Nilsson Sings Newman

In 1970 neither Harry Nilsson nor Randy Newman were household names.  Harry had scored one big hit, a couple of minor hits and written some bigger hits for others such as 'Three Dog Night' and 'The Monkees'.  Randy, an LA native and junior member of the film-score writing dynasty, had gained a small but devoted following as well with his mixture of politically astute, sarcastic, acerbic and charming songs which he sang while playing the piano in his very own, extremely original way.  Like Harry, Newman was also 'into' Americana.

At the time this album was conceived Harry was also working on his own new project - the perennial children's favourite animated feature 'The Point'.  With his own creative writing energies directed towards that work he decided to produce, for his next album, a whole album of songs by someone else.  It had to be someone in whom Harry 'believed' and also someone who he would genuinely want to promote.  The choice he gave himself was between the songs of Randy Newman and Laura Nyro, a New York born singer (like Harry) noted for her spiritual, social and sensual vision (like Harry).  She had also written a hit for Three Dog Night (like Harry).  Newman won, though, largely because Harry had had such fun recording 'Simon Smith...' as the last song on his previous album 'Harry'.  Nilsson had become a big fan of Newman's - not surprising really considering their respective 'outlooks' on the world.  Harry went on, later in his career, to cover 'Sail Away', another early Newman song but one which was suited perfectly to the album Harry chose for would have been grossly out of place on this LP!

For here, Harry chose not the political commentaries nor the caustic cynicism but what might be referred to as Newman's 'happy' songs.  It is interesting that these are the songs which do not epitomise Newman's career - he is far more noted for songs like 'Short People', 'Lonely at the Top' (which he wrote for Sinatra) and 'Political Science'.  Yet, in the last few years it is once again the 'happy' songs which have given him the wider audience he always deserved; songs like 'You've Got A Friend in Me' from Disney/Pixar's incredibly successful animated movie 'Toy Story'.

The album was deliberately recorded simply, basically piano and vocals with a few other overdubs...that's a few other 'instrumental' overdubs!  As for vocal overdubs that's a different story entirely!  Harry got Randy (ahem!) to record the piano parts having spent nearly a month in 'rehearsals' (Harry wanted to know the songs intimately - "inside out", as he put it - in order to do them justice.  According to reports, Newman was entirely fed up playing the same song over and over...but we all know Harry was a perfectionist.

Harry then took the piano tapes over to Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco where he would not have to suffer the studio time-constraints put on him by RCA.  There he recorded take after take of each song.  The final recording of 'Caroline', for instance, is pieced together from about 100 vocal takes!  It was also noted in Curtis Armstrong's excellent liner notes for the Buddha/BMG 30th Anniversary re-release that there were another 118 additional vocal overdubs - not including the alternate takes!

When it came to mixing the album (after about 6 weeks recording and addition of other instruments) it took five pairs of hands to work the mixing console as vocal tacks were lifted - not just to permit usage of all the different vocal takes per song but also to cut out virtually all breath noises on the album! - the four technicians were rewarded by getting their faces on the back cover of the LP!

This album's biggest legacy is that it does not sound dated at all - in fact the Buddha reissue did the album the justice of making it sound far, far better than it has ever sounded before.  Listening to it on a good system it is like having Harry sitting in your front room so intimate have the remaster engineers got it to sound.  (I recently acquired some DTS surround sound CDrs of 2 early Randy Newman albums...I wish (oh, how I wish!) such a record existed of this album!)

After all that effort the album failed to chart at all and remained one of Nilsson's lesser known albums (it was the last I ever managed to find when collecting Harry's back-catalogue in the late 1970's - I finally tracked it down in a basement store on London's Oxford St. around 1979.  It was the last Nilsson album I got to own, except 'Skidoo', the LP of which I never got to own until I discovered eBay!)


Vine St  (all the songs on this album were written by Randy Newman)

This is actually two songs in one - just as Newman wrote it, firstly we hear 'Anita' with full band - but that serves only to be the demo...hence 'That's the tape that we made but I'm sad to say it never made the grade', by which time all that is left is Harry and Randy's piano.  In the 'electric' demo we have a production reminiscent of early Nilsson albums with some great backing vocals - the irony is that this 'demo' would certainly have made the grade!

The slower, main part  is a reflection on the days gone by when the demo was recorded.  Once again, the backing vocals are superb - just listen to the polyphony at 1'55" - absolutely amazing!  This is a sensational album opener!

Love Story

I knew this song before I had the album as it appeared on the Greatest Hits LP.  All those days and weeks of rehearsal paid off with recordings like this one...Harry and Randy are so 'in tune' with each other they compliment each other musically right the way through this song.  Harry also showcases his breath control again on this track.  He always had the talent and skill to make singing like this sound so sublimely easy!  as for the song it sums up a pair of lovers' relationship in a few verses:  let's get married, let's have kids (or adopt) and let them grow up, let's retire and then die some day!  C'est la vie!

Yellow Man

I'm sure the 'politically correct' fanatics who plague the modern world would want this banned (they'd probably just ban Nilsson full-stop!).  The opening piano fifths tell us that we're talking  about a song about someone Chinese.  We then find out he 'eats rice all day'.  Again the song consists of just piano and layered backing vocals (there is a bass drum beat in there too).


This is one of my two favourite tracks from the original album.  Obviously a great deal of time and effort went into getting it just right (see above) so I guess Harry particularly loved this song and wanted to do it as well as he possibly could.  The work was well worth it.  The arrangement sees the piano joined by a vibraphone which adds a wonderful richness to the arrangement.  Newman's piano playing in this is beautiful and sensitive - the backing vocals just get better and better with each track.


The wind sweeps over the concrete town where there used to be open plains...a lonesome voice bemoans the loss of his habitat.  Because there is so little to listen to except the voice in this song Harry stands out and grabs the attention.  In this song he showcases not just his pitch range and breathing but his dynamic range.  From barely a whisper to a passionate fortissimo this is another stunning vocal performance.

With Harry still fresh from success with 'Midnight Cowboy' it was a clever touch to fade the song out with the movie theme...wonder if they paid royalties???

The Beehive State

I don't particularly like this one...there's nothing wrong with it per se but it just doesn't 'do' anything for me.  I suppose if I came from Kansas or Utah I might appreciate the name check...

I find the concept of Utah's 'anonymity' a little strange - I grew up with it being a 'famous' State - I guess that was due to The Osmonds (although The Beach Boys also sang about 'Salt Lake City').  This is just another piano and multiple voice song - additional tambourine...up-tempo, kicked off side 2.

I'll Be Home

Several of the songs on this album have given me pre-echoes of future Nilssongs in the backing vocals.  On this song they have an air of 'That Is All' and 'All I Think About Is You.'  'Caroline' made me think of 'The Moonbeam Song.'  This is a simple song but very nicely done.  The piano is lower in the mix here than on any other track on the album - almost hidden at times behind the organ and backing vocals.  In the second chorus the answering "Oh, yes he will" overdub seems, at first a little out of place and context but it wouldn't be the same without it, would it?*

Living Without You

The very effective double-tracking on the lead vocal is a lovely touch.  Another chance for Harry to layer more of those gorgeous backing vocals...hey I'd love a vocals only mix of this album!

Dayton, Ohio 1903

My other favourite on the record.  Newman's chord sequence is so obvious but wonderful.  The melody is wonderfully lazy and brings to mind quite perfectly a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Harry could hardly have sounded more relaxed - he pulls off the effect with ease.  The Glenn Miller (Moonlight Serenade) quote helps evoke the air of 'past times' even though it was, of course, composed many years later than 1903  (actually it was in 1941 - how about that for a year?).

So Long Dad

Another lovely song to end with.  Lovely, creative piano work and another staggeringly complex chord sequence in the intro.  The second part of the song is in a ragtime style.  The fade is one of the places on this album where some of the 'engineering' noises were left on as a 'joke'.



In so many ways this is the pick of the entire collection.  An absolutely exquisite recording where Harry's voice and Randy's piano are once again perfectly attuned.  The 'sometimes wind blows through the trees' line makes me feel physically cold when I hear it, even on a summer's day.  I have no problems picturing snowy scenes when I hear this.  I remember Curtis Armstrong getting so excited about this when he was working on the Buddha re-release, and rightly so.  His quote that it was "possibly the greatest unreleased Nilsson track from any period" was entirely justified.

Love Story (alt)

Considerably faster than the final version (it finishes 20 seconds sooner), this early version shows Nilsson and Newman 'working out' what they were going to do - lots of the lovely touches we are so used to on the final version have not yet evolved in this reading, most notably the word 'baby' in the choruses.  Interesting to listen to this 'work in progress' but I'd choose the 'original'.

Cowboy (alt)

On this version the 'wind' noise is much quieter and the initial vocals are accompanied by the piano rather than a capella.  Harry whistles again!  The song also ends as originally intended (without the 'Midnight Cowboy' theme).  So the differences here are considerable and well worth hearing.

I'll Be Home (alt)

I miss some of the backing vocals (* actually, I don't miss the afore-mentioned echo line one little bit!) but despite that I'm tempted to say that this is better than the album version - a really intimate version of a lovely song.  Aside from 'Snow' this is the best of the bonus cuts.

Living Without You (alt)

No double-tracking (which I do miss). 

One additional track 'Linda' was known to have been recorded on the same day as 'Snow'.  Despite extensive research to try to find this track it is, sadly, believed lost.


Overall, I have to say this is a very much under-rated album.  One of its few problems is its brevity - the original LP is just 26 minutes long and that simply is not enough.  (This makes the omission of 'Snow' from the original even more of a mystery.)  As a full price album in 1970 by an artist who was not yet fully established and full of songs by another artist with similar standing AND with it being such a major departure from what even his fans expected of Nilsson it is easy to see how it became overlooked and failed to chart.  Having accepted that, the reception at the time was not entirely neutral (it was never a poor reception, just a very quiet one!) the album was named 'Record of the Year' by Stereo Review.

With time being our friend and the ability to look back this is a historically priceless collaboration between two men who became giants in American contemporary music.  No doubt about it, this album contains some of the very, very best singing Harry Nilsson ever recorded.  As I said earlier, the Buddha re-release lifts the sound to near perfection and brings Harry into your very own living room, sitting just a few feet away from you.  You can't help but feel a thrill of excitement when that happens.


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