“What?! My god.”
This is Randy Newman’s reaction upon learning of the first time he ever appeared in the pages of Variety, back in May of 1965. That was three years before he released his first album as a singer-songwriter, at which point he began steadily accruing fans of his warped musical character sketches until he became a full-on cult sensation in the 1970s. And it was well before he really broke through as a film composer with 1981’s “Ragtime,” going on to rack up 20 Oscar nominations – and two wins – for both score and original song. (He’s in contention for both this year, with his score for “Marriage Story” and his song “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4.”)
But in 1965, he was just another struggling L.A. musician – albeit one whose uncles, Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman, were Hollywood music royalty – writing songs and taking odd jobs composing music for TV. Epic Records liked his output of surf-rock instrumentals for the ABC soap “Peyton Place” – credited to the Randy Newman Orchestra – enough to release it on vinyl, and Variety included it in a review roundup of new LPs. (The unnamed reviewer called it “an odd parlay that switches from the main title theme to such raunchy numbers as ‘Pot Shot,’ ‘Blue Watusi’ and ‘The Slurp.'”) There was just one problem: No one bothered to tell Newman about it.
I’ve read that you had a strange experience with the release of your music from “Peyton Place.”
I didn’t even know it existed! I did some stuff for “Peyton Place” for my uncle, to pay racetrack debts mostly. I appreciated the opportunity. It was like the first thing I ever did, and I got to make some very square rock ‘n’ roll for a TV show. But that was all it was.
When did you finally find out about the album?
Uh, just now? No, it was years later, I think. I didn’t know it came out, and then I remembered seeing the names [of the songs] appear on one of those royalty statements you get from BMI. But that was a few years later. I don’t think they really put it out there until I was somewhat known – not too well known, but known enough that they could put it out.
Where were you in your life when you got that “Peyton Place” gig?
I was living at home with my parents, which I did until I was 23, and I moved out when I got married. Yeah, I was a real rock ‘n’ roll guy.
I actually went back and listened to that album, and it had some fun stuff on it. Very Ventures-like in places.
I guess it had a saxophone, which was something to write down, anyway. It probably sounds like me in some kind of way, and I really liked the Ventures, and the Shadows too. But what’s amazing about it, is that the Rolling Stones existed already, as did the Beatles. It was like I’d never heard of ‘em. Why couldn’t we have done that kind of rock ‘n’ roll?
My friend Lenny Waronker, his father played in the orchestra at Fox and later became president of Liberty Records — my uncle Lionel was a conductor of the orchestra at the time. And when Lenny would see a Fox picture and there’d be some kind of jazz in the background, he always used to say there was a certain kind of “backwards style” to it. So I guess that’s what this was. Sort of a Barbara Parkins style of rock ‘n’ roll.
You were writing plenty elsewhere at the time. What were the haymakers in your repertoire at this point?
I think something like “Just One Smile” and “Nobody Needs Your Love (More Than I Do),” when I really consciously tried to write things that had a hook. My publisher was so happy when I did that, I wrote about three or four songs that way. And then I didn’t do it very much. I don’t know why; I guess I didn’t want to. Wouldn’t want to be too successful and actually do something that people liked.
But I think I did have some stuff that was hits. “Just One Smile,” and Judy Collins with “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Before I signed with Warners I was trying to write songs for other people, and trying to do it as well as Carole King did. But I didn’t, apparently. I would write things and get all excited, and think, “okay, this is right down the middle of the road. This is something anyone could do, and anyone could write.” And then I’d play it for somebody and they’d say, “Randy, this is not the middle of the road.” But I was trying to do that. I wasn’t trying to be different or bold or innovative. I was just trying to get something recorded.
How much did you consider writing for film and TV as a potential career at this point? Or were you focused just on songwriting and getting a solo album out?
I always considered it, it never went out of my head since I was 11 or 12. People in my family did it, so to me it always looked like a job you could do. There it was. To me the other thing didn’t exist, really. In the family I come from, the people who got the respect weren’t the songwriters. They knew them all — they knew Jimmy Van Heusen and Harry Ruby and Irving Berlin. But it was really more guys like Bernie Herrmann, or my uncle Alfred, or Alex North, people like that who made their heads turn. It was a different kind of world.
Moving forward a bit, your first album — not counting the one no one told you about — comes out in 1968, and the first time you appeared in a Variety headline was from that same year. There was a short article about you being hired to score a film called “The Picasso Summer”…
Oh really? It got that far, eh?
Which surprised me when I saw it, because I’d always thought the first film you’d scored was “Cold Turkey.”
It was. I didn’t do “Picasso Summer.”
Right, so I was curious what the story behind that was.
Well, they asked me to do it, and then I guess one or the other of us changed their mind. I was a timid sort of fellow about a lot of things back then. To me, to write for an orchestra was scary, because of my family – that didn’t make it easier, it sort of made it harder. I probably had too much respect for the process. But it’s a noble calling, all in all, doing film music. It’s an ego-subduing kind of business, but a noble calling all the same.
But no, I didn’t do a picture until “Cold Turkey.” I liked the script for it and I liked [director] Norman Lear, so I did it.
Since you mention having that respect for the orchestra, the article that announced you were doing “Picasso Summer” is literally just three sentences long, and one of those sentences was: “It is the first film scoring job for the nephew of Lionel and Alfred Newman.” How conscious were you of that legacy as you were starting out, and how much did that weigh on you?
Oh, I was conscious of it when I was five years old. It was a big thing in my immediate family. My father wasn’t a musician, but he worshiped his brothers, he thought what they did was just the greatest stuff in the world. And what Alfred did was pretty close to being the greatest stuff in the world, in that field. So I was conscious of it forever.
So when did you start to feel comfortable writing for an orchestra, and confident in your ability to be a part of that field?
I’m really tempted to say “never.” But I’ve done enough of it in the past 20 or 25 years, and I’ve done enough difficult things – like the animated stuff – that, you know, I feel like I probably know what an oboe’s gonna sound like and what a clarinet’s gonna sound like. But I’ve still got a synthesizer right next to me to test it all out. It’s not second nature to me.
Obviously in the ‘70s your career took off, and you don’t really pick up film scoring again until “Ragtime.” How much do you think that period helped you develop those muscles for arrangement and orchestration?
A little bit. It wasn’t enough to develop it too much, but yeah, everything I did I learned from. But I was pretty good at it from the beginning. When I did “Davy the Fat Boy,” or “Cowboy,” some of the first things I did, they were pretty good. I hear it now and I’m not ashamed of any of it… Not the arrangements, anyway.