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.

And what you’ve done: was it for reason or for rhyme? Was it just for fun? (Chip Taylor)

Chip Taylor is the composer of “Wild Thing”, the proto-punk surefire smash by the Troggs. If this was his only contribution to our music then it would be enough. He made everything groovy. Of course there are so many more great songs, some I am still discovering. In the 1960s he worked in that hothouse of creativity & dodgy deal-making around the Brill Building in New York. Chip has stories about the great & not-so-good of the record business which make it sound like a branch of disorganized crime. He seems to have survived because he is a dude & he could write hit songs. Chip Taylor, born James Wesley Voight, is the brother of the actor Jon & is Angelina Jolie’s uncle…a dude. Here’s one of his top tunes.

Oh Yes ! How great is this ? Very. The wonderful Evie Sands singing the equally fine “I Can’t Let Go”. Chip was writing in New York but there was always a Memphis influence. Down in Nashville Chet Atkins, pivotal guitarist turned influential producer, had signed a deal where he pretty much took any songs that Taylor wrote. With that kind of track record our man got to make his own records too. Evie Sands was unlucky. The first 45 that was Taylor-made for her was blind-sided by a rush released cover from a hotter artist. Her original recording of “Angel Of The Morning” was overshadowed by Merrilee Rush who had the world wide hit. She has that East Coast cool, a solo Shangri-La. Evie should have come to the UK. We love our blue-eyed soul women over here. She would have given her admirer Dusty Springfield a run for her money. Instead Ron Richards, a production associate of George Martin, took the song for his own band of British Invasion hit-makers, the Hollies. “I Can’t Let Go” became one of the run of impeccable, harmonious classics released by that fine Manchester band.

Chip Taylor had quite a routine through the 60s. He had a young family to support & needed a regular source of income so for the first couple of hours in his day he studied the racing form. He called his bookie with his selections & then the music world passed through his office in search of a song or a deal. He seems to have never been too precious about his songs, getting them recorded was the thing. He is one of a small band of writers who’s songs could be rock, pop, country or soul. Really, Chip wrote songs that you know even if you don’t know him. He even, along with the Abba guys, has a credit on the title track of the Ali/Foreman movie “Rumble In The Jungle”.

Well O to the M to the G ! When I started this post I had another favourite soul song planned. I knew that Chip Taylor wrote “Welcome Home” but I thought that I knew that there was no video of Walter Jackson promoting his 1965 R&B Top 20 hit. So here it is, my new favourite musical thing. used as the title track of Walter’s Okeh collection. I do like my soul singers to be raw but the Chicago duo of Jerry Butler & Walter Jackson are the nonpareils of the smooth soul serenade…resistance is futile. The one that got away is “Country Girl, City Man” the terrific follow up to “Storybook Children” by the hit soul/country duo billy Vera & Judy Clay. it’s a treat.

Through the 1970s Chip Taylor began to record his own records. They are lovely country records filled with simple, direct, mature songs. Man, there were so many awful middle of the road singer-songwriters hanging about in the middle of the road at this time. Chip’s LPs really did deserve a wider audience, we would never have had to listen to Neil Diamond or Dr Hook. By 1979 Chip had added blackjack to his track gambling skills. There were no records for 15 years & he made a living as a professional gambler.  “Sometimes there’s a man— I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? This is Dudeness of a Newman or McQueen order.

Chip did come back to music of course, writing songs was one of the things he did better than many. In 2001 he met Carrie Rodriguez & for the last 10 years they have collaborated on a lot of music. I suppose it gets called “Americana”, a term which I think means that it sounds like The Band. Chip has such a facility , the songs are just so listenable. Last year he released an LP with the New Ukrainians which is dark but still warm. A man in his 70s if not raging against the passing of time then getting a little cranky about it. “F**k All The Perfect People” is the title track &, y’know, we could adopt less fitting theme songs than this. If you are offended by the lyrics then here is a little beauty for you from the very same man.

Yep Chip gets 4 clips because his contribution to the music is just bigger than most. He is a true legend who could & should be telling us his great stories of all the artists, movers, shaker & sharks who have crossed his path. Over at his website, rock and roll joe, there are appreciations of unsung heroes. It is precisely what the Interwebs are for. Of course, the stories about the villains would be just as interesting but Chip strikes me as being about the positive after over 50 years in the music business. That’s good yeah ?

It’s Okeh Because It’s Alright. (More Curtis)

In 1920 a New York independent record label had a surprise super solid smash hit with “Crazy Blues” by Marnie Smith. Here was a new little-tapped market for discs by African-American artists & Okeh Records hired musical directors in N.Y. & in Chicago to supervise the 8000 series of “Race” records released between 1921 & 1934. This all-star catalogue is now legendary & in 1926 Columbia bought a controlling interest in the company. Okeh’s light flickered intermittently over the years & in 1953 it became exclusively an R&B outlet. Then, in 1962 Carl Davis (that’s the “legendary”…), a Chicago producer, was employed as the head of the label. Davis was a talented & successful man himself. He assembled a group of singers, musicians & writers who, until 1965, made Okeh a creative & commercial hub for Chicagoan soul music.

OH-OH ! What’s that sound ? That’s “Rhythm” by Major Lance. “The Monkey Time” was a simple R&B dance record (in 1963 just everyone was Twisting the night away) which gave Okeh its first hit record for 10 years. Major had 4 Top 20 hits with this sweet soul which took that Brazilian baion rhythm off of the Drifters  & added a little cha-cha shuffle. The good Major, a former boxer & dancer, had the moves & was able to sell the crap out of these songs when he appeared on”Shindig”, “Bandstand” or whatever the black & white TV pop show of the day was called. I could have chosen any one of 5 clips of these hits.”Rhythm” gets the shout because I get to pick & I love this track. The “Best Of” is a cracking, dance around the house thing. The expanded 40 track, 2 CD collection maintains the quality. “The Monkey Time” was created by the team of Davis, Johnny Pate & Curtis Mayfield. “That was my introduction with working with Carl Davis” Pate said, ” We had a ball, making some very great music.” And so they did.

Image result for major lance curtis mayfieldAll but one of Lance’s 45s were written by his friend Curtis Mayfield. Curtis’ own group, the Impressions, were signed to ABC but it was at Okeh where he served his apprenticeship. With his school friends the Butler brothers, Jerry & Billy, he worked out how the simple gospel tunes from their church worked just fine when transposed to idealized teen romance or imagined dances. From the more experienced Davis & Pate he learned stuff, music stuff & business stuff. He was provided with an environment where he did not have to tout his songs around, where he got paid & where he had to sell some records. The glorious “Rhythm” was Okeh 7203 & here is #7204.

Now I don’t want to overstate my case here but Walter Jackson has never failed to hit the spot since that first Okeh selection I bought in the olden days. In the 60s alone there were so many outstanding voices, those obvious ones you take for granted like Otis, Marvin, Aretha & Al Green. Walter Jackson’s smooth, dramatic & powerful vocals are distinctive &, in these golden Okeh years, were of a quality to match the greats. Walter was a Image result for walter jacksoncrooner with soul. When I first heard his version of “My Ship Is Comin’ In” (a hit for the Walker Brothers) it was like…so that’s how that song goes…perfect. His later work does drift to the middle of the road but the Okeh team ensured that his ballads had balls & while the songs were not hits they are classics. “Welcome Home”, a best of collection from these years will make your life better.

I did not know that Walter had suffered polio as a child & had to use crutches. The only Y-Tube clip is from the late-70s & has no sound. At a time when Chicago soul was young & quite wonderfully gauche he brought a polish & authority to songs like “It’s All Over” while the budding “Iceman”, Jerry Butler, was watching carefully & taking notes.

Image result for billy butler and the enchantersBilly Butler & the Enchanters were the Junior Impressions of the label. Billy was signed as a teenager. While his older brother was over at Vee Jay Records, recording a mix of Mayfield & standards, he was happy to go with the sweet harmonies, the uptempo, punchy Latin touches that were coming to be recognised as the trademarks of Chicago soul. “I Can’t Work No Longer” was the biggest of a number of releases that were almost trial runs for Curtis, checking out what worked & what didn’t. However successful you can dance to every second of every one of them.

Okeh was never going to be a true rival to Motown or Stax because the major players were on contract & had an eye on their futures. In 1965 Carl Davis, who had continued to work with Gene Chandler, another Chicago great, joined Brunswick where he orchestrated the comeback of Jackie Wilson (Davis produced “Higher & Higher”) & had other hits. Curtis & Pate were now confident that the Impressions were ready for prime time. They concentrated on & succeeded in making the band one of the most influential African American acts of the decade. Later both Davis & Mayfield ran their own labels out of their home city.

Okeh survived for a couple of more years. Walter Jackson hung around & there was a new infusion of energy from rock and roller Larry Williams. Williams, writer of some classic songs brought old hand Little Richard along with young gun Johnny Guitar Watson. The Williams/Watson collaborations are fine examples of energetic soul. It was though, impossible to emulate that short, special period when young men with music on their minds created the soul sound we now associate with their sweet home Chicago.