Remembering Harry Nilsson
Today (June 15th) marks what would have been Harry Nilsson‘s 81st birthday. Nilsson is best remembered for being an inventive and groundbreaking songwriter, despite the fact that his two biggest hits “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You” were actually not written by him. Although he recorded it first, it was Three Dog Night that hit the Top Ten in 1969 with their cover of Nilsson’s song “One.” Nilsson died of a massive heart attack in 1994 after struggling for years with diabetes.
Released in November 2019 was Losst And Founnd — an album featuring some of Harry Nilsson’s unfinished final songs. The album, which was produced by Mark Hudson, features contributions from Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Keltner, and Harry’s son, Kiefo Nilsson.
Nilsson was back in the news in 2016 due to the Top 15 success of the Monkees‘ album, Good Times! The album’s lead track, “Good Time,” features Micky Dolenz duetting virtually with Nilsson on a demo he had cut for the band in 1967.
Harry Nilsson first caught the ears of the Beatles in 1968 with his three-octave tenor range, became personal and professional friends with all of them, and went on to work extensively with both Ringo Starr and John Lennon. Although Nilsson’s Beatles connections often overshadowed his own work, Nilsson actually belonged to a tight-knit group of transplanted L.A.-based songwriters including Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, and Randy Newman.
In 1994 Randy Newman talked about their relationship, explaining that, “We thought about music. . . The records we made were like the Rolling Stones didn’t exist. We thought rock and roll would go in a completely different direction, like a branch of Homo Sapiens that didn’t become Homo Sapiens.”
Nilsson’s wit and musical prowess made it easy for him to move with ease into different genres, composing music for the TV series The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father, and providing music to films such as Skidoo, Popeye, The Fisher King, and his own animated feature, The Point.
He continually changed direction throughout his career and at important junctures took risks; such as recording an entire album of Newman’s songs or covering 1930’s and ’40s standards rather than producing the type of infectious pop/rock that was expected of him. It was these left turns that lost Nilsson a broader fan base, yet earned him a solidly loyal and intense cult following.
One of Harry Nilsson’s biggest breaks came in 1967 when then Monkees picked “Cuddly Toy” out of his group of demos for the group and decided to cut it for the Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, Jones Ltd. album. Micky Dolenz remembered the day Nilsson’s career took an undeniable turn for the better: “I remember very clearly the day he came into the studio — and it’s one of my only very clear memories. And (he) obviously impressed everybody and Davy said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that song — ‘Cuddly Toy.'”
Dolenz went on to become one of Nilsson’s most notorious partners in crime. He recalled there was much more to Nilsson than just music: “He was certainly a very, very powerful character. He had an incredibly powerful personality. I guess because I knew him so well, he was just my friend. The main thing about him is that he was incredibly intelligent. I mean he’s probably — and I don’t throw the term around lightly — he probably was one of the only men or women that I met that I can honestly say was a genius.”
Out now on DVD is the critically acclaimed documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking’ About Him)???
Director John Scheinfeld told us that the link between the Nilsson and Lennon families remained extremely strong following Lennon’s 1980 murder: “When we asked Yoko if she’d like to participate, there was no hesitation at all. It was, like, ‘Absolutely.’ Certainly in the years after John was killed there was quite a lot of contact; there were Christmases where families would get together. So there was a lot of good feeling there — particularly when she talks about how much Harry loved his kids, and the reason she was able to do that was — she was there.”
Legendary singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb was one of Harry Nilsson’s biggest fans and closest confidantes. We asked him what comes to mind when he thinks of Nilsson as an artist: “I think of Nilsson Schmilsson right off the bat. I was around for the record in London with Harry and Richard Perry, and it’s not only one of Harry’s best records, but I think one of the best records ever made. He was such an elaborately perfect singer. He really is our generation’s singer; if we had a Frank Sinatra, it would’ve been Harry. And you can hear that on an album like, A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night, and you go, ‘This guy. . . who sings like this guy?’ Nobody.”
Out now is the first major biography on Harry Nilsson called, Nilsson: The Life Of A Singer-Songwriter by author Alyn Shipton. Nilsson’s estate has granted Shipton unprecedented access to the songwriter’s files, friends, family, and even Nilsson’s own unfinished autobiography.
2013 saw Nilsson’s entire catalogue reissued with revamped and expanded editions of his legendary albums.