Randy Newman is one of the best songwriters of his generation but has, shall we say, a unique voice. It’s not quite Leonard Cohen’s “glory of the monotone” but awful close. Popular audiences just have not taken to Newman’s voice, but they have taken to his songs. Many of them have become huge hits for other artists. Here are the 10 best covers of Randy Newman songs.
# 10 – The Alan Price Set: Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
People were doing covers of Randy Newman tunes long before Newman was able to release his debut album. British singer Alan Price did this rarity of rock music – a happy song – in live shows back in 1967. It’s been recorded by many artists, including the Muppets, but there is something charming about this version, complete with a brass quartet. Price’s version came out on his 1968 album This Price is Right. Newman’s own version wouldn’t come out until his 1972 album Sail Away. His version is somehow a little sadder.
# 9 – Harry Nilsson: I’ll Be Home
In 1969, one of Newman’s biggest fans was Harry Nilsson of “Everybody’s Talkin’” fame. (You know – that song in the movie Midnight Cowboy.) In late 1969, he decided to do an entire album of Randy Newman cover songs. He convinced Newman himself to play piano on all of the tracks. The album Nilsson Sings Newman (yes – where Paul Williams got the inspiration for his song of the same title) came out in 1970. This is the standout of the album, which takes the little love song and turns it into gospel. Nilsson and Newman took Newman’s original song and made it better.
# 8 – Peter Gabriel: I Think It’s Going to Rain Today
This strange and infinitely lonely song is sung by the master of strange and lonely, Peter Gabriel on his 2010 album of cover songs set to orchestral arrangements, Scratch My Back. The arrangement Peter Gabriel uses is not too much different than the original, with an even more intricate piano part. However, the song is infinitely more listenable with Peter Gabriel’s voice. He vocally plays a little with the simple tune. Peter Gabriel said in some interviews that is the song he’d most wish he’d written. Newman returned the favor by covering Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” for the album of other artists covering Peter Gabriel songs on And I’ll Scratch Yours (2013). Randy Newman’s version appears on his 1968 debut album Randy Newman, but the song originally appeared two years earlier on a Julius La Rosa album, You’re Gonna Hear From Me. The song has a lot of mileage.
# 7 – Nina Simone: Baltimore
This song of a desperately poor boy in Baltimore is given a funky twist and a reggae beat by Nina Simone. While Newman sounded at the breaking point, Simone sounds merely world-weary and somehow wiser than the chaos all around her. Simone thought so much of this song that she made it the title of her 1978 album. Randy Newman’s original version can be heard on his 1977 album Little Criminals.
# 6 – Marianne Faithful: In Germany Before the War
Newman’s downright strange song about a child murderer is given and even stranger rendition by 60’s survivor Marianne Faithful. Although Newman’s song is in the male point of view, it works with a voice like Faithful’s. The arrangement is similar to Newman’s original, which can be heard on 1977’s Little Criminals, but has a much stranger electric guitar part. Makes you wonder what would happen if you dropped acid and listened to this. Faithful’s trippy version can be heard on her 2008 album Easy Come, Easy Go.
# 5 – Snoop Dogg: It’s a Jungle Out There
Snoop Dogg put in an appearance on the hit TV show Monk in 2007. In an extra-special twist, Snoop Dogg did a rap reworking of Newman’s popular theme song … because when you think Randy Newman, you think rap. Well, no, but that’s not the point. The point is that Snoop Dogg made the wildest cover you’ll find on our list of 10 best covers of Randy Newman songs.
# 4 – Ray Charles: Sail Away
Randy Newman has said in many interviews that one of his biggest influences was Ray Charles. The legendary singer Ray Charles himself covered this Newman song in his 2002 album Ray Charles Sings for America. He gives this little song about a slave trader giving false promises to a black boy about how great life in America is. Ray Charles adds a choir to give the lies a holy effect. He also elongates the song, adds a few words and a touch of evil laughter. He also, understandably, changes “wog” to “one” in the first verse. He really lets go in the final chorus. This was the title track to Randy Newman’s hit 1972 album.
# 3 – Three Dog Night: Mama Told Me Not to Come
Sex and drugs are thought to go hand-in-hand with rock and roll, but here Newman takes a shocked view at the goings-on at a party. Three Dog Night takes the funny little tune and turns it into a power pop ballad with lots of background vocals and a Hammond organ. While Newman sounds perplexed at the party’s events, Three Dog Night sound annoyed. They take a little liberty with the lyrics and insert the word “sucker” into the second verse. Add a raspy voice slightly better than Newman’s and a lot of extemporaneous singing at the end and you’ve got a great big hit. Three Dog Night’s version came out in 1970, in the same year Newman’s did. However, the first version came out three years previously by The Animals front man Eric Burdon.
# 2 – Etta James: Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield
While Newman’s version is quiet, with his vocals just barely over a sultry whisper, James’ version is anything but. Her version is not only louder, but more intricately arranged with a groovy organ, singeing cymbals and a hot guitar solo. Etta James seems to put that cornfield alight with just the power of her voice. She plays with the lyrics, with determination. This intense version was released in the 1974 album Come a Little Closer, four years after Newman’s version appeared on his album 12 Songs.
# 1 – Joe Cocker: You Can Leave Your Hat On
It should be no surprise that this sits at the top of our 10 best covers of Randy Newman songs. Joe Cocker turns this slow, sinister burn into such a powerful bit of brassy thunder that you can believe that, yes, he does know what love is. Joe Cocker’s version first came out in 1986 and is most infamous for appearing on the soundtrack for the racy movie 9 1/2 Weeks (1986). Newman’s original version appeared on his album Sail Away (1972).
10 Best Covers Of Randy Newman Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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