“Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son…” Happy Birthday Harry Nilsson
The man may have passed on to the great recording studio in the sky, but here among the living, Nilsson’s spirit has never been felt more strongly. Everywhere I turn, I hear his influence in contemporary alternative songwriters, and barring that, I hear artists who sound nothing like him claiming Nilsson as an archetype for their own music. Since his death, on January 15, 1994, Nilsson’s legend has only grown and today he’s one of the prime names to drop, along with Nick Drake or Brian Wilson or if we’re digging deep, Serge Gainsbourg or The Zombies’ Odessey And Oracle. How fitting for an L.A. legend who was actually born in Hipsterville, USA – Brooklyn, New York – on June 15, 1941.
Beginning his recording career in 1966, with Spotlight on Nilsson, Harry continued to toil away at his bank clerk gig and his only early success came via covers of his tunes by the like of Glen Campbell, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds and even Fred Astaire. In 1967, he moved to RCA and released a landmark record called Pandemonium Shadow Show, which might have gone unnoticed had it not impressed one Derek Taylor, the Beatles ocean hopping press associate who is said to have heard “1941” on his car radio waiting for his wife at the supermarket, and loved it so much he ordered a whole carton of Pandemonium, sending them out to various industry people including many influential friends, some of whom were Beatles. Here’s a clip of Harry on the BBC doing “1941”:
The Fabs must have been also flattered at Nilsson’s Beatles medley on “You Can’t Do That” (featuring 22 Beatles songs!) along with his cover of “She’s Leaving Home”, because when Lennon and McCartney were asked who their favourite new artist was, (at their Apple Records announcement press conference in 1968), they told the reporters, simply “Nilsson.”
The Monkees covered Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” soon after, on the suggestion of a mutual friend, producer Chip Douglas, and Nilsson left the bank job forever. Nilsson made this demo expressly for Davy Jones to sing:
Rarely playing live, Nilsson preferred the magic world of the recording studio, where he could layer his voice and control the sonic environment. In 1968, he made the album Aerial Ballet, which featured one of my favourite songs: “Good Old Desk”:
Aerial Ballet also debuted Nilsson’s aching cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, which gained more attention as the theme from John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight). That single went top ten and earned Harry his first Grammy.
Another Aerial Ballet song, “One,” was covered, to great success, by Danny Hutton’s band Three Dog Night. Here’s Nilsson’s though:
ABC soon asked him to write the theme for their popular TV series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, starring Bill Bixby and Brandon Cruz.
Harry, released in 1969, featured his cover of Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” and he was reportedly so enamoured of Newman’s writing that, the following year, he asked Newman to play piano on an album devoted to his songs, Nilsson Sings Newman. Here’s an audio only clip of Newman’s “Love Story” as sung by our Harry:
Many people my age first got Nilsson fever after the animated TV movie, The Point!, directed by Fred Wolf, in the winter of 1971, and the songs from The Point! album became a hit, largely on the back of the catchy radio single, “Me and My Arrow.”
Working with producer Richard Perry in the UK, later that year, Nilsson released Nilsson Schmilsson, on which Harry made the Pete Ham and Tom Evans song “Without You” his own, becoming more widely known than Ham’s own version with Badfinger.
Here’s a rare demo version of that:
He followed it with a tropically themed novelty song called “Coconut”, a meditation on one chord (a C 7).
While the third single, “Jump into the Fire”, did well enough, it’s now better known for being included on Scorsese’s soundtrack to Goodfellas.
With three hot singles, he rushed out the followup, Son of Schmilsson in 1972, which didn’t connect as well as its predecessor but still featured the charting single, “Spaceman”. The downward spiral, commercially, continued with the Derek Taylor produced A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973), featuring orchestral versions of standards by Irving Berlin and others, arranged by Gordon Jenkins.
He soon moved back to California, where among other things he played the role of drinking buddy for John Lennon’s famous lost weekend period in L.A. (when Lennon was estranged from Yoko and dating May Pang). Their ejection from the Troubadour (after creating a scene at a Smothers Brothers gig there) made headlines, but the time also resulted in the two making the Pussy Cats album together. Nilsson had injured his voice during the binging and while he was back in form for 1975 Duit on Mon Dei and subsequent 1976 albums Sandman and…That’s the Way It Is. After 1977’s Knnillssonn was delivered, it got lost in the shuffle over at RCA after the death of the label’s most golden of geese, Elvis Presley. When the label put out a Nilsson Greatest Hits collection without his approval, Nilsson bailed on RCA.
The next few years were quiet as far as public visibility was concerned, but after Lennon was brutally murdered by some meaningless idiot, on December 8, 1980, Harry became active in the gun control lobby and when he contributed a cover of “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” to Hal Willner’s Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. in 1988, he is said to have donated his fees to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He also did similar charitable work for Pediatric AIDS in the Los Angeles area.
Nilsson’s final live performance is believed to have been in Las Vegas, on September 1, 1992, onstage with Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band at Caesar’s Palace, where he performed “Without You” with Todd Rundgren taking the high notes. His voice and his general health had diminished due to all the excesses of the 70s and 80s, and he suffered one more indignity when it was discovered that he had been swindled by a financial advisor, leaving him insolvent at the time of his premature death in 1994.
His financial adviser embezzled most of his fortune leaving him in considerable debt just prior to his death. Still, he stumbled forward, and after he had suffered a massive heart attack in 1993, and perhaps sensing his own imminent demise, he struggled to get together an anthology/ retrospective set, which was slated to include a brand new, and final, recording with producer Mark Hudson. On January 15, 1994, after his last vocal was cut Nilsson’s heart failed for the last time at his home in Agoura Hills, CA. Personal Best, an anthology, came out a year after his death.
In 2006, David Leaf and John Schienfeld’s documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him, featured interviews with of Nilsson’s friends, colleagues and extended family discussing the highs and lows of his unique life and career.
Happy Birthday Harry, wherever you are. I picture your ghost, in a terry cloth bath robe near a grand piano, singing like your life and death depended on it. That’s just me. Anyway, thanks for the songs, which is, I guess, The Point of this tribute. Remember?