Spotlight On Nilsson

Spotlight on Nilsson was released twice by Tower Records, firstly in 1966 and then again in 1967 in an attempt to cash in on his new-found 'fame' in the wake of The Beatles comments upon hearing Pandemonium Shadow Show.  It was also available on 8-track cartridge.

The album was produced by Perry Botkin Jr. with whom Harry was to have a long and fruitful working relationship.  The two first met when Harry borrowed Perry's office to write songs in, while still working in the bank.  Incidentally, Perry's music copyist was George Tipton whose arrangements were so vital to the early RCA Nilsson sound.  Tipton himself paid $2500 to enable Harry to record four of the songs which eventually ended up on 'Spotlight' - he must really have believed in Harry!

The Path That Leads To Trouble (Johnny Cole)

It is hard to think of any future Nilsson recording on which Harry sounds worse than he did on this track. Atop a jingly, jangly, cluttered and muddy production Harry's voice is only occasionally recognisable as he alternates between 'whiny nasal' and 'raspy' in this song.  Producers at this time seemed either to want to make their records sound like the Beatles or (as in this case) Spector rather than trying find either their own style or one more suited to their artists strengths.  Producer Perry Botkin Jr. is, perhaps, trying a little too hard here to 'lift' the song and the result does little but make it anonymous...just like this recording, in fact, which is a shame as there is an attractive chorus in there somewhere!  The single was credited to The New Salvation Singers (featuring Harry Nilsson).

Good Times (Nilsson)

Now this sounds more like Nilsson.  There is definition between the instruments in this piano and bass guitar powered rocker. There are certainly signs in this song of the Nilsson who was to emerge from his 'developmental cocoon on PSS a year later.  This song also featured the New Salvation Singers who provide a choral background. Overall, this song is more like (the, once-again, Spector-produced) 'River Deep, Mountain High' - a song, of course, which featured on the follow-up album. (Listen for the obvious similarities in the bass guitar lines).

So You Think You've Got Troubles (Marvin Rainwater)

"I've got every disease known to man, from the African mumps to the dishpan hands," sings Harry after the drum intro as he launches into all the things wrong with his life.  Subsequent misfortunes include his wife leaving him to the income tax being due.  The latter allows Harry to bring to the fore his sense of humour - not by accident as he then continues in that vein...just catch the warnings from his doctor in the next verse!  Basically Harry is telling us to count our blessings, as whatever we think of our lives...his is worse!  The writer is a country music legend but this is a song Harry, as usual, manages to make sound his own.  Listen out for the use of brass in this song - another pointer to the production of the next step in Nilsson's career.

I'm Gonna Lose My Mind (Johnny Cole)

Another up tempo song which allows Harry to flex his vocal cords.  Plenty of the falsetto jumps here which are such a part of his style.  The little organ solo in the middle really sounds so dated and, four songs in, the squeaky choral backing singers are starting to grate!

She's Yours (Nilsson/JR Shanklin)

This song I find interesting for several reasons.  Firstly, it certainly sounds like 3 songs fused (rather uncomfortably) together.  My guess would be that the fast intro might be Shanklin's, the ballad verses Nilsson's and the middle 8...who knows (but how did it get there - it almost sounds like someone spliced an entirely different song into the other!  The accompaniment to the ballad verse allowed me to find a Nilsson link I'd never found before:  compare it to British melodic rock band 10CC's 'I'm Mandy, Fly Me' and tell me it's not a nod in Harry's direction!

Sixteen Tons (Merle Travis)

This is a take on the classic Merle Travis song made famous by (among others) Tennessee Ernie Ford.  It certainly bears little resemblance to the original, however.  Again, this is a Nilsson trait - just compare Harry and Badfinger's versions of 'Without You' to see what I mean.  (Rather amazingly, that is not the only link between the 2 songs:  Harry is frequently and incorrectly credited as WY's composer - the heritage of Sixteen Tons is disputed - see here)

Born In Grenada (Nilsson/Marasalco)

A fine, stomping rocker as one would expect with the Marasalco link.  All the production clutter of the early tracks on this album are gone now - the sound is clear and defined (even down to the entirely superfluous hand-claps, yeuch!)  Some nice, clean guitar licks and a fine brass instrumental lift this song to stand out from much that is fairly mediocre on this album.

You Can't take Your Love Away From Me (Nilsson)

The first of three completely Nilsson composed songs which close the album, and about time!  It seems that although Tower wanted this album to showcase a promising new talent they saw him mainly as a vehicle for other people's songs - and up-tempo songs to boot.  They did not seem to see Harry as a ballad-singer and the lack of a good ballad has been one of the downers on this album, so far.  Having said that, this is not one of Harry's stand-out songs - he seems to have written it in the same 'house-style' as the rest of the album.  There are trademark flashes of classic Nilsson in this song but overall it has a rushed feeling, as if put together quite quickly.  There is even a hint of badly timed and out of tune vocals near the end, as if studio time was very much a premium by the time this was recorded...

Growin' Up (Nilsson)

At last - the ballad!  As the title suggests a song about little boys and girls growing up and moving from playing with toys to...well...playing with each other, I suppose!  The lyrics are fairly banal and they prevent this song being as good as, perhaps, it could have been for Nilsson sings it with all the richness and warmth his ballads were always noted for.  Tower were even persuaded to bring in an orchestra for the recording.  In the light of this 'Growin' Up' is very much of interest to Nilsson fans and this could have found a slot on one of the many Greatest Hits packages. (Maybe 'Personal Best' - Harry chose a 3 disc line-up for that set but the label over-ruled him - no-one seems to have a copy of Harry's original list so, who knows, it may have been there..?).

Do You Believe (Nilsson)

Back to 'style 1' for the closer.  A piano-driven rocker most notable for the vocals-only breaks which alternate with the 'full' production as a final 'Spotlight' for Harry's vocal prowess.

Overall, the album lacks much to make it stand out.  Few tracks would have made DJs feel the need to play it on the radio and, as such, there was little commercial 'result' in the LP.  However, it obviously did the trick as far as getting Harry's recording career underway.  Label executives, A&R men and producers who heard 'Spotlight' would be left with little doubt that here was a singer/songwriter with potential and, if put together with the right producer and material, might find commercial and critical acclaim in the future.

extra track - Sixteen Tons (a capella mix)

I do not know where this recording came from but it is, basically, what it says - the song without the instrumentation leaving just Harry and some of the backing voices (they seem dimmed).  My guess is that this is a 'fan mix' of some sort.  Harry's vocals have been isolated (as well as possible) from the stereo picture and, although interesting enough to hear one does wonder what is gained through it...


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