Of all the singer-songwriters to emerge from Southern California in the '70s, Randy Newman stands unique. While most of his contemporaries had some background in folk or rock music, for instance, Newman's was more sophisticated: one of a family of distinguished Hollywood composers, he got his start - with some success - as a pop songwriter, furnishing material to singers including Frankie Laine, Jerry Butler and Dusty Springfield. As time passed, he began recording under his own name. While some of his songs could be - and were - taken up by other singers, he was developing his own catalog of idiosyncratic character pieces; songs that were clearly intended for no-one other than himself. Simultaneously, he joined his uncles Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman as an in-demand film composer.
Newman's songwriting began while he was a teenager, writing for the publishing arm of Liberty Records in Hollywood, where his songs were recorded by the label's artists including Jackie DeShannon, Gene McDaniels and The Fleetwoods. Early compositions included I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore, a hit for Butler; I've Been Wrong Before (Springfield); I Think It's Going to Rain Today (Judy Collins); Just One Smile (Gene Pitney) and Davy the Fat Boy (English singer Alan Price). In 1969, Newman was hired by writer-producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to arrange Peggy Lee's recording of their Is That All There Is?
Newman was signed to Reprise Records in 1968, by his friend Lenny Waronker, son of Liberty co-founder Si Waronker. Newman dropped out of UCLA, where he had been studying composition, to devote full time to his professional career. In addition to recording his own albums, Newman supplied material to Warner Bros. and Reprise acts including Harpers Bizarre (Debutante's Ball), the Beau Brummels (Old Kentucky Home) and Van Dyke Parks (Vine Street). In 1970, Harry Nilsson recorded an entire album of Newman's songs for RCA, with the composer on piano.
None of them big sellers, Newman's early albums entertained a strong group of fans, as well as serving as sources of material for other singers - Mama Told Me Not to Come for Three Dog Night, Marie, Guilty, and You Can Leave Your Hat On for Joe Cocker, and so on. Unlike many songwriters, Newman often adopted another persona for his songs; he seems to have specialized in disreputable, often untrustworthy and generally less-than-intelligent protagonists. Occasionally, this taking a sidewise point of view backfired; there were actually people who felt that Short People was antagonistic toward, well, short people, rather than the satire of prejudice that it was. His other major hit under his own name, I Love L.A., spoke gleefully of homeless people and nondescript streets; Newman's "character" on the record is shallow, even by his own standards. Yet, the song frequently shows up in settings where it's meant to praise Newman's home town.
Concurrent with his pop-oriented recordings, Newman became an in-demand composer of film music, scoring features including The Natural, Ragtime, Toy Story and Toy Story 2, Parenthood, and Avalon. His won his first Academy Award (after sixteen earlier nominations) for the song If I Didn't Have You from Monsters, Inc. In 1995, he released an album of his adaptation of the Faust legend; with performances by Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Don Henley Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor; a stage production opened the same year.
Though Newman's association with the world of rock 'n' roll is tangential, at best, in 2004, he received his first nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.