“Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son…” Happy Birthday Harry Nilsson

Happy Birthday Harry Nilsson! (June 15, 1941 – January 15, 1994)

Years after his passing, in 1994, Harry Nilsson’s legend has only grown, and today he’s one of the prime names for an artist to drop, with as much currency as a Nick Drake or a Brian Wilson. Even artists who sound nothing like him claim Nilsson as an archetype for their own music. Notably,  this L.A. legend was actually born in  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 while getting covers on his tunes from the likes of Glen Campbell, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds and even Fred Astaire. In 1967, he moved to RCA, who released his landmark, Pandemonium Shadow Show, an album that might have gone unnoticed had it not impressed Derek Taylor, the Beatles ocean-hopping ex-press officer, who is said to have heard “1941” on his car radio waiting for his wife at the supermarket. Taylor loved it so much he ordered a whole carton of Pandemonium, and personally mailed them out to various industry contacts including his old charges, The Beatles.

Beatles endorse Harry Nilsson (a photo simulation)

The Fabs were no doubt flattered by Nilsson’s covers of “You Can’t Do That” (actually a medley of 22 Beatles songs!) and”She’s Leaving Home”, because when Lennon and McCartney held a press conference to announce the formation of Apple Records in 1968, they told reporters that Harry was their favourite new artist.

Soon after, The Monkees covered “Cuddly Toy” on the suggestion of a mutual friend, producer Chip Douglas, and Harry 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.

In 1969, his album Harry featured a cover of Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” and the following year, Newman came in 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.”



schmillson

Later that year, he and ace producer Richard Perry flew to the UK to make Nilsson Schmilsson. It was on this album that Harry took the Pete Ham & Tom Evans song “Without You” and made it his own. Today, the song has been widely covered by hundreds of artists, and most often credited incorrectly by people who never heard the Badfinger version.

Here’s Harry’s rare piano demo:

His followup was  “Coconut,” a tropically-themed novelty song anchored by a solitary C 7th chord.

While the third single, “Jump into the Fire” did well enough at the time, it is arguably best known today for its inclusion in 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.

Famously, or infamously, Harry played the role of Lennon’s L.A. drinking buddy, most notably during the Lennon’s “lost weekend” period with May Pang in L.A. while the ex-Beatle was estranged from Yoko. Their ejection from The Troubadour (after creating a scene at a Smothers Brothers gig) made headlines, but the time wasn’t entirely wasted. Their L.A. time resulted in their Pussy Cats collaboration, but the hard life was killing Harry’s voice While he was back in form for 1975’s Duit on Mon Dei and subsequent followups, Sandman and …That’s the Way It Is, his 1977 release, Knnillssonn, got lost in the shuffle over at RCA after the death of  the label’s most golden goose, Elvis Presley. His final straw at RCA came when the label put out a Nilsson Greatest Hits collection without his approval, Nilsson walked.

Over the ensuing years, he kept a low public profile, but after his dear friend John was brutally murdered by a deranged fool on December 8, 1980, Harry became active in the gun control lobby. He donated his fees from his 1988 cover of “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” (included on Hal Willner’s Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films) to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and also did similar charitable work to fight Pediatric AIDS in the Los Angeles area.

He rarely if ever played in concert, but he did go onstage with Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, on September 1, 1992,  to perform “Without You.”  His voice and his general health had diminished due to all the excesses of the 70s and 80s, and All-Starr member Todd Rundgren had to take the high notes. Harry suffered one more indignity when he discovered that he had been swindled by a financial advisor.

After suffering a massive heart attack in 1993, Nilsson struggled to assemble an anthology/ retrospective set, which was slated to include a brand new recordings 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 the following year.

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?

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10 Responses to ““Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son…” Happy Birthday Harry Nilsson”

  1. great stuff paul…par usualment.

    hope ya dont mind me posting this tip of the musical hat by
    Reid Jamieson

    Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore:
    [audio src="http://www.reidjamieson.com/reidoradio/NobodyCaresAbout-ReidJamieson.mp3" /]

    from The CBC Vinyl Cafe Train Show…

  2. One of the greatest songwriters and singers ever. Wish I could of had a drink with Harry. Have you seen the doc? I can’t find it anywhere.

  3. Happy Birthday Harry! I’ll have a Brandy Alexander in your honor.

  4. Dean Thut Says:

    The demo for Without You is incredible. Thanks Paul

  5. Justin Smallbridge Says:

    Love Nilsson. Love also how the “Coconut” video — a revelation (loved the song when it was a hit) — was an obvious and deliberate tribute tio Ernie Kovacs’s Nairobi Trio. Dig: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoLTFQsFswM

  6. Is it true that he was considered a replacement for Paul when Paul announced his split from the Beatles with the release of his solo album?

    The Point and Me and My Arrow was and is one of my favourites.

    I know my pal Bob Segarini co-wrote some stuff with Harry that appeared on the Miss Butters Family Tree album.
    but I’ll let him tell you about it.

    I recorded a song called Medicine man which alluded to Lime in the Coconut in its original version…
    “doctor is their something I can take to relieve this belly ache”
    but then not having the rights…
    I re-recorded the middle section.

    I’m thinking a Harry Nilsson tribute night would be a good idea…

    He also shared a birthday with my mom, who passed away in 1996.

  7. pulmyears Says:

    Wha…?

  8. Just a note to say if you haven’t seent the documentary

    Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?

    YOU SHOULD! its brilliant. Reid and I have been inspired ever since…so good. http://www.authorizedpix.com/wihn_home.html

    for your listening pleasure…another tip of the hat by Reid Jamieson
    – Everybody’s Talkin:
    [audio src="http://www.reidjamieson.com/reidoradio/EverybodysTalkin.mp3" /]

  9. Website…

    “Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son…” Happy Birthday Harry Nilsson « The Pulmyears Music Blog…

  10. If you want to see and hear everything about Harry Nilsson, go to For The Love Of Harry. http://fortheloveofharry.blogspot.com/

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