Harry Nilsson - Biography

By J Poet


Harry Nilsson was infamous for his drunken binges with John Lennon in 1973, but the singer with the multi-octave voice was a songwriter and musician of rare talent. He went largely underapprecated in his life, despite two Grammys - Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male for Fred Neil’s “Everybody's Talkin’” on his album Aerial Ballet (1969 RCA) and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for Badfinger’s “Without You” from Nilsson Schmilsson (1972 RCA) – and awards of gold (Son of Schmilsson (1972 RCA), Nilsson Schmilsson) and platinum (Nilsson Schmilsson) records. He refused to perform in public, maintained an almost paranoid control over his private life, and never cooperated with the RCA marketing department’s schemes to help sell his records. He almost became a superstar in the mid 70s, but his determination to record his own music his own way scuttled the momentum he’d built up. RCA dropped him and by 1980 he was calling himself a retired musician. He was allegedly finishing up a comeback album called Papa’s Got a Brown New Robe when he died of a heart failure in 1994. He was only 52.


Harry Nilsson was born in Brooklyn in 1941. He had a chaotic childhood; his father left when he was three and his mother shuttled him and a half sister between New York and California. He worked to help support the family, dropping out of high school in his freshman year in 1957 to get a full time job at the Security First National Bank in Van Nuys. He helped start their new computer department, despite his lack of formal education. He eventually convinced the bank to let him work nights and by day he haunted music publishers and record companies looking for a break.


Nilsson taught himself piano and guitar in grammar school, and an uncle in San Bernadino helped him out with vocal and piano lessons. He had a brief duo with his singing friend Jerry Smith, and started writing tunes. While he worked at the bank at night, he spent his days singing on commercials and as a demo singer for songwriter Scott Turner. He got five dollars a track. In 1963 John Marascalco, who had written Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly”, helped Nilsson place a song with Little Richard, but he never recorded it. Marascalco also produced Nilsson’s first singles, including “Donna, I Understand.” It wasn’t a hit, but it got Nilsson signed to mercury Records.


Nilsson Met Phil Spector in 1964 and wrote three tunes with him that were recorded by The Ronettes and the Modern Folk Quartet. Mercury sold his contract to Tower, a Capital Records subsidiary who released Spotlight on Nilsson (1967 Tower). It went nowhere, but brought him to the attention of RCA. They signed him and released Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967 RCA), his attempt at a psychedelic pop album. Two of the album’s tracks were covered by other artists – “Cuddly Toy” by The Monkees and “Ten Little Indians” by The Yardbirds – but more importantly it hooked Nilsson up with The Beatles.


John Lennon told reporters that Pandemonium Shadow Show was his favorite album, which helped boost Nilsson’s public profile. Aerial Ballet (1968 RCA) another combination of retro Tin Pan Alley and psychedelic pop. The only song on the album that Nilsson didn’t write, Fred Neil’s “Everybody's Talkin’”, went to #6 and won a Grammy, and when Three Dog Night recorded “One”, Nilsson scored another Top 10 hit. He closed the year by writing the “Best Friend”, the theme song for the ABC TV hit The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, but for some reason he didn’t release it as a single.


Harry (1969 RCA) included the Top 40 single “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City”, which he’d written for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack and “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” a tune by a new songwriter he’d discovered named Randy Newman. His next album, Nilsson Sings Newman (1970 RCA) featured 10 Newman tunes and Newman’s piano backing Nilsson’s acrobatic vocals. It was named Record of the Year by Stereo Review magazine and introduced Newman to the record buying public. He also released The Point (1970 RCA) the soundtrack to a children’s cartoon he developed with animator Fred Wolf. It was an ABC Movie of the Week and included the hit “Me and My Arrow.”


Nilsson Schmilsson (1971 RCA) was cut in England with producer Richard Perry and heavies like Chris Spedding, Klaus Voorman and Jim Gordon. The set went platinum, won a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Without You”, and spawned three big hits “Without You”, “Coconut”, and “Jump Into the Fire.” Son of Schmilsson (1972 RCA) arrived while Schmilsson was still atop the charts. “Spaceman” was a Top 40 hit, but the album was sprinkled with four letter words, which didn’t help its commercial fate, although it did earn a gold record. Still, tunes like “Take 54”, with its hook, “I sang my balls off for you, baby”, and “You’re Breaking my Heart” (you're tearing it apart, so fuck you”) rank with Nilsson’s best, even if they never got any radio play.


A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973 RCA) failed commercially, but it’s one of his best and most endearing albums, 12 standards like "Makin’ Whoopee” and “As Time Goes By” sung to lush Gordon Jenkins arrangements. In 1974 Nilsson’s supplied music for Ringo Starr’s Dracula film. The soundtrack album Dracula (1974 RCA) includes mostly incidental music, but there is one tune, “Daybreak”, which was Nilsson’s last hit. Later in 74 he collaborated with John Lennon on Pussy Cats (1974 RCA) an album split between rock classics and new tunes. Nilsson ruptured a vocal chord during it recording process, but didn’t tell Lennon, and the album is spotty. Duit on Mon Dei (1975 RCA), which Nilsson wanted to call God’s Greatest Hits, seems unfocused, but on Sandman (1975 RCA) his with and melodic instincts are in full force, although the songs are some of the most cynical in his catalogue, including the dark calypso “Pretty Soon There'll Be Nothing Left for Everybody.” That's the Way It Is (1976 RCA) is mostly covers, but delivered without the fire of A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.


Knnillssonn (1977 RCA) is another classic, the forgotten gem in Nilsson’s catalogue with great songs, quirky production and incredible vocals. RCA was planning a huge publicity push, but then Elvis died and everything at the company was put on hold in the repackaging frenzy spawned by the death of The King. RCA dropped him, but is first label, Mercury came calling and he cut Flash Harry (1980 Mercury UK) an odd London session that was never released in the US. Steve Cropper produced and Eric Idle, Ringo Starr, and others lent a hand on a collection of covers and new tunes that’s strangely lackluster.


Nilsson kept writing tunes, even though he told friends he’d retired. He composed the songs for Robert Altman’s Popeye although he didn’t appear on the Popeye Soundtrack (1980 Boardwalk). He wrote Zapata, a musical comedy, with Perry Botkin, Jr. and Allan Katz, but after tryouts at the Godspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, it vanished. After Lennon’s murder, he was active with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and actually made public appearances to help them raise money. He sang three tunes on Every Man Has A Woman (1984 Polydor) a Yoko Ono tribute album, recorded “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” for Hal Willner’s Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1989 A&M) and cut a new song, “Blanket For a Sail” on For Our Children (1991 Disney) a benefit for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.


In 1985 Nilsson started a production company, Hawkeye, to launch new multi-media projects. They made one film, 1987’s The Telephone, with Whoopie Goldberg, and then discovered that the company’s financial officer had looted the company’s coffers. Hawkeye collapsed and Nilsson was almost broke for the rest of his life. He had a massive heart attack in 1993, then started working on what he hoped would be a come back album Papa’s Got a Brown New Robe. He had just finished the vocal tracks for the new album when he died of a heart failure. He was only 52.


Personal Best (1995 RCA) is just that, a two CD anthology of Nilsson’s most compelling tracks. A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night (1988 RCA), outtakes from the A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night sessions is also worth checking out.  In 2006 he was the subject of a comprehensive documentary on his work, titled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)

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