Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Randy Newman
Here’s one from my own collection, one that I actually had to special order back in the day because nobody at the record store had heard of the artist! It’s Good Old Boys, by Randy Newman, from 1974.
Back then I used to read Rolling Stone magazine, and I saw this article about how L.A. “bad boy” Randy Newman was going to put out a record where he confronts the bigots in the South about racism and stuff. Rolling Stone loved Newman’s previous album, Sail Away (1972), and they had pretty high hopes for the new one. Of course, by that time I was mainlining the Warner Bros. Loss Leaders samplers and those featured a lot of Randy Newman too.
So I went looking for Good Old Boys – nobody had it, and back then you only had a few places you could go to buy records. If it wasn’t at the department store or at Ted’s Record Shop in Jefferson City Shopping Center (Port Arthur, Texas), you were out of luck. But the girl behind the counter at Ted’s wanted to be helpful, so she offered to “Special Order” the album for me. After I gave her my telephone number and stuff she was kinda curious, and she asked “What does he sing?” I could only laugh, because I sure as hell couldn’t explain.
About two weeks later, the album arrived but the only format they could get was 8-track. To this day, I still don’t understand why they couldn’t get me an LP copy – it’s not like Randy Newman sold that many albums back then, or ever. Anyhow, Good Old Boys was pretty unique even in 1974. Perhaps the most notorious song of the day was “Rednecks,” inspired after Newman saw Lester Maddox, who was formerly governor of Georgia, interviewed on TV’s “The Dick Cavett Show.” Maddox was an unapologetic segregationist, and Cavett had him on as a guest so he could expose Maddox’s racist views. Cavett’s questioning so enraged Maddox that he walked off the show.
“Rednecks” is told from the point of view of a Maddox supporter, and he talks about the “New York Jew” who made fun of his beloved governor (Cavett is not really Jewish, but …). The narrator wonders why Northerners hate the South, saying “we’re keeping the niggers down.” But then he points the finger on Northern hypocrisy, citing examples of ghettos in big cities like Boston, New York and Los Angeles, where they were “gatherin’ them up, from miles around/Keepin’ the niggers down.”
The song was a blistering satire that spared nobody, and the scene setter for the rest of Good Old Boys, which was a concept album about the South and Southerners. “Birmingham” told the story of a working man who lives in “the greatest city in Alabam’ ” with his wife and his big black mean dog Dan – “Get ’em Dan.” The ballads “Marie” and “Guilty” seemed interchangeable to me, although “Guilty” was the only song from this album to get minimal radio airplay (it was also a single).
“Louisiana 1927” is a bit of a history lesson, telling the true story of the 1927 Mississippi River flood that left more than 700,000 people homeless in Louisiana and Mississippi. The song found new life of course in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, but its purpose on Good Old Boys was to help set up the story of Huey P. Long, the real-life Louisiana governor from the 1930s who ran the state as a virtual dictator. Newman’s “Kingfish,” titled after Long’s nickname, told the story of this radical populist who had his eye in the U.S. presidency. If he had run and won – he was pretty popular, after all – this country would be very different today.
Newman filled the rest of Good Old Boys with odd vignettes like “Naked Man,” about a nutcase who ran around naked (it was called “streaking” back then) and the plea to Nixon, “Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man).” Newman didn’t put out rock records per se, as he used symphony orchestras and a lot of strings on his songs. But he was fairly popular in the early 1970s, more than a cult artist but much less than a chart-topping singer/songwriter.
Commercially, Good Old Boys did fairly well with the attention it attracted for its controversial material. Newman would take three years to put out his next record, and when Little Criminals appeared in 1977 it had a bonafide hit – the smart-assed “Short People,” with a narrator not far removed from his “Rednecks” character. Newman would have other hits, including “I Love L.A.” and would become known (even beloved) by generations of kids for his scores and songs from movies like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., A Bug’s Life and many more.