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Music Memories: Harry Nilsson

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Harry Nilsson at RCA Records, July 1974
Harry Nilsson at RCA Records, July 1974

Harry Nilsson was born on June 15, 1941. Nilsson was a singer-songwriter, usually billed by his last name only. His wide vocal range and the elegant grace of his songwriting made him a popular performer in the early 1970s.

Nilsson was born in Brooklyn. He was raised by his mother in California from his early childhood, his father having abandoned the family. His first music lessons—guitar and singing—came from his uncle, a mechanic who lived in San Bernardino.

Nilsson lied about his education in order to get hired as a computer programmer by a bank; the job required a high-school diploma, and he had dropped out of school after the ninth grade. His hours at the bank were at nights, freeing him up to look for music jobs during the day. In 1962, Nilsson was hired by songwriter Scott Turner to record demo versions of Turner’s songs, for which he was paid $5 a song. After Nilsson became famous, Turner released some of those demos and sought Nilsson out to arrange a fair payment. Nilsson refused any additional payment, saying that he’d already been paid the $5 that was agreed to, and didn’t think he was entitled to anything more.

3 album covers by Harry Nilsson

By 1964, Nilsson had begun to sell some of his own songs and recorded a few singles for the small label Tower Records. Tower collected those songs in 1966, and released them as Nilsson’s first album, Spotlight on Nilsson. None of the Tower recordings sold very well, but people in the music industry were impressed, and Nilsson signed with RCA, which released Pandemonium Shadow Show in 1967.

The big single from the album was a cover of the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That,” which Nilsson had arranged using fragments and quotes from more than a dozen other Beatles songs in the background, a primitive precursor to what we would today call a mashup; it was a top-ten hit in Canada. The Beatles liked what Nilsson had done with their song, and at their 1968 press conference announcing the formation of Apple Records, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney identified Nilsson as their favorite American act.

The success of “You Can’t Do That” gave RCA enough faith to arrange a few TV appearances for Nilsson, and to send him on a short tour in Europe. He hated touring, though, and did very few live performances after that.

Nilsson’s 1968 Aerial Ballet included the song “One,” which would be a top five hit for Three Dog Night a few months later, and another single that would do well in Canada and be ignored in the United States. It was ignored on first release, at any rate. The song was “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie Midnight Cowboy (DVD | soundtrack) in 1969, it was re-released as a single, and it became Nilsson’s first American hit.

At this point, despite Nilsson’s own songwriting skills, his biggest commercial success had come with songs he didn’t write. He finally scored with one of his own songs in 1969. “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” had been written for Midnight Cowboy, and replaced by “Everybody’s Talkin’” at the last minute.

For his 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman, Nilsson devoted himself entirely to the work of another songwriter, Randy Newman. Newman was, at this point in time, where Nilsson had been just a couple of years ago—critically praised, but not well known to the public at large. The Newman album broke new ground in the use of overdubbed harmonies, with Nilsson recording more than 100 vocal tracks for some songs.

3 harry nilsson albums

Nilsson continued experimenting in 1971. Aerial Pandemonium Ballet was one of the first remix albums, made up of Nilsson’s remixed versions of songs from his first two RCA albums. The Point was an animated film for television (DVD | soundtrack), a fable about a round-headed boy in a land where everyone and everything was pointed; it generated a minor hit single, “Me and My Arrow.”

And also in 1971, Nilsson released the biggest commercial success of his career. Nilsson Schmilsson made it to #3 on the album chart; the epic ballad “Without You” (another hit not written by Nilsson) was a #1 smash, and “Coconut” made it to the top ten.

With 1973’s A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, Nilsson took a detour away from commercial success. This was an album of standards from the Great American Songbook—“You Made Me Love You,” “As Time Goes By,” and so on. In the last twenty years, it’s become common for pop singers to demonstrate their range by recording such albums, but in 1973, it was still a novelty to hear a contemporary singer backed by a full orchestra, and the album’s sales were disappointing.

When his next few albums also sold poorly, RCA considered dumping Nilsson. His friends John Lennon and Ringo Starr helped him get his contract renewed by hinting that they might be interested in signing with RCA and that they’d look very favorably on the company treating Nilsson well. The gambit worked; Nilsson got a new contract, but neither Lennon nor Starr ever signed with RCA.

Nilsson and RCA were hopeful for a comeback with his 1977 album Knnillssonn, which was a return to the sound of the early 1970s. Nilsson said it was his favorite of all of his albums, and RCA promised a major publicity campaign. Then, just after Knillssonn was released, Elvis Presley died. RCA abruptly shifted all of its promotional money and energy away from Nilsson and other artists in order to promote Presley’s final album and back catalog. The collapse of the promotional campaign, plus the company’s decision to release a greatest-hits album without consulting with him, angered Nilsson so much that he left RCA.

three items by Harry Nilsson

He released only one more album after that. Mercury released Flash Harry in 1980, but only in England and Europe; the album wasn’t released in the United States until 2013. Nilsson’s last major musical project was writing songs for Robert Altman’s film version of Popeye (DVD | soundtrack), after which he began to describe himself as a “retired musician.”

Nilsson returned to music sporadically in the late 1980s, recording an occasional song for movies and television, or for multi-artist album projects; a highlight from this era is his version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the Hal Willner Disney tribute album Stay Awake. And in early 1993, after suffering a heart attack, Nilsson began recording a new album, tentatively titled Papa’s Got a Brown New Robe. He finished recording the vocal tracks, but the album was never released. Nilsson died of heart failure on January 15, 1994.

The documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (streaming | DVD) began playing film festivals in 2006, and was released theatrically, with some added footage in 2010. Alyn Shipton’s biography is called Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. In addition to the albums linked above, more of Nilsson’s music is available for download or streaming at Freegal and Hoopla.