Harry Nilsson – Singer/Songwriter Extraordinaire

When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, Lennon was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, “Nilsson”. McCartney was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, “Nilsson.”

Harry Nilsson was one of those guys that seemed to be everywhere in the late ’60’s, early ’70’s. (He often just went by the name Nilsson.) Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1941, he was a significant force in rock music and songwriting for a span of about 4 or 5 years, after that never reaching quite the same heights. Despite that, he is number 62 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Harry made his way out to LA as a teenager and there cultivated his gift for songwriting. (As a singer, he had a three-and-a-half octave range.) This was the late ’50’s when early rock ‘n roll was booming. Harry was influenced not only by that but by the great Ray Charles.

Nilsson sang with a friend in an Everly Brothers-type band, using close harmonies. He eventually fell in with a songwriter named John Marascalco who was writing songs for Little Richard. Together they wrote a song called “Groovy Little Suzy” for Richard. (Harry credied, at least on Wikipedia, as Harry Nelson.) Richard heard Nilsson sing and reportedly said, “My! You sing good for a white boy!” Harry was encouraged to record a few tracks of his own, none of which went anywhere.

By 1964 he had met uber-producer Phil Spector and wrote a few songs with him. Harry kept writing songs which were recorded by people like Glen Campbell and the Shangri-Las. (Three Dog Night had a hit with his song “One (Is the loneliest number)” in 1968.) He had a recording contract but still worked on his computer programmer job at night.

In 1967, Nilsson released an album called Pandemonium Shadow Show which – at least commercially – received very little attention. But critically it was another story. Harry’s songwriting skills were getting noticed by the right people. The Monkees – who at one point were outselling the Beatles and Stones combined – recorded his song “Cuddly Toy.”

But even more significantly the album came to the attention of the Beatles. On this album, Harry covered the Fab Four’s song “You Can’t Do That.” In it, he quotes something like 20 different Beatles songs. Must be heard to be believed:

Spotify link

This brought Harry some much-needed attention (including the above-mentioned Liverpudlians quoted at top) and he did a few TV and concert gigs. However, he wasn’t very comfortable on stage and became mostly a creature of the recording studio. He released an album in 1968 called Aerial Ballet, after his grandparents who were circus performers. This album might have gone largely unnoticed if it were not for one song in particular.

When director John Schlesinger was looking for a song to punctuate his movie Midnight Cowboy, Beatles publicist Derek Taylor recommended Nilsson to him. He first considered Nilsson’s terrific song “I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City” but instead opted for the Fred Neil song, “Everybody’s Talkin'”. This is one of my very favorite go-to songs when the world, on occasion, becomes too much:

Spotify link

This song was a worldwide smash hit in 1969 and Harry won a Grammy for Best Male Vocal Pop Performance. It’s safe to say that by this time, Harry was no longer toiling in obscurity. He made a bunch of TV appearances to support the tune but never really toured much. He was commissioned to write the song “Best Friend,” as the theme song to a TV show called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

Nilsson released a couple more albums and even did the soundtrack for a popular animated 1971 TV film called The Point! for which Dustin Hoffman played a character. This produced a minor hit called “Me and My Arrow.”

Harry was still doing his thing but despite all this action and some name recognition, he was still largely one of those under-the-radar kind of guys. Ever a fan of his peers, around this time he recorded an album of Randy Newman songs (Nilsson Sings Newman) with Randy on piano.

But it was an album he released later in 1971 that finally put Harry on the map. Nilsson Schmilsson had a bunch of good tunes and was nominated for a Grammy Record of the Year.

But it was Badfinger’s song “Without You,” that became his next big hit. Paul McCartney called it the “killer song of all time.” Nilsson again won Best Male Pop Vocal. Strings are by Paul Buckmaster who had been working with Elton John:

Spotify link

This album includes maybe the dumbest, one-chord, fun song ever, “Coconut.”

“Doctor, is there nothing I can take
I said doctor, to relieve this bellyache
You put the lime in the coconut
Mix ’em both together

Spotify link

Harry was by now friends with all of the Beatles and was quite the partier. His friendship with John Lennon coincided with Lennon’s “lost weekend,” when Yoko Ono encouraged him (!) to have an affair with their assistant, May Pang. (Supposedly in some odd fashion to help shore up their own marriage.)

This lasted for about a year and a half during which time Lennon was musically productive if a bit unsteady on his feet. This culminated in he and Harry getting shitfaced (on Brandy Alexanders) at a show at the Troubador in 1974 where the musical act, the Smothers Brothers were performing. They heckled the band, punches were thrown, they got tossed out.* The papers had a field day with the story.

Lennon produced an album by Nilsson called Pussy Cats (1974) which gets pretty good ratings but I’ll be damned if I remember one track from it. (Mini-documentary here.) Nilsson’s career didn’t end here but his music increasingly became less commercial. He went on to do the soundtrack for Robert Altman’s Popeye movie (1980), a film I kinda liked although the critics were somewhat less kind.

A terrific use of one of Harry’s songs in film was in Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, Goodfellas. It’s near the end of the flick when Henry Hill is being pursued by helicopters everywhere (or thinks he is) and the soundtrack pulsates with “Jump Into the Fire.” Jim Gordon on drums; Herbie Flowers on bass.

Spotify link

Harry Nilsson’s last public performance was in 1992 when he appeared with Ringo Starr and sang “Without You.” He suffered a massive heart attack in 1993 and died of heart failure, age 52, in January 1994. Coincidentally, Mariah Carey had a big hit with Harry’s version of the song about a week after his death.

Odd note: Nilsson for a time had a flat in London. Both Mama Cass Elliot and Keith Moon died in the same room, four years apart. Distraught, Nilsson sold the place to Pete Townshend.

*In one the all-time great rock and roll stories, Lennon had visited the same club a few weeks prior wearing a sanitary napkin on his forehead. The waitress was pissed off that he didn’t leave a tip. Lennon said, “Do you know who I am?” “Yes,” she responded in perhaps the greatest and funniest comeback of all time. “you’re some asshole with a Kotex on your head.”

Sources: Wikipedia, various web sites

22 thoughts on “Harry Nilsson – Singer/Songwriter Extraordinaire

  1. I remember hearing Coconut for the first time via Reservoir Dogs and thinking “what’s this!?” It would be another 20 years of so before I picked up Nilsson Schmilsson… and that quickly established itself as a favourite and I soaked up everything after that. An incredible artist… talented, troubled, full of hijinx.

    I think Pussy Cats is a good album while being unremarkable. I think the involvement of Lennon heightened expectations, but the production is a tad cold and Harry’s voice is gone (hijinx gone too far).

    Although there may be little to get excited about after Schmilsson, there’s some gems on Son of Schmilsson and Duit On Mon Dei and, for my money, Knnillssonn finds him at the top of his game. It’s just a shame attention was elsewhere.

    Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) is a great documentary anyone looking to explore further.

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    1. I haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs in so long I couldn’t have told you that song was in it. The only one I remember is “Stuck in the Middle With You” and you know why that is. I actually knew about the documentary but it’s my busy season lately work-wise and I just couldn’t invest the two hours to watch it. One day maybe. Good intel J, thanks.

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      1. It plays during the end credits, so it’s inclusion is definitely not as memorable.

        Hopefully you get the opportunity to give the documentary a watch further down the line.

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  2. Good I had no idea that song on Goodfellas was Nilsson. Familiar with many of his tunes but had never put the dots together on that one. Tapped my feet to it every time (and given how much I love that film that’s a lot of tapping) I saw that scene but never connected the two. Probably as it’s not on the (stella) soundtrack that was released. Can’t hear it without picturing the scene, though much like Layla (Piano Exit)

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    1. No, it’s not on the soundtrack as such. I checked it out and Scorsese used a ton of songs, snippets, in the film most of which didn’t make the soundtrack. As to Harry’s output, I bet if you asked the average person, many would recognize these songs but not know they were all written and/or sung by one guy. Harry is one of those guys that’s becoming lost to the sands of time.

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  3. I bought the “Me and My Arrow” (1971) single as a kid. “Coconut” was fun at that age, too. Although I like “One,” mainly due to Three Dog Night’s rendition, my favorite song associated with him is “Everybody’s Talkin’,” but that was written by Fred Neil, a much better songwriter (IMO). I always considered him a little gimmicky, and I’m not sure how he managed #62 on that list by that magazine. Maybe his association with Lennon helped things? 🙂

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  4. I actually think it’s the other way around. Two of the greatest songwriters in rock heard Nilsson and praised his songwriting talents. And so he became part of their inner circle. I guess somehow they overlooked Neil. Other than Everybody’s Talkin’ I can’t name one other song by Neil. And yet I can name ten off the top of my head by Nilsson. I’ll go with Lennon/McCartney and Rolling Stone on this one.

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    1. If Lennon praised Nilsson’s songwriting talents, that does have significance. I just don’t think he deserves to be as high as #62 in a list of greatest songwriters. Your essay’s fine, my beef is with that magazine’s list. I could start ticking off names that were entirely omitted, but what’s the point. From what I read, the list was sponsored by Apple i-tunes, and they wanted links where people can purchase the music. Yeah, that ‘zine “overlooked Neil,” as well as more than a few others.

      Check out Neil’s eponymous album, or “Bleecker and McDougal,” or any good compilation. Just because you can’t name one other song by him doesn’t mean he’s undeserving of recognition. He didn’t have the hits, but he was an incisive songwriter, and the list of songwriters he directly influenced (including Nilsson) is quite impressive.

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      1. Yeah, Rolling Stone is not the end all and the be all for sure. And all those lists have a flavor of subjectivity. But I’m glad to see Harry get some level of recognition, Rolling Stone or no. So If I quote from these journals it’s to say that hey, somebody recognized him (or some other player.) It may or may not have great credibility but it’s part of an artist’s history and so I think, worth noting.

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  5. You keep pumping them out and giving ink to people that don’t get a lot. Harry is a guy that flies under the radar for me. Every time I hear a song by him I enjoy it. Anther Musician I’m listening to more often. I’m with you on your ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ quote. I seem to remember Robbie Robertson being part of Scorsese’s soundtrack choices. CB could be mistaken but it Makes sense. Want I wanted to say is, remember when I asked you about compilations? ‘For the Love Of Harry’ gets regular playtime at my place.

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    1. I hate to see good musicians get forgotten. My wife doesn’t know his name but knows all these songs. These people deserve a better fate so I try to keep them alive in some small way. That ‘Harry’ one sounds good. Looked it up. A tribute album. Good for him.

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    1. Is that a great movie or what? The post was getting long or I would have gone on about that. If you wanna see Times Square as it used to be, check either ‘Cowboy’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ for sure.

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