California Dreaming: Golden Gridiron Boy

Randy Newman was probably destined to become a musician. Three of his uncles were film composers, and between them won ten Academy Awards. He was classmates in High School with Bruce Johnston, Jan and Dean, Nancy Sinatra, and Kim Fowley. And his best friend, Lenny Waronker, was the son of the chairman of Liberty Records. In reading his biography, one wouldn’t be surprised to see a paragraph start “On his way home from school one day, Newman tripped over and let out a yell. That yell was heard by a young singer named Elvis Presley, who decided to base his vocal style on the sound…”

It was only because of Waronker’s insistence, however, that Randy Newman actually took his first steps into the music business. When he was in his late teens, Waronker persuaded Newman to record a demo for a song they’d co-written, which got Newman a job as a staff songwriter for Metric Music, a small publishing company which paid him $150 per month.

When he was seventeen, in 1962, the doo-wop group The Fleetwoods (famous for Come Softly To Me) recorded his They Tell Me It’s Summer as the B-side for their top forty hit Lovers By Night, Strangers By Day. It was a fairly mawkish song (“They tell me it’s summer/But I know it’s a lie/’Cause summer is for laughing/So why do I cry?”) but it led to the Fleetwoods recording a number of Newman’s other songs, and making him, while still in his teens, a moderately successful songwriter.

Oddly, for one of the few songwriters who didn’t sing on his own demos (Newman hated his own voice, and so got cheap, unknown session singers like Glen Campbell and Jackie DeShannon to perform the vocals on them), Newman came to the attention of Pat Boone at Dot Records as a potential performer for Boone to produce.

The combination of Newman and Boone seems a ludicrous one now, but it made more sense at the time. Before his talent had matured, Newman was writing exactly the kind of bland material that Boone was building the later stages of his career on.

But there was a fundamental difference there, too. While Newman was influenced by black New Orleans musicians like Fats Domino, Boone had had many of his earlier hits by recording insipid, unsympathetic cover versions of those musicians’ work. Boone’s character can probably be summed up by the fact that, when he was recording his cover of Domino’s magnificent Ain’t That A Shame, he asked if he could change the lyric to “isn’t that a shame” instead.

But Boone nonetheless decided that Randy Newman was worth recording, and so Newman ended up recording Golden Gridiron Boy, a song whose inspiration came from Waronker, with production by Boone and Jimmie Haskell (an award-winning composer and arranger who one suspects did most of the actual production work), and a backing band led by Boone’s regular keyboard player Gene Garf.

Written from the point of view of a schoolboy, Golden Gridiron Boy is a typical story of unrequited love — Newman’s character is in love with a cheerleader, but she only has eyes for the football hero who “looks ten feet tall” in his uniform, while the narrator plays in the band because he’s “too small to make the team”, although he’s “big enough to have a dream that one day she’ll understand”.

The song doesn’t sound too impressive at first listen, but there’s a caustic wit there that hints that perhaps the writer/performer doesn’t identify all that closely with the nebbishy narrator. In particular, the backing vocals are performed in the style of cheerleaders. This makes a kind of sense — the Beach Boys would use the same gimmick the next year for their Be True To Your School, which similarly deals with high-school (American) football — but here they seem to be mocking the narrator, sometimes echoing his words, but often, well… cheering.

When Newman sings “She’s in love with him”, they respond “Yay, yay!”. To “she talks of nothing but him”, the reply is “hooray!”, and after “She goes wild with joy” there’s a positively orgasmic “woo!” — even Newman’s own backing singers are far more interested in the handsome sports hero than the person they’re backing. The song fades out to the cheerleaders chanting “Woo!” and “go go go!” — for all the narrator’s protestations that one day the girl will see what she means to him, it’s quite clear that he won’t be getting the girl any time soon.

Unsurprisingly, though, the combination of Newman’s unconventional, slightly flat, vocal with the marching band snare and cheerleaders designed to conjure up the feeling of a high school sports event was not one that had much commercial appeal, and the single flopped.

It would be six years before Randy Newman would release another record with his own vocals, and under his own name. But those six years, in which he wrote for Irma Thomas, Dusty Springfield and others, would see him build his songwriting talent to a point where it couldn’t be ignored…

Golden Gridiron Boy
Composer:
Randy Newman
Line-up: Randy Newman , orchestra led by Gene Garf
Original release: Golden Gridiron Boy / Country Boy Dot 45-16411
Currently available on: The track has only seen legitimate CD release on the currently out-of-print Guilty: Thirty Years of Randy Newman box set from Rhino records. An apparently-legal MP3 version of the recording (which is in the public domain in at least some countries) can be found at the time of writing at https://archive.org/details/RandyNewman45GoldenGridironBoy1962Debut45Rip.mp3

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2 Responses to California Dreaming: Golden Gridiron Boy

  1. TAD says:

    I wasn’t familiar with this track, so I listened to it on YouTube. You’re right that there’s a disconnect between the lyrics and the production (particularly the backing vocals) of the song. The best I can say about Randy Newman’s lead vocal is that it’s adequate, but for a debut single to catch the public’s attention, adequate doesn’t cut it. In comparison, even though Mike Love by no means has a great voice, he *is* distinctive, and in many ways that’s more important than being technically good.

  2. Nice to read about this early Randy Newman adventure. I heard him say in an interview that he later realized that the title “Gridiron Golden Boy” would’ve made more sense.

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