How Randy Newman and His Family Have Shaped Movie Music for Generations (2024)

To this day, most of the musical Newmans live west of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles, with Randy and Tom in the Palisades and many of the others clustered in Malibu, where Alfred and Bobby Newman had the foresight to buy land when it was cheap. Randy lives just a couple of miles from where he grew up, in an airy but unflashy stucco modernist house whose most eccentric feature is that it was designed, at the behest of his second and current wife, Gretchen, by the then new husband of his first wife, Roswitha. Newman has two children in their 20s with Gretchen, and three older children with Roswitha, the eldest of whom, Amos Newman, works as an agent for William Morris Endeavor—representing, like his great-uncle Marc before him, film composers.


Irving Newman, Randy’s father, was an internist with a practice in Beverly Hills. He was the most handsome and book-smart Newman brother, beloved by his nephews and nieces as “Uncle Doc,” but notorious for his temper. Family lore has him constantly getting into fistfights and contretemps, including, it is said, a cursing match with Nancy Reagan in the parking lot of the Brentwood Country Mart. Randy remembers his father tangling with a restaurant’s parking valet—“He tosses the keys to the kid and says, ‘Thanks, sonny,’ the kid says, ‘I’m not your son!,’ and whammo!”—and springing out of his car on the Pacific Coast Highway to take on a man who had evidently called him a “dirty Jew.”

Anti-Semitism was often the triggering mechanism for Irving’s fights, or at least the stories of Irving’s fights as he later embroidered them. Some of this anger was rooted in authentic experiences of bigotry. Because medical schools still set quotas on Jewish students in the 1930s, he was compelled to transfer as an undergraduate from New York University to the University of Alabama, whose School of Medicine promised him a spot if he spent his senior year in Tuscaloosa. The plan worked out, and he was accepted into the med school, but he was expelled after slugging a dean who, so the story goes, called him a “Hebe.” Fortunately, Irving’s brother Bobby, politically well connected in Democratic circles, used his influence to get Irving into another medical school, at Louisiana State University. It was during his time at L.S.U. that Irving met and fell in love with a Jewish girl from New Orleans named Adele Fuchs. They were married in 1939.

Adele didn’t take easily to Los Angeles at first, and because Irving was serving in World War II at the beginning of Randy’s life, as a flight surgeon in North Africa and Italy, she went home to live in New Orleans, new child in tow. Even after the war, Randy and his mother, along with his kid brother, Alan, born in 1947, continued to spend their summers down South. Randy witnessed the Jim Crow laws in action—“the COLORED and WHITE on ice-cream wagons and drinking fountains,” he said—but, back home in L.A., he also experienced the coastal elite’s reflexive denigration of southerners as ignorant and backward.

All of these ingredients conspired to make Newman the idiosyncratic songwriter he became. His mother’s ongoing fealty to Louisiana gave him a nuanced, often sympathetic view of the South and its people. His father’s anger, some of which he says he inherited, channeled itself into songs that, in certain cases, railed against injustice, and, in others, sent up the very foul-tempered behavior he had both practiced and witnessed. “I’m very good at being wrongheaded in my songs,” Newman told me. “I’ve seen wrongheaded really close-up.”

Going Pro

Lenny Waronker recognized Randy’s songwriting and arranging talent before Randy did, when they were still teenagers. One of the young Newman’s tricks, a thing he did for his own amusem*nt, was to take a pop standard—say, “When I Fall in Love,” first popularized by Doris Day—and re-arrange it as an R&B song, “taking it to a completely contemporary place without it being cheesy,” Waronker said. When Randy started writing original songs, Waronker nudged him into going pro. Si Waronker, Lenny’s father, had by then become a rich man, having left Fox to start up Liberty Records, the label behind Eddie Cochran, Julie London, and, most crucial to its early success, Alvin and the Chipmunks. Before Lenny and Randy were even out of college (the former at U.S.C., the latter at U.C.L.A., from which he never actually took a degree), Lenny, working part-time at Metric Music, Liberty’s publishing arm, was hustling his friend’s work to artists and labels. “Lenny was really my courage for a lot of years, when I’d write something and didn’t think it was good,” Newman said. “I just didn’t have any confidence at all, but if I played a song for him and he liked it, I’d feel better about it.”

Curiously, the clutch of songs that Newman wrote in the early to mid-60s proved more popular with British artists than American ones, with such U.K. acts as Cilla Black, Manfred Mann, and Alan Price giving, respectively, “I’ve Been Wrong Before,” “So Long Dad,” and “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear” their first airings. Dusty Springfield chose two Newman originals for her landmark Dusty in Memphis album, “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” and “Just One Smile.”

By the late 1960s, Waronker was an A&R man at the Reprise division of Warner Bros. Records, then at the dawn of its glorious run, under its charismatic chief, Mo Ostin, as the most artist-friendly company in music. (Later, in the 1980s, Waronker was promoted by Ostin to the position of president of Warner Bros.) At the time, Ostin and Waronker were placing bets on such unconventional performers as Van Dyke Parks, to whose Song Cycle Newman contributed its opening number, the wonderfully kaleidoscopic “Vine Street.”

“Mo said to me, ‘What about Randy Newman?,’ knowing that we were best friends,” Waronker said, “and I said, ‘Yeah, it’d be great!’ ” Thus was Newman signed up as a recording artist. Parks, enlisted as Waronker’s co-producer on Newman’s debut album for his arranging and studio prowess, remembers the 24-year-old Newman as shy and hesitant, someone who needed to be coaxed out of his shell. “A total recluse and social anomaly,” Parks said. “I enjoy thinking that I had to talk Randy out of his reluctance. That makes me feel very important.”

Also present at the earliest sessions for the album, which took place late in 1967, was none other than Alfred Newman. He had left Twentieth Century Fox in 1960, when the advance of television had begun to cut into budgets for film orchestration. His youngest brother, Lionel, who had been in charge of Fox’s TV-music division, effectively stepped into Alfred’s musical-director job, albeit no longer with the benefit of an in-house orchestra. (Lionel did just fine, winning an Oscar for the score of Hello, Dolly!, and playing a large role in advancing the career of his friend John Williams, whose Star Wars opening theme was deliberately composed in the same key, B-flat major, as Alfred’s Fox fanfare.)

Al, a heavy smoker, was in failing health due to emphysema. But he kept on working to the very end, scoring the movie Airport, released two weeks after his death, in 1970. Randy recalls his uncle’s being enthusiastic about the nephew’s songwriting, since, for all of his accomplishments, Al attached no glory to his own work—in Randy’s words, “writing great bloody hunks of music to order.”

Until his first album, which has 75 credited musicians, Randy had never written an arrangement for orchestra. Among the first he attempted was the one for the album’s closer, “Davy the Fat Boy,” a bizarre, asymmetrical suite-song whose narrator exploits an orphaned, obese friend (the titular Davy) as a sideshow freak. Al Newman, undaunted by his nephew’s flight of fancy, dutifully ran the orchestra through rehearsals of Randy’s woozy, Italian-circus-like arrangement. But he left it to Randy to conduct the live recording. The reason the song, eccentric to begin with, sounds especially warped and melted, its author says, is that, in his greenness as a conductor, he followed his musicians rather than the other way around, resulting in “a weight to the orch”—a lurching heaviness to the music’s movement.

Still, this strangeness jibed both with the psychedelic times and Waronker and Ostin’s vision of an audacious new American music. “I was very much into the Gershwin idea,” Waronker said, “of a singer-songwriter who had those kinds of chops, and songs that were sort of timeless. I thought there was a lane for that. But in terms of being commercial, it was a nail-biter—and Van Dyke and Randy’s albums weren’t commercial.”

Newman’s next album, 12 Songs, came out in April 1970 and used more conventional rock-band instrumentation. Parks tipped off Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night to one of its songs, “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (actually written for Eric Burdon, of the Animals, four years earlier), and Three Dog Night’s goofy, swampy cover went to No. 1 in the U.S. that summer. Thus was cemented Newman’s enduring reputation as someone whose songs sell better in other people’s voices than in his own.

Randy, photographed by Annie Leibovitz at Sony Pictures Studios, 2002.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

Deep Dig

About that voice—that distinctive, divisive, conversational singing voice that the rock critic Robert Christgau has characterized as an “indolent drawl” …

“Well, Ray Charles is what I sound like to myself,” Newman told me. “It’s never been conscious. But I’ll tell you, doing what southerners do, the vowels just sound better to me. I think that my interest in the South is an attempt to justify the accent I have when I sing.”

How Randy Newman and His Family Have Shaped Movie Music for Generations (2024)


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