Harry Nilsson Biography
Harry Nilsson (1941-94) was a genius - no doubt about it. Blessed with one of the finest voices you could wish to hear he was also a composer of songs in more styles than you could imagine and an interpreter extraordinaire. No-one else I have heard can make me laugh or cry simply by the way he sings a few notes. Because of this gift he could turn mediocre material into masterpieces - and great songs into timeless classics.
Originally a bank worker in LA who sang in his spare time and wrote songs on demand, Harry had taken several tentative steps into the pop world in the Beatles dominated world of the early 1960s before he finally came to the attention of RCA Victor in 1967. They released his first ‘major’ LP recording ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ which featured songs which became hits for The Yardbirds and The Monkees as well as the semi-autobiographical 1941 and cover versions of two Beatles songs - including a wonderfully assembled aural collage based around ‘You Can’t Do That’.
The mutual appreciation society soon became established when The Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor took a box of LPs back to Apple and a short while later the Beatles told the world that their favourite group was ‘Nilsson’. Harry spent most of the rest of his career recording and liaising with all of the Beatles and was even touted as Paul’s replacement at one time! Now that would have been a band!
Harry followed PSS with Aerial Ballet (which featured his first major hit, a cover of Fred Neill’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ taken from the box office hit ‘Midnight Cowboy) and Harry, a delightful album from 1969. He also provided the soundtrack for a crazy film by Otto Preminger, ‘Skidoo’, which is, sadly, rarely seen these days (especially considering it was the very last outing for superstar Groucho Marx).
An LP of cover versions of songs by Randy Newman followed as did a compilation of the first 2 LPs ‘remixed and revamped’ for ‘catch up’ fans who missed out on the, by then, deleted recordings. Then Nilsson wrote ‘The Point’. This delightful story illustrated by superb, catchy and witty songs was made into a full-length cartoon and was shown worldwide to enraptured TV audiences with narration by Dustin Hoffman. (Harry narrated the LP himself while subsequent releases of the film have featured Ringo and Alan Thicke narrating.)
At this point, feted by the swinging London scene, Harry moved to England and recorded there, arguably, his 3 best albums - ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ (which featured the Grammy award winning ‘Without You’ and perennial favourite ‘Coconut’), and ‘Son of Schmilsson’ - probably the one LP with the most different styles of song on it in the world - ever ! The third LP was 1973’s ‘A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night’ - and a total departure from anything Nilsson had done before. It was a recording of classic songs with full orchestral backing. Marvellous laid back interpretations of tunes such as ‘Lazy Moon’, ‘As Time Goes By’ and ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ brought Harry to a whole new audience and saw him compared to Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Al Jolson amongst others.
A film attempt to cash in on Nilsson’s new-found popularity, ‘Son of Dracula’ was generally regarded as a failure despite a strong cast (starring Ringo) and great songs ( mostly from NS and SoS) and Harry moved back to the States where he became notoriously involved in the life story of his great friend and drinking buddy, John Lennon - recently separated from Yoko and ready to party. Amidst the melee which could have been expected with Harry, John, Ringo and Keith Moon virtually living together in a drugs and alcohol soaked atmosphere there was enough talent for John to produce 2 hit solo albums (including the number one ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’) and for Harry to choke his way through the Lennon produced ‘Pussy Cats’.
Again there was a difference with this LP...but this time it was serious. Harry’s voice had been wrecked by his hard living and the eventually diagnosed ruptured vocal cord had led to the loss of Harry’s velvet-smooth timbre and - well, as he croaked his way through the sessions with a bleeding throat it was amazing he could do anything at all with what was left, let alone complete another classic album. This new chapter of the Nilsson story continued with 2 more LA session-men albums ‘Duit on Mon Dei’ (formerly God’s Greatest Hits) and ‘Sandman’, by which time the voice was recovering much of its former power and warmth.
The session men were gone in time for Harry’s last RCA album ‘Knnillssonn’, a pop album with orchestral backing. This delightful collection of songs was simply not publicised by an indifferent RCA and so never hit its deserved heights. Harry left RCA somewhat disillusioned. He was only ever to make one more full studio LP - 1979s ‘Flash Harry’ which was never even released in America.
The rest of his life Harry spent with his wife Una (I have also seen it spelt Oona) and their ever-growing army of children. Soundtracks for Disney’s ‘Popeye’ movie and contributed songs to various other films and records were all the world was offered while Harry devoted a lot of his time and energy into promoting the ‘Campaign To End Handgun Violence’ after his great friend John Lennon was shot in 1980.
In his later years Harry’s health deteriorated markedly. Firstly diagnosed a diabetic he later had a major heart attack and he died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure in 1994. Ironically, he had just completed a ‘still to be released’ comeback album ‘Papa’s Got A Brown New Robe’. Another late recording was his contribution to an Australian musical ‘Paris’ set in the Greek/Trojan wars. Harry sang the part of Ulysses. This has also failed to receive an official release.
Harry never really performed live, there were no concert tours. Hence, there are not many bootlegs of Nilsson music. There were TV appearances, though, and many unreleased tracks do lie in vaults. Many of these are being released by Buddha Records as bonus tracks with the re-mastered and re-released original albums. Others the world may never hear. However much there is to hear of this ‘star of stars’, it could never be enough.
But enjoy what you can, whenever you can and be ever grateful that God saw fit to bless the world with a voice like Harry’s. Let the music make you smile or weep and...let’s go have a picnic...