Harry Nilsson Biography

Harry Edward Nelson III, 15 June 1941, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA, d. 15 January 1994, Agoura Hills, California, USA. Nelson moved to Los Angeles as an adolescent and later undertook a range of different jobs before accepting a supervisor’s position at the Security First National Bank. He nonetheless pursued a concurrent interest in music, recording demos of his early compositions which were then touted around the city’s publishing houses. Producer Phil Spector drew on this cache of material, recording ‘Paradise’ and ‘Here I Sit’ with the Ronettes and ‘This Could Be The Night’ with the Modern Folk Quartet. None of these songs was released contemporaneously, but such interest inspired the artist’s own releases for the Tower label. These singles - credited to ‘Nilsson’ - included ‘You Can’t Take Your Love (Away From Me)’ and ‘Good Times’ (both 1966). The following year the Yardbirds recorded his ‘Ten Little Indians’, and Nilsson finally gave up his bank job upon hearing the Monkees’ version of another composition, ‘Cuddly Toy’, on the radio. He secured a contract with RCA Records and made his album debut for the label in 1967 with the impressive Pandemonium Shadow Show. The selection was not only notable for Nilsson’s remarkable three-octave voice, it also featured ‘You Can’t Do That’, an enthralling montage of Beatles songs that drew considerable praise from John Lennon and inspired their subsequent friendship.

The artist’s own compositions continued to find favour with other acts; the Turtles recorded ‘The Story Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, Herb Alpert and Blood, Sweat And Tears covered ‘Without Her’, while Three Dog Night enjoyed a US chart-topper and gold disc with ‘One’. Nilsson’s own version of the last-named song appeared on Aerial Ballet - a title derived from his grandparents’ circus act - which also included the singer’s rendition of Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. This haunting recording was later adopted as the theme to the movie Midnight Cowboy and gave Nilsson his first US Top 10 hit.

Nilsson’s third album, 1969’s Harry included ‘The Puppy Song’, later a smash for David Cassidy, and the beautiful ‘I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City’. The following year’s Nilsson Sings Newman comprised solely Randy Newman material and featured the songwriter on piano. This project was followed by The Point!, the soundtrack to a full-length animated television feature, but Nilsson’s greatest success came in 1971 with Nilsson Schmilsson and its attendant single, ‘Without You’. His emotional rendition of this Badfinger -composed song sold in excess of 1 million copies, topping both the US and UK charts and garnering a 1972 Grammy for Best Male Pop and Rock Vocal Performance. The album also included two notable Nilsson originals, the novelty song ‘Coconut’ and the thumping rock ‘n’ roll track ‘Jump Into The Fire’. Having completed the erratic Son Of Schmilsson, this idiosyncratic performer confounded expectations with 1973’s A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night, which comprised beautifully orchestrated (b Frank Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins) standards including ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ and ‘As Time Goes By’.

Nilsson’s subsequent career was blighted by well-publicized drinking sessions with acquaintances John Lennon, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. Lennon produced Nilsson’s Pussy Cats (1974), an anarchic set fuelled by self-indulgence and marred by the singer having damaged a vocal cord, which comprised largely pop classics, including ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ and ‘Rock Around The Clock’. Starr, meanwhile, assisted the artist on his film soundtrack, Son Of Dracula. A 1976 adaptation of The Point!, staged at London’s Mermaid Theatre, was highly successful, and marked the reunion of former Monkees Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, but ensuing releases proved inconsistent, with 1977’s Knnillssonn the best of the bunch. Nilsson recorded a solitary album for Mercury Records, 1980’s lacklustre Flash Harry, but the set was never released in the USA.

By the 80s Nilsson had largely retired from music altogether, preferring to pursue business interests, the most notable of which was a film distribution company based in California’s Studio City. His sporadic songwriting work included a musical, Zapata, and the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s movie Popeye (1980). In 1988 RCA released A Touch More Schmilsson In The Night, taken from the sessions for its 1973 predecessor, and offering the singer’s affectionate renditions of more popular favourites, including two of E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg’s classics, ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ and ‘Over The Rainbow’. Nilsson’s health began to fail in the 90s, a situation worsened by his financial adviser embezzling all the money he had ever made from his music. In 1993 he suffered a massive heart attack. He survived and began recording a new album, but passed away in January 1994 of heart failure.

The unyielding paradox of Nilsson’s career is that despite achieving recognition as a superior songwriter, his best-known and most successful records were penned by other acts.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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