I imagine that Harry Nilsson is either one of your heroes or completely off your radar, either way his genius ran deep. Blessed with a wonderfully expressive voice with a considerable range, and as an interpreter of other people’s song, he was one of the best of his era. During his career he picked up two Grammys – one in 1969 for the Fred Neil penned Everybody’s Talkin’ from the film Midnight Cowboy starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie’s Dad). The song wasn’t a hit the first time it was released in 1968 and didn’t even penetrate the Top 100 (No.113). After the film took off a year later the song went to No.6 on the US chart. The other Grammy came in 1972 for his striking rendition of Badfinger’s Without You written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans originally released by the band on their 1970 masterpiece No Dice. The story is that he heard it at a party, thought it was The Beatles and when he found it wasn’t decided to record it. It was a massive international hit. No.1 in the UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and performing well just about everywhere else. (Mariah Carey also had a massive a hit with the song released a week after Nilsson died). In 1970 Nilsson dedicated a whole album to the songs of Randy Newman and in 1973 he recorded A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In the night, an album of 20th century standards.
Nilsson also wrote memorable songs of his own that were hits for others. Three Dog Night took his song, One to No.5 on the US charts in 1969. (Originally recorded by Nilsson in 1968 on the Aerial Ballet album). One of my favourites is Without Her, recorded with a string quartet. Andy Williams should have recorded it – it was in fact recorded by Astrud Gilberto, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, George Benson and Blood Sweat And Tears. Maybe there are more versions and maybe Andy Williams has a version in the archives? There’s also Cuddly Toy released on both Nilsson’s Pandemonium Shadow Show album and The Monkees’ Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones in 1967. Then there’s the one chord hit Coconut from Nilsson Schmilsson 1971. It was the third single from the album and reached No.8 in the US in 1972 showcasing his sense of humour and his willingness to experiment with multi-tracked vocals even though his pure voice could kill you on its own.
Then there’s Nilsson’s relationship with The Beatles and especially John Lennon. The 1974 album Pussy Cats was credited to both of them and although they had crossed paths in the sixties with The Beatles declaring Nilsson as one of their favourite artists (He recorded You Can’t Do That in 1967 and sang lots of other Beatles songs simultaneously throughout the song). It was with Lennon that the two of them acquired the reputation of famous hell-raisers into the seventies. It was on Pussycats that Nilsson succeeded in damaging his voice – you can imagine what condition the two of them were in by the time they got to the studio! Nilsson also conceived and wrote the animated philosophical film The Point in 1971 and had a small hit with Me And My Arrow from the film. In later years he had little commercial success, one showing of No.43 in the UK for All I Think About Is You from one of his personal favourite albums, Knnillssonn 1977 was his only Top 5o hit anywhere since 1974. Allegedly the album wasn’t promoted properly by the label as it was released around the same time as Elvis died and all RCA’s efforts were directed to the money spinner that ensued. Nilsson was also was unique in that he never performed live, apparently on reflection, he regretted that decision.
In 1974 it was Nilsson’s flat in London where Mama Cass died of a heart attack and in 1978 where Keith Moon died of an overdose of pills that he was taking to keep him off the booze. After Moon died Nilsson never went back, selling the apartment to Pete Townshend.
Harry Nilsson left behind 15 albums of wonderful singing, poignant songs, sometimes controversial for the era, such as You’re Breakin’ My heart from Son Of Schmilsson in 1972 that contained the line “You’re breakin’ my heart, you tear it apart, so Fuck You” in the chorus. Gotta Get Up, I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City and many more songs that he either wrote or sang, live on.
Nilsson was born in Brooklyn and died in California in 1994 of a heart attack at the ridiculously young age of 52. Spending an evening with him as I have tonight has been an absolute pleasure. The video posted here recorded for the BBC in 1971 captures his serious talent and his bizarre sense of humour all in one…and One is the loneliest number.
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