Muppet Maestros: Randy Newman

Muppet Maestros Part V: Randy Newman
As heard on…
The Muppet Show (“Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” “Short People,” “It’s Lonely at the Top”)

Hilarie Mukavitz – Randy Newman is the greatest American songwriter you’ve never heard of.  Some of the Disneyphiles out there might recognize his name as the guy who keeps getting Oscar nominations for scoring Pixar films.  However he doesn’t have the same sort of fame as, say, Paul Simon or George Gershwin, even though I feel he’s of the same caliber.

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles, California in 1943. His father was a physician. However, three of his uncles were film soundtrack composers in Hollywood. Newman spent a significant part of his childhood living in New Orleans, Louisiana, which had a huge impact on his musical styling.

Newman started working as a songwriter at age 17.  Initially,  his albums didn’t have much success; his songs were successful when they were covered by other people. His first successful album was in 1971 with 12 Songs which included “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (later covered by Three Dog Night.)
“Lonely at the Top”

He followed it up in 1972 with Sail Away, which was full of Newman’s unique style of satire.  The title song, “Sail Away” is a chilling lullaby sung to slaves by a slave trader. In “Political Science,” the narrator suggests that America’s problems could be solved by dropping a nuclear bomb. The album Sail Away also included two songs later featured on The Muppet Show:  “It’s Lonely at the Top,” which was performed by Qungo the gorilla in Season 4, and “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” performed by Scooter and Fozzie in the first episode. The most famous song from the album is “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”

In 1974, Newman released Good Old Boys which was about various aspects of the Deep South.  The most famous song from it is “Louisiana, 1927” about the Mississippi flood in 1927. The song regained popularity in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. If you are going to check out just one Randy Newman album, this is the one. It contains one of Newman’s sweetest love songs “Marie.” (Well as sweet as Randy Newman ever gets with lyrics like “I’m drunk right now baby, but I’ve got to be or I never could tell you what you mean to me.”
In 1977, the album Little Criminals contained his breakout hit “Short People” which was… surprise, surprise… a satire! Newman has commented that this is the song that will be the first line in his obituary. “Short People” was performed by James Coco on The Muppet Show in Season 3 with a plethora of tiny Muppets (plus Thog).
Since the 1980’s Randy Newman has focused mostly on film soundtracks, including The Natural, Awakenings, The Three Amigos, Toy Story (plus 2 and 3), Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Princess and the Frog and the theme song to the television show Monk. If you ever want to hear an in depth talk on the process of creating a film score, check out his commentary track in Pleasantville.  Newman also still does the occasional album such as concept album Faust in 1995 and Harps and Angels in 2008. He also pops up on NPR shows and podcasts periodically with wonderful, snarky one-liners. And if you have stayed with me this long… I can just about guarantee you’ll never hear Toy Story‘s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” the same way again!

ith Newman’s wicked sense of humor, it’s really not surprising his songs were featured on The Muppet Show on three different occasions. Newman himself later made a cameo on Sesame Street in 1993 in the music video for the song “Yakkety Yak Take It Back.” All four songs can be seen in our exclusive Randy Newman and the Muppets playlist.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier,

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