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:
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:
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:
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
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.
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