We were listening to Robin’s Pandora station this morning, and Randy Newman’s “It’s Money That I Love” came up. It was the 2003 version from Songbook, with just Randy and his piano. This is a live video, but it’s similarly stripped down:
You could tell from the first few bars of the piano that it was Randy Newman. This was true even if you didn’t know the particular song, and it was true before his recognizable voice arrived. Of course, if you didn’t know any Randy Newman, it meant nothing, but I was intrigued by the fact that a few notes on a piano were so easily identified. A piano is a piano … OK, there are many kinds of piano, but a traditional piano is a traditional piano. So how come we can tell it’s Randy Newman?
Here’s someone offering a tutorial on how to play it. First, slow:
Then, sped up:
Robin said it was like the story you hear about how experienced Morse code operators can tell who is sending.
As we talked, Dr. John came on, and we laughed, because Dr. John has a very identifiable sound. I wondered if we heard Professor Longhair on piano, if we would think, “hey, it’s Dr. John!” For a recognizable style came in part from John’s influences. In this instructional video, John imitates several New Orleans pianists … they all sound like Dr. John, or rather, Dr. John sounds like all of them. Yet on Pandora, we recognized the Doctor.
It’s not just piano. A John Prine song was obviously John Prine from the second he started singing. But you could read the lyrics, and if you knew his work, you’d say, “hey, it’s John Prine!” It was just a goof, “Safety Joe”, a bonus track on Fair & Square … I say “goof” because it’s casual even by Prine standards, with in-song laughter:
If you don't loosen up the buckle
On your heart and start to chuckle
You're gonna die of boredom
He never ate his vegetables
'Cause they were just too darn chewy
And he never climbed much higher
Than the arch in old St. Louis
Joe gradually grew meaner
By not changin' his demeanor
But he never did nothin'
Too much for too long
Therefore his life never got much richer
Than the day they took that picture
In his birthday suit on the day that he was born.
The rhymes are “Prine-esque”. Buckle/chuckle, chewy/Louis, meaner/demeanor, richer/picture. The line “He never ate his vegetables ‘cause they were just too darn chewy” is also very Prine.
For some reason, I find it easier to understand what makes a lyric sound like John Prine, than to understand why I recognize Randy Newman’s piano.