The Randy Newman known by a young generation today is the man who’s written happy-go-lucky theme songs for numerous animated films, a workmanlike task that’s garnered him 20 Oscar nominations over the years. But older Newman fans know a songwriter who took on America’s shortcomings, successes, foibles and promises in subtle and intellectually complex ways. A native of LA, he found initial success as a writer for such U.K. artists as Cilla Black, the Alan Price Set and Dusty Springfield before Three Dog Night took his “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” to No. 1 in the U.S. in 1970. From then on, his subjects took on many forms: racism in the American South (“Rednecks”), discrimination (“Short People,” a surprise No. 2 hit), conspicuous consumption (“It’s Money That Matters”), even straight-up eroticism (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”). In hindsight, though, his most powerful effort may be “Louisiana 1927,” (see above) a 1974 lament of crooked white Louisiana politicians mishandling a flood that eerily anticipated Hurricane Katrina.
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