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Harry Nilsson

Rare and remarkable in his singer-songwriting world, and with a penchant for elaborate orchestration, HARRY NILSSON composed many a classic in his prematurely short lifespan (`One’, `Coconut’, etc.), but ironically it was outsider ballads that made his name a household one: and that was BADFINGER’s `Without You’. Lesser so was his definitive version of FRED NEIL’s `Everybody’s Talkin’, a theme song elemental in the late 60s soundtrack success of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, although by this point he’d already recorded a whimsical score of his own, for Otto Preminger’s dismal hippie yarn, Skidoo, in which Harry also made a cameo appearance as a tower guard.
Born Harry Edward Nelson, June 15, 1941, Bushwick, Brooklyn in New York, but subsequently raised by his mother in California, it was his Uncle John that first encouraged young Harry to sing. From working at the Paramount Theatre in L.A. until 1960, to blagging his way into a supervisor job at the Security First National Bank in Van Nuys, his aptitude for switching into a different role was commendable; his bosses kept him on, even when they discovered his deception. By day he was developing his songwriting and piano-playing skills, by night he worked at the bank on computers.
Inspired by RAY CHARLES and The EVERY BROTHERS respectively, his first paid work as a songsmith was with Scott Turner, however, in 1963, John Marascalco (a scribe for LITTLE RICHARD), offered Harry the promise of a career, and financed his first forays onto vinyl. As embarrassing as they were, he could certainly hide behind the pseudonymous nature of `Donna, I Understand’ (as Johnny Niles) – a one-off for Mercury Records – `Baa Baa Blacksheep’ and `Do You Wanna (Have Some Fun)’ – both as Bo-Pete – and `Stand Up And Holler’ – with the Foto-Fi Four.
Through associations and dealings with PHIL SPECTOR, publisher Perry Botkin, Jr. and all-rounder George Tipton, further investment helped HARRY NILSSON – as he was now called – to a contract with Capitol subsidiary, Tower Records. Between October 1964 and May the following year, a couple of 45s were issued, although `Sixteen Tons’ (the MERLE TRAVIS cut) and `You Can’t Take Your Love (Away From Me)’, fell on deaf ears. It was much the same for both `She’s Yours’ and an A & B’s compilation set, SPOTLIGHT ON NILSSON (1966) {*4}, that Harry, himself, came to despise; the SPECTOR association pushed out 45s for The RONETTES and The MODERN FOLK QUARTET.
NILSSON’s first major break came when RCA Victor signed the budding 25 year-old. 1967’s PANDEMONIUM SHADOW SHOW {*8} didn’t quite reach the heady heights of singer-songwriter rival NEIL DIAMOND (if comparing MONKEES contribution `Cuddly Toy’), but the record put NILSSON on the musical map; The YARDBIRDS would take B-side `Ten Little Indians’ into the Top 100, which persuading him to leave his job at the bank and concentrate on music full-time. There was a distinct BEATLES-esque feel to much of this “proper” debut, not merely down to faithful covers of `She’s Leaving Home’ and `You Can’t Do That’, but in the orchestrated “Sgt. Pepper” pop of his own `Without Her’, `It’s Been So Long’ and the autobiographical `1941’ (not forgetting Spector’s `River Deep Mountain High’). NILSSON’s rich voice and immaculate phrasing belied the fact he was American. Not much of a surprise then, that the Fab Four duly raved over the record; soon becoming good friends with the singer.
Prolific and stretching his sardonic wit to juxtapose an album more or less in awe of his circus-performing paternal grandparents, ARIEL BALLET (1968) {*8} highlighted a couple of gems in `Everybody’s Talkin’ (a flop first time around) and the celebrated song about loneliness, `One’. The latter was adopted by THREE DOG NIGHT to reach Top 5 status the following summer, which, in turn, led to considerable praise from the critics and commercial Top 10 success for his definitive reading of the aforementioned cover of `Everybody’s Talkin’; the wistful country-folk number was used as the theme tune for a certain Jon Voight/Dustin Hoffman cult movie. Elsewhere on the album, `Daddy’s Song’, a sort of sequel to ‘1941’, hit the buffers on the original copies, having given exclusive rights to The MONKEES to utilise on their “Head” soundtrack, but it was restored later on CD. From the flighty frolics of `Mr. Richmond’s Favourite Song’, to pieces apparently concerning his mother (`Little Cowboy’), suicide (`I Said Goodbye To Me’) and God (`Good Old Desk’), there were also exercises in music hall cabaret and lounge exotica.
Issued only a month after “Ariel Ballet”, Harry walked a tightrope of his own making for the soundtrack to SKIDOO (1968) {*4}. NILSSON’s penchant for whimsy wasn’t to all tastes and this venture took the goof factor to unbearable levels, particularly on the opening `The Cast And Crew’, where the mercurial songwriter famously sung the movie’s credits. This sounds like a bad idea on paper and be assured, it’s even more tedious in reality. Even the trifling fantasia of `Garbage Can Ballet’ was more listenable. Elsewhere, NILSSON redeemed himself to a certain extent with `I Will Take You There’, while George Tipton’s orchestral arrangements – enhanced by obligatory sitar and tabla – passed by inconsequentially; actress Carol Channing mercifully closed this curiosity in squawking, sub-standard EARTHA KITT style.
One thing that `Everybody’s Talkin’ did stir was interest in his fifth LP, HARRY (1969) {*7}, which bubbled under the Top 100 for a time. A patchwork set of songs that reined in nostalgia, tin pan alley, Americana and cutesy ballads, several of own his songs (opener `The Puppy Song’ was bought by PAUL McCARTNEY for Welsh protégé MARY HOPKIN), were suffocated by spaces commendably given over to American, William E. “Bill” Martin (`Fairfax Rag’, `City Life’ and the co-authored `Rainmaker’). To top it all, there were three covers, namely LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `Mother Nature’s Son’, JERRY JEFF WALKER’s `Mr. Bojangles’ and most significantly, RANDY NEWMAN’s `Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear’ (already a UK hit for Geordie ALAN PRICE).
This instigated a whole album’s worth of Randy’s works in the subtly-received NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN (1970) {*7}. A little misguided in commercial terms, possibly, but it did feature the then-budding songsmith himself on piano, accompanying singer Harry. From `Vine St.’ and `Love Story’ to `Dayton, Ohio 1903’ and `So Long Dad’ (singles `I’ll Be Home’ and `Caroline’ somewhere in between), the amiable record was a slow-burner but worth sticking with on an historical note, as both parties sucked up subsequent fame and fortune; NEWMAN later took a leaf out of NILSSON’s book by becoming a prolific cinematic scoresmith.
Bizarrely enough, despite all his modest success, NILSSON never performed in front of a paying audience, while television appearances were quite rare. Harry’s soundtrack to timeless children’s fantasy TV animation, THE POINT! (1971) {*7} was a hugely charming blend of dislocated melody and occasionally amusing, stoner-inspired dialogue. Oblio was the unfortunate owner of a round head, not so clever in the land of Point where everyone else has a pointed bonce. NILSSON examined themes of prejudice and tribal mentality as the main characters played the cast-offs.
Maybe just a little bit BEATLES-y; but then his relationship with LENNON & McCARTNEY was always one of mutual admiration, even “Yellow Submarine” doesn’t come close to Oblio’s trip on this voyage of self-discovery through the “pointless forest”. Much of the Top 30 breakthrough album was narration, but in this case, that was a bonus – Harry’s a born storyteller, and his engrossing delivery, timing, rhythm and humour could’ve made him a “Jackanory” icon. Ostensibly psychedelic/bubblegum 60s in tone and message, yet unmistakably of the period, the music and lyrics were the karmic opposite of his previous album (and as soulful as “Skidoo” was disposable); the sweetness, warmth and nostalgic ache of songs like `Everything’s Got ‘Em’ and the Top 40 hit, `Me And My Arrow’, both dilated and drowsy compared to the darker moods of his later work.
On the back of a remixed AERIAL PANDEMONIUM BALLET (1971) {*6} set, NILSSON really made his breakthrough later in the year with the Richard Perry-produced NILSSON SCHMILSSON (1971) {*8}. Featuring a hauntingly melodramatic version of the aforementioned `Without You’ (the song assuming an added poignancy following the suicides of both its writers in ’75 and ‘83), the transatlantic Top 5 album subsequently went platinum, again showing the singer’s penchant for diverse stylistic territory. From the acid-ic `Coconut’ and the STEPPENWOLF-esque `Jump Into The Fire’, to renditions of R&B staples of `Let The Good Times Roll’ and `Early In The Morning’, NILSSON was now a Grammy winner.
Together with a stellar guest personnel, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voorman, RINGO STARR, Jim Price, Bobby Keys, Ray Cooper, PETER FRAMPTON, CHRIS SPEDDING et al, the sequel SON OF SCHMILSSON (1972) {*6}, was generally regarded as an inferior version of its predecessor, with only Top 30 hit `Spaceman’, `Joy’ and the explicit `You’re Breaking My Heart’ (but not the cover of The Eldorados’ `At My Front Door’), worthy of its gold record claim.
With an album full of tin pan alley nostalgia nuggets, A LITTLE TOUCH OF SCHMILSSON IN THE NIGHT (1973) {*5}, was a semi-successful attempt at pre-war schmaltz. Running off orchestra-laden interpretations of `Makin’ Whoopee’, `You Made Me Love You’, `What’ll I Do?’, `Always’, `As Time Goes By’ etc., NILSSON’s well-earned street-cred was lost in one, or a dozen, fell swoop(s).
The singer subsequently landed a starring role (his one and only) in Freddie Francis’ vampire spoof, SON OF DRACULA (1974) {*4} as the punningly-monikered Count Downe and, while he also composed the score, he’d later comment that he only took the part in order to star opposite buddy, Ringo. Released on vinyl, this project effectively put a lid on HARRY NILSSON’s season in the sun. There was a certain kitsch-y pleasure in the excess dialogue, an intimation of just how heroically wooden the film actually was; STARR, especially, was volubly awful. The excerpts also gave an immediate sense that the pair weren’t exactly bending over backwards to write original music, or to write any music at all. Instead, the odd couple raided Harry’s most recent chart albums and left the incidental stuff to PAUL BUCKMASTER (he of BOWIE’s Space Oddity, THIRD EAR BAND and ELTON JOHN fame). As for the NILSSON nuggets, the credits – GEORGE HARRISON among the his usual suspects – read like a 70s supersession; `Remember’, `Without You’ and `The Moonbeam Song’ were as subtly powerful as they were first time round, but the very un-gothic, quasi-Caribbean music hall of `Daybreak’, was about the only incentive to fork out cash.
NILSSON then took another radical stylistic shift with PUSSY CATS (1974) {*6}, a darkly intense album of fresh compositions (`Don’t Forget Me’, etc.) and classic pop/rock covers recorded with, and produced by, drinking buddy JOHN LENNON. Cut during the former BEATLES’ “lost” period (when he split from YOKO ONO), the opus was a proverbial dark night of the soul for both artists; the covers included JIMMY CLIFF’s `Many Rivers To Cross’, BOB DYLAN’s `Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Pomus & Shuman’s `Save The Last Dance For Me’ and BILL HALEY & THE COMETS’ `Rock Around The Clock’.
Going from hero to zero in the space of a few years, the rather average DUIT ON MON DEI {*5}, SANDMAN (1976) {*5}, … THAT’S THE WAY IT IS (1976) {*3} and KNNILLSSONN (1977) {*5}, all bubbled under the Top 100 for a bit, while respective lead singles, `Kojak Columbo’ (very “copital”), `Something True’, `Sail Away’ and `All I Think About Is You’, couldn’t turn the clock back to his early 70s halcyon period.
Taking time out to let the punk dust settle, HARRY NILSSON – as he was now billed – returned to the fore with FLASH HARRY (1980) {*5}. Issued only in Britain (on Mercury Records) and Japan, and featuring DR. JOHN (as Malcolm Rebennack), VAN DYKE PARKS, the late Lowell George and some LITTLE FEAT, and two songs respectively penned with LENNON and STARR (`Old Dirt Road’ and `How Long Can Disco On’), the LP was cheekily bookended by Eric Idle ditties, `Harry’ and `Bright Side Of Life’ (yes, the MONTY PYTHON’s Life Of Brian novelty piece).
NILSSON’s fourth and final score came with Robert Altman’s musical to “Popeye” (1981), where he combined with VAN DYKE PARKS to create a memorable clutch of amusing vignettes. With the untimely death of his best friend JOHN LENNON, the singer virtually retired from the music business, raising a family, campaigning for gun control, and setting up an L.A.-based film distribution company. A festive album, THE PRESENCE OF CHRISTMAS (1988) {*2} – with narration by Bruce Heighley – was virtually ignored.
In the early 90s, NILSSON threw himself afresh into recording and writing following a diabetes-induced heart attack. Tragically, he suffered a fatal one on January 15, 1994, just days after completing songs with producer Mark Hudson, songs which have remained in the can ever since. The following year, the music business paid tribute by way of a various artists album, `For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson’, featuring contributions from the likes of RANDY NEWMAN, AIMEE MANN, BRIAN WILSON, MARSHALL CRENSHAW, The B’52’s Fred Schneider, STEVIE NICKS & RINGO STARR, among many others. In early 2006, a documentary biography, entitled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), was distributed by Lorber Films.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-/LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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