James Newton Howard

James Newton Howard is an American keyboardist and composer, best known for his film scores. He first emerged in the early ’70s rock bands Mama Lion and Heavy Cruiser, which issued two albums each. In 1974, he cut a self-titled solo album. As a sessionist, he’s played on multiple albums by Elton John, Melissa Manchester, Leo Sayer, Kiki Dee, and Olivia Newton-John.

Early Life, Mama Lion, Heavy Cruiser

Howard was born on June 9, 1951 to a musical family in Los Angeles. His grandmother was a concertmaster and violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony during the 1930s and ’40s. At age four, he started taking piano lessons. He attended Thacher School, an elite private school for boys in Ojai, Calif., and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. After six weeks as a piano major at the University of Southern California, he abandoned his studies for band life.

At age 20, Howard joined Mama Lion, a soul-rock band formed by Canadian musician Neil Merryweather and his then-girlfriend, ex-C.K. Strong vocalist Lynn Carey. The band released two albums in 1972/73, Preserve Wildlife and Give It Everything I’ve Got. Concurrently, the musicians (Howard included) moonlighted without Carey as hard-rockers Heavy Cruiser, which issued the 1972/73 albums Heavy Cruiser and Lucky Dog. All four albums appeared on Artie Ripp’s infamous Family Productions, the home of Sleepy Hollow and a young Billy Joel.

1974 Album

In 1974, Howard released a self-titled album on Kama Sutra. It features five originals: two short pieces (“Bovere,” “Ducks”), two medium numbers (“Six B’s,” “Newton’s Ego“), and the 12-minute “Margaret I’m Home.” Howard composed and performed the album with help on only two tracks (“Six B’s” and “Ducks”) by on/off Fanny drummer Brie Darling, who Howard married that year.

He co-produced James Newton Howard with James E. Vickers, who also worked on Give It Everything and Lucky Dog. Vickers co-engineered the album with one Bobby Ross. The gatefold sports a close-up illustration of a keyboard (vanishing perspective). The LP labels feature Kama’s Adam and Eve logo.

Session Work

Howard launched his career as a sessionist with credits on 1974 albums by Ringo Starr (Goodnight Vienna) and Fanny (Rock and Roll Survivors). In 1975, he played on albums by Randy Edelman, David Pomeranz, Carly Simon, and Melissa Manchester. His electric piano features on Manchester’s first Top 10 hit, “Midnight Blue.”

That year, Elton John drafted Howard into his backing band. Howard played on John’s 1975/76 albums Rock of the Westies and Blue Moves. He also arranged the strings on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” John’s chart-topping duet with singer Kiki Dee.

In 1976, Howard played on albums by Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Playboy playmate Barbi Benton, and LA pop-rockers The Movies. For Leo Sayer, Howard played the oily synth on “When I Need You,” one of two Billboard #1 hits from the singer’s fourth album Endless Flight. A second album titled James Newton Howard appeared on the tax-scam Tiger Lily label with title-altered material from the Kama Sutra release.

During 1977, Howard appeared on albums by Diana Ross (Baby It’s Me) and Sayer (Thunder in My Heart), both produced by Richard Perry. His association with Elton John led to appearances on 1977/78 Rocket Record releases by China (st), Dee (Kiki Dee, her sixth album), and Australian sister trio The Moirs (State of Shock).

Howard played on 14 albums released in 1978, including titles by the Pointer Sisters, Pablo Cruise, Barbra Streisand, Eric Carmen, Yvonne Elliman, and ex-Zombies frontman Colin Blunstone. He handled synthesizer and string arrangements for Aussie singer Samantha Sang on her album Emotion, which includes a shimmery cover of the Bee Gees‘ “Charade” and the chart-topping title track, a smooth-pop duet with producer Barry Gibb. Other notable credits that year include Totally Hot, a transitional release by Olivia Newton-John (released in the wake of Grease); and Wild Child, the acclaimed second album by west coast singer Valerie Carter.

Howard’s 1979/80 credits include albums by America, Lowell George, Peter McIan, Teri DeSario, and Black Rose, a short-lived foray into hard-rock by Cher (presaging her late ’80s AOR phase). He played on one track (“Do Like You Do In New York“) on Middle Man, the 1980 release by Boz Scaggs. Howard resumed work with Elton John on the superstar’s fourteenth studio album 21 at 33. He also backed the singer on his free concert that summer at New York’s Central Park.


  • James Newton Howard (1974)
  • James Newton Howard (1976)


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