Harry Nilsson

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Harry Edward Nilsson III (June 15, 1941January 15, 1994) was an American songwriter, singer, pianist and guitarist, most popular during the 1960s and 1970s. For most of his recordings, he did not use his first name, and was credited only as Nilsson. Despite some spectacular successes, including two Grammy Awards, Nilsson's tendency to make broad stylistic jumps from one record to the next and his iconoclastic decisions kept him from capitalizing on those successes. His most well-known recordings are '"Without You" and "Everybody's Talkin'".



Early years

Nilsson was born in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York in 1941. His father, Harry Edward Nilsson, Jr., abandoned the family three years later. An autobiographical reference to this is found in the opening to Nilsson's song "1941":

Now, in 1941, a happy father had a son
But in 1944, the father walked right out the door

Harry grew up with his mother Bette Nilsson and his younger half-sister, periodically moving to California or back to New York, and living with a procession of relatives and stepfathers. One relative who turned out to be an important influence on him was his Uncle John, a mechanic in San Bernadino, California, who taught him to sing properly.

Due to the poor financial situation of his family, Nilsson worked from an early age, including a job at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles. When the Paramount closed (circa 1960), Nilsson applied for a job at a bank, falsely stating he was a high school graduate on his application. (He only made it through 9th grade.) He turned out to have an aptitude for computers, which were just starting to be employed by banks at the time. He did so well, in fact, that the bank kept him on even after discovering the lie about his education.

Musical beginnings

As early as 1958, Nilsson was hooked on the new wave of music, especially rhythm and blues artists like Ray Charles. He had taken early stabs at performing while he was working at the Paramount, forming a vocal duo with his friend Jerry Smith and singing close harmonies in the style of the Everly Brothers.

His job with the bank was on the night shift, so Nilsson spent his days infiltrating Los Angeles music business offices, making friends and developing connections. Uncle John's singing lessons, along with Nilsson's natural talent, surely helped when he got a job singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner in 1960. Turner paid Nilsson five dollars for each track they recorded. (Years later, when Nilsson became famous, Turner decided to release these early recordings, and contacted Nilsson to work out a fair payment. Nilsson replied that he had already been paid -- five dollars a track.)

In 1963, Nilsson began to have some early success as a songwriter, working with John Marascalco on a song for Little Richard. (Little Richard, upon hearing Nilsson sing, reportedly remarked, "My! You sing good for a white boy!") Marascalco also financed some independent singles by Nilsson. One, "Baa Baa Blacksheep", was released under the pseudonym Bo Pete to some small local airplay. Another recording, "Donna, I Understand", convinced Mercury Records to offer Nilsson a contract, and release recordings by him under the name Johnny Niles.

In 1964, Nilsson worked with Phil Spector, writing three songs with him. He also established a relationship with songwriter and publisher Perry Botkin, Jr., who began to find a market for Nilsson's songs. His recording contract was picked up by Tower Records, who did nothing with it, but his songs were now being recorded by Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, The Yardbirds, and many other artists. (Despite this growing success, Nilsson was still working the night shift at the bank.)

Signing with RCA Victor

Nilsson signed with RCA Victor in 1967 and released an album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, which was a critical (if not commercial) success. Music industry insiders were impressed both with the songwriting, and with Nilsson's pure-toned, multi-octave vocals. One such insider was Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, who bought an entire box of copies of the album to share this new sound with others. With a major-label release, and continued songwriting success (The Monkees had a hit with Nilsson's "Cuddly Toy"), Nilsson finally felt secure enough in the music business to quit his job with the bank.

Some of the albums from Derek Taylor's box eventually ended up with the Beatles themselves, who quickly became Nilsson fans. This may have been helped by the track "You Can't Do That", in which Nilsson covered one Beatles song but added 22 others in the multi-tracked background vocals. When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, John was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, "Nilsson". Paul was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, "Nilsson".

Pandemonium Shadow Show was followed in 1968 by Aerial Ballet, an album that included Nilsson's rendition of Fred Neil's song "Everybody's Talkin'". A minor hit at the time of release, the song would become extremely popular a year later when it was featured in the film Midnight Cowboy, and would earn Nilsson his first Grammy Award. Aerial Ballet also contained Nilsson's version of his own composition, "One", which was later taken to the top of the charts by Three Dog Night. Nilsson was also commissioned at this time to write and perform the theme song for the ABC television series The Courtship of Eddie's Father. The result, Best Friend, was very popular, but Nilsson never released the song on record.

Chart success

Nilsson's next album, Harry (1969), was his first to hit the charts, and also provided a Top 40 single with "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City". While the album still presented Nilsson as primarily a songwriter, his astute choice of cover material included, this time, a song by a little-known composer named Randy Newman. Nilsson was so impressed with Newman's talent that he devoted his entire next album to Newman compositions, with Newman himself playing piano behind Nilsson's multi-tracked vocals. The result, Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), was commercially disappointing but was named Record of the Year by Stereo Review magazine, and provided momemtum to Newman's career.

Nilsson's next project was an animated film, The Point!, created with animation director Fred Wolf, and broadcast on ABC television in 1971. Nilsson's album of songs from The Point! was well-received, and spawned a hit single, "Me and My Arrow".

Later that year, Nilsson went to England with producer Richard Perry to record what became the most successful album of his career. Nilsson Schmilsson yielded three very stylistically different hit singles. The first was a cover of Badfinger's song, "Without You", featuring a highly emotional arrangement and soaring vocals to match, a performance that was rewarded with Nilsson's second Grammy Award. The second single was "Coconut", a novelty calypso number featuring three characters (the narrator, the sister, and the doctor) all sung in different voices by Nilsson. The song is best remembered for its chorus lyric, "Put de lime in de coconut, and drink 'em both up." The third single, "Jump Into the Fire", was raucous, screaming rock and roll, including a drum solo by Derek and the Dominos' Jim Gordon and a bass detuning by Herbie Flowers.

Nilsson followed quickly with Son of Schmilsson (1972), released while its predecessor was still on the charts. Besides the problem of competing with himself, Nilsson's decision to give free rein to his bawdiness and bluntness on this release alienated some of his earlier, more conservative fan base. With lyrics like "I sang my balls off for you, baby", "Roll the world over / And give her a kiss and a feel", and the notorious "You're breaking my heart / You're tearing it apart / So f--k you", Nilsson had travelled far afield from his earlier work. Still, the album did well, and the single "Spaceman" was a Top 40 hit.

The maverick

This disregard for commercialism in favor of artistic satisfaction showed itself in Nilsson's next release, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973). Performing a selection of pop standards by the likes of Irving Berlin and Kalmar & Ruby, Nilsson sang in front of an orchestra arranged and conducted by veteran Gordon Jenkins in sessions produced by his constant supporter Derek Taylor. While in hindsight, the sessions showcased an extremely talented singer in one of his best performances, this was not the sort of thing that was going to burn up the charts in the 1970s. The session was filmed, and was broadcast as a television special by the BBC in the UK. (Nilsson fans still await this film's release in some home video format.)

1974 found Nilsson back in California, and when John Lennon moved there during his separation from Yoko Ono, the two musicians rekindled their earlier friendship. Lennon was intent upon producing Nilsson's next album, much to Nilsson's delight. However, their time together in California became known much more for heavy drinking and drug use than it did for musical collaboration. In a widely publicized incident, they were ejected from the Troubadour in West Hollywood for drunken heckling of the Smothers Brothers. To make matters worse, Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord during the sessions for this album, but hid the fact due to fear that Lennon would call a halt to the production. The resulting album, Pussy Cats, was a shock for listeners who knew Nilsson as one of the best singers of his generation.

Nilsson's voice had mostly recovered by his next release, Duit on Mon Dei (1975), but neither it nor its follow-ups, Sandman and ...That's the Way It Is (both 1976) met with chart success. Finally, Nilsson recorded what he later considered to be his favorite album, 1977's Knnillssonn. With his voice strong again, and his songs exploring musical territory reminiscent of Harry or The Point!, Nilsson had every right to expect Knnillssonn to be a comeback album. RCA Victor seemed to agree, and promised Nilsson a substantial marketing campaign for the album. However, the death of Elvis Presley caused RCA Victor to ignore everything except meeting demand for Presley's back catalog, and the promised marketing push never happened. This, combined with RCA Victor releasing a Nilsson Greatest Hits collection without consulting him, prompted Nilsson to leave the label.

Winding down

Nilsson's musical work after leaving RCA Victor was sporadic. He wrote a musical play, Zapata, with Perry Botkin, Jr., which got as far as being performed in Connecticut but never moved to Broadway. He wrote all the songs for Robert Altman's movie-musical Popeye (1980), and recorded one more album, Flash Harry, which was released in the UK but not in the USA. However, Nilsson increasingly began referring to himself as as a "retired musician".

Nilsson was profoundly affected by the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. He joined the Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence and begain making public appearances solely to raise money for their cause.

Nilsson found himself in a dire financial situation when his trusted financial adviser embezzled all the money he had ever made as a recording artist. His health was also deteriorating, and in 1993, he suffered a massive heart attack. After surviving that, he began pressing his old label, RCA Victor, to release a boxed-set retrospective of his career, and also started recording again, attempting to complete one final album. He completed the vocal tracks for the album on 15 January 1994, and then died that night of heart failure. The following year, the 2-CD anthology he worked on with RCA Victor, Personal Best, was released.

As of 2005, Nilsson's final album, tentatively titled Papa's Got a Brown New Robe, has never been released.


Film and television

Use of Nilsson recordings in films


External links


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