Though he perhaps was most famous during the 1960s and 1970s for writing quirky, darkly funny, or sharply satirical songs that often painted vivid portraits detailing the foibles and lives of lifelike characters, there is much more to Randy Newman's music than humor or novelty. Stylistically, his music runs the gamut from classically influenced film scores to R&B-type pop to haunting ballads and, most of all, to his upbeat, subtly orchestrated shuffling amalgam of New Orleans jazz and ragtime. Though his output of recorded music is somewhat sporadic, owing largely to his innate perfectionism, Newman has had a great effect on pop music and those influenced by him include Lyle Lovett, Paul Simon, and Mark Knopfler. Newman's contributions to film scoring have also been large and, in 1995, he received Oscar nominations for Best Song and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score for his work in Toy Story (1995).
Newman was born in Los Angeles, during WWII. At the time, his father was overseas serving as an army captain in Italy and Newman's childhood was punctuated by numerous moves throughout the South, where his mother's family and closest friends lived. He was most influenced by the time he spent with his mother's family in New Orleans. Musically, one of his greatest influences was the compositions of his uncle Alfred Newman, one of cinema's finest and most highly regarded film scorists. His two other uncles, Lionel and Emil, were also noted composers. As a boy, Newman frequently visited the soundstages where his uncle worked.
Newman began writing songs for Metric, the publishing house for Liberty Records, at age 16, thanks to the influence of his close friend Lenny Waronker, son of company founder Simon Waronker. Songwriting has never been easy for Newman and it took him a long time to find his unique voice. In 1962, he wrote his first music for television, for the episode "Northern Comfort" on the sitcom Dobie Gillis. At the time, he was moonlighting part time at 20th Century Fox, working on an old copy machine, and fetching music for composers. He also found time to compose additional music for such shows as Lost in Space and, most notably, for Peyton Place. He composed his first film score for Cold Turkey (1971), the funny story of an entire town that tries to quit smoking. He did not score another film until Ragtime (1981). The lovely waltzes he composed for this film earned Newman his first Oscar nomination. Over the next few years, he would receive numerous other Academy Award nominations, including one for the song "Make Up Your Mind" that was heard in Ron Howard's The Paper. Finally, after years of writing memorable songs for some of Hollywood's best-loved films, Newman took home a Best Song Oscar for "If I Didn't Have You" from the computer animated film Monsters, Inc. Newman also tried his hand at screenwriting when he collaborated on the script for John Landis' Western spoof The Three Amigos (1986).
~ Sandra Brennan, All Movie Guide