters points out to the moderator that Newman “creates characters, like you, as objects of ridicule. He doesn’t believe anything he has you say, nor does he want us to believe anything you say. Makes it easy for him to knock you down, hence, a strawman.”
Newman’s songs have knocked down strawmen for nearly five decades now, and he has one of the richest songwriting catalogs in modern American music.
Paul Simon, Newman’s contemporary as an American songwriting icon, told an audience at Emory University a couple of years ago that he now struggles to write songs and that his pace has slowed to a crawl. Newman said his songwriting is now more of a craft than it used to be. “I don’t get as many gifts when I get an idea,” he said. “I have to work harder to finish them now. But I think the songs on this album are just as good or better than any of my songs.”
He was reminded of a show he performed here in 1977 at the Great Southeast Music Hall. Newman came on stage, performed about four songs and then spent the next 90 minutes taking requests from the audience. “I did that?” he said. “Well, I must’ve been in a really good mood that night. I don’t remember ever doing that before or since.”
A few minutes later, he returned to that night in Atlanta. “Maybe I’ll do that again at this show,” he teased with a laugh.