Randy Newman:Songwriter For Hire

I first became aware of Randy Newman (that’s the great) in the early months of 1967 when the Alan Price Set had a UK Top 5 hit with the lyrically dexterous “Simon Smith & His Amazing Dancing Bear”. Price’s previous group, his Rhythm & Blues Combo, had become the Animals who’s second single, the momentous British Beat interpretation of a folk standard “The House of the Rising Son” (1964), deservedly became a massive international success. The label of that 45 contained the words “Trad-arr:A Price”, an astute move on his part which triggered “musical differences” & his departure from the group soon after the first royalty cheques arrived.

 

Related imageThe seven-piece Alan Price Set didn’t write their own material, the debut LP, “The Price to Play” (1966), was a mix of the American Blues, R&B & Soul they played on stage. In a shift in style, on 1967’s “A Price on His Head” there were no less than seven Randy Newman songs. Four of these were included on Randy’s own eponymous debut LP released the following year. By 1968 it was becoming a given that if you needed a song which combined individuality, direct emotions & a dry wit then he was your man. The list of artists who selected from his catalogue was long, impressive & growing.

 

 

Randy, who dropped out of his music studies at the University of California, was joining the family business. Three of his uncles were established composers of film & TV scores. The most notable, Alfred Newman, won 9 Oscars for his soundtracks. He went pro when he was 17 & “They Tell Me It’s Summer”, a b-side to a Fleetwoods hit record provided financial encouragement to the aspiring songwriter.  I know now that Randy had written songs before “Simon Smith…”. I was not aware of the quality of the artists who had recorded his music & that he had written familiar songs that had been sizeable hits in the UK.

 

Image result for irma thomas anyone who knows what love isI didn’t know until recently that he has a co-credit for the incredible Irma Thomas song “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)”. Imperial Records were based in Los Angeles, Newman’s hometown, & enjoyed much success through a connection with Dave Bartholomew, a major player in the development of New Orleans music. Young Irma already had a fine string of impassioned Soul ballads behind her when “Anyone Who…”, a co-write between Randy, aspiring Country singer Jeannie Seely, then a secretary at Imperial & two others who appear to have written little else, was paired with “Time Is On My Side” for a 1964 single. The latter proved ideal for the Rolling Stones brand of bluesy British Beat. The atmospheric, enchanting “Anyone Who…” has received greater recognition since it’s inclusion in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror” series. Together they comprise one of the most desirable & satisfying 7″ plastic discs released in the decade. Click on the clip above because Irma Thomas was, & still is, quite something.

 

 

1964 was the year that Randy Newman’s name really started getting around. Established artists such as Bobby Darin, Lou Rawls & Jackie De Shannon picked up his songs. The most substantial, enduring title was “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” given a dramatic interpretation by the consummate Jerry Butler, enjoying solo success after leaving the Impressions. A double A-side with “I Stand Accused”, there’s another covetable piece of vinyl. Over in the UK three Americans, the Walker Brothers were enjoying great popularity & the song was ideal for the expressive voice of Scott Walker. “I’ve Been Wrong Before” was a Top 20 UK hit for the Beatles mate Cilla Black &, in the  same year, appeared on “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty” by Britain’s leading lady vocalist. Newman’s intriguing ballads & Ms Springfield were a great match. Her version of “I Don’t Want to Hear It…” was recorded for the impeccable “Dusty in Memphis” (1969). It makes the cut here because if you ever get the chance to listen to Dusty Springfield sing then take it.

 

 

Image result for gene pitney rolling stones tourGene Pitney had his biggest US successes in 1962. There were not only 2 Top 10 singles but “Rubber Ball” (Bobby Vee), “He’s A Rebel” (The Crystals) & “Hello Mary Lou” (Ricky Nelson) were his songs that you know by other  people.He lost a little direction though “Gene Pitney Meets the Fair Young Ladies of Folkland” (1964) is worth having for the title & cover. The two 1965 albums of duets with Country legend George Jones have worn very well too. His first UK hit, 1963’s “Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa”, Bacharach & David’s capsule soap opera, was an obvious quality item, A visit over here with Phil Spector,  hanging out with the Rolling Stones, recording an early song of theirs, made him kinda cool. His career revived in the US but he always seemed more popular in the UK. Two of his 11 Top 10 singles here were written by Randy Newman. “Nobody Needs Your Love (More Than I Do)” was another pinch of Jerry Butler, a quickened tempo, added orchestration & Gene’s trademark double tracked vocals gave him his usual hit. I probably have a preference for Jerry’s take but then if “The Ice Man” sang the weather forecast I would consider buying it.

 

“Just One Smile”, originally a B-side for the Tokens, a Doo-Wop group from Brooklyn, was Pitneyfied & added to his list of creditable hits. With a growing maturity & confidence Randy Newman began to develop a more individual style. Songs like “Tickle Me”, “So Long Dad”, “Mama Told Me Not to Come” & others displayed an original approach to the popular song, an acerbic wit & a slightly skewed view on Life through an assemblage of characters. He could still write those affecting, often slightly forlorn ballads & the queue to get a hold of his new songs got even longer. His own records were great then greater & don’t get me started on “Good Old Boys” (1974) because this is about Randy as a jobbing songwriter so…another time.

 

 

I was going to end this with the Nashville Teens & “The Biggest Night of Her Life”, a 1967 UK 45 which, for a couple of weeks I was convinced was headed for the charts. As I said there are songs that I know but I didn’t know Randy Newman wrote. Here is a version of “Just One Smile” by an absolute master of Chicago Soul & favourite of mine that I wasn’t aware of for years. It was recorded but failed to make the cut for Walter Jackson’s LP “Speak Her Name” (1966). Walter’s husky baritone, powerful & subtle, could make a grown man (that would be me) have a little something in his eye. Magnificent.

You Can’t Mix Love With Money ‘Cause If You Do It’s Gonna Hurt Somebody (Arthur Alexander)

Last weekend, the 9th of June, marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Arthur Alexander a singer/composer from Alabama of such significance that I am prepared to suspend the First Law of loosehandlebars &…just this one time… use the “U” word. Arthur Alexander is  underrated & here is the proof, the whole proof & nothing but the…you get me !

 

 

So Randy Newman, a strong contender in a very strong field for a place on the Great American Songwriter podium, brings along Mark Knopfler off of Dire Straits to play with the world class house band on NBC’s “Sunday Night”. He has, even in these pre Disney/Pixar years, a stack of his own quality songs but chooses to perform a song by, in his words, “a great songwriter” Arthur Alexander. In 1962 teenager Randy was still trying to figure out how to write a pop song. “You Better Move On” is of a standard to which he aspired. It is a lovely, precise, assertive bit of work.

 

The song was the first hit to be recorded at a converted tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals where Rick Hall was establishing FAME studios. Arthur had a deal with Dot Records of Nashville who did not really know what they had.  The B-side to  the Mann/Weil written follow up, “Soldier Of Love” was evidently the superior track. In 1962 the generation of young British musicians, inspired by pick up an instrument by that first rock & roll explosion, were leaving school &  ready to make their own noise. They, like Randy Newman in L.A., were listening to Arthur too.

 

 

4 of these listeners were the Beatles. They performed 3 songs Alexander recorded, another, “Anna (Go To Him)”, made it on to the debut LP. The songs suited John Lennon’s emphatic vocals & the logical, simple pop/country/soul/rock structure (Arthur really did have it going on !) was a big influence on his songwriting. I’m giving up “All I’ve Got To Do” & “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, you know of others. In 1963, down in that London, the Rolling Stones were recording an EP of 4 songs for their label (the one that had turned down the Fab 4) which thought an LP would be a little previous. 3 of the tracks were well-known up-tempo rockers. It was “You Better Move On” (see above)  showing a more restrained, soulful Stones, which got played on the radio.

 

“Every Day I Have To Cry Some”, written by Alexander was given to Steve Alaimo, a teen idol/TV presenter who made better records than his jaunty interpretation of a plaintive song. Arthur did not get to record his song until 1975 & it’s a little busier than it would have been 10 years earlier. The quality of his voice still shines though. Back at the cultural centre of the planet in 1964 the song was claimed by a class act.

 

 

 

What a great clip. A video capsule of Swinging London in 1964, good music, everyone looking sharp, smiling & they are only sharing the dancefloor with a Beatle ! “Ready Steady Go” was must-see TV not just because it featured the best music around but it captured that notion that post-war Britain had changed & that there would be no going back. Dusty Springfield had a season ticket to R.S.G. interviewing the Mop Tops on their 1st appearance & here she is performing a track from her “I Only Want To Be With You” EP. The singer did her share of overly dramatic ballads, be-wigged & mascara masked on creaky variety shows like the other women singers. On R.S.G. she could relax & show her excellent taste in the soul music that she rode shotgun for in the UK. She was too old to be a Mod but she was still a face. Dusty’s smoky voice was a special talent suited to both ballads & belters. For me, when she was giving it that soul shimmy, singing a Motown or an Arthur Alexander song she looked to be a happy & attractive young woman.

 

There has been a lot written about Dusty since her passing about the insecurities she suffered over her looks, her sexuality & most other things. It’s a wonder she ever left the house. I was not even a teenager when this clip was filmed, I could neither locate Lesbia on a map nor had I even met a lesbian. I did know that Dusty was the Queen of British music with too much about her to take the cabaret/Eurovision route on offer to female artists in the music business. I was right, she never did.

 

 

One of the fables embroidered into Rock’s Rich Tapestry is the saga involving Phil Spector, Ike & Tina Turner & “River Deep Mountain High”. The Tycoon of Teen pays Ike to stay away from the studio then makes Tina sing till she’s hoarse to create his Wall of Sound masterpiece. This tower of force is ignored by the American record buying public, the master producer retreats to his mansion to lick his wounds. I saw it in a movie so it must be true. “River” is now accepted as a classic but so is the follow-up 45, the Spector produced, Holland-Dozier-Holland written, “A Love Like Yours (Don’t come Knocking Everyday)”, it’s just that this cymbals-in an-echo-chamber gem complicates the story.

 

There are 4 other tracks from the Spector/Turner partnership. The commercial failure of “River” discouraged  both Phil & Ike from completing the planned LP. One of those 4 is this Wrecking Crew symphonic take on “Every Day I Have To Cry”. I’m not personally convinced of the merits of Arthur Alexander on steroids. I love Spector’s productions & understand how he felt the song was strong enough to bear a little extra weight. It is the clarity & restraint of his songs which is so effective, the strength is implied …mmm, attractive. So, the 2 biggest groups in the world, Dusty…Bob Dylan covered Arthur’s debut single later.

 

Heavy friends but he was driving a bus in the 1980s. There were a couple of later records & the collected work of Arthur Alexander is a deep soul delight. His legacy though is more than a nice set of hits. His natural ability with melody & emotion pointed the way forward for the Beatles, the Stones & others who preferred their pop music to include some integrity. He really was that good.