1941 - 1994
Harry Nilsson was a singer/songwriter who combined both elements of rock and pop to produce a unique sound. His early series of albums in the late '60s made him a personal favorite of the Beatles, who appreciated his great melodies, witty lyrics, and extraordinary vocal range.
Nilsson had been struggling to make it in the music business for about five years . He made demos, sang commercial jingles, and made the rounds of the record studios while also holding down a job at a bank. In the mid '60s he caught the eye and ear of Phil Spector. Together they wrote a few songs that were recorded by the Modern Folk Quartet and the Ronettes.
In 1967 Nilsson released the critically acclaimed "Pandemonium Shadow Show". The album caught the attention of the Beatles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney named him as their favorite American Singer at a press conference. The Monkees released his "Cuddly Toy",the Yardbirds did his "Ten Little Indians", and Three Dog Night took Nilsson's "One" into the top ten in 1969. Nilsson's second album, "Aerial Ballet", continued his pop/rock direction and added his slightly eccentric tunes to grand orchestral production.
Nilsson had a top ten hit when one of his songs, "Everybodys Talkin'", was used as the theme for the movie Midnight Cowboy. This song was actually a cover of a Fred Neil composition. Nilsson's third albumn," Harry" followed close on the heels of Midnight Cowboy and spawned a top 40 single "I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City". "Harry" became Nilsson's first album to chart, reaching #120 in Billboard.
Nilsson would never fall into definite categories, and this was demonstrated by his next two albums. One of them was devoted entirely to songs written by Randy Newman( Nilsson Sings Newman ). The other was the soundtrack to an animated T.V. special, The Point. The Point was a project that Harry spent much of 1970 working on. He was inspired by the idea that everything was pointed. Everything has a point and if it doesn't then there is a point to it. "The Point" was a cross-generational hit and reached #25 on the charts. It also launched the top 40 hit "Me And My Arrow". Nilsson hit #1 with a cover of a Badfinger song "Without You".
Harry realized his current success would spur fans to look for his earlier albums. He returned to the studios and reworked old tapes and renovated their sound. This altered collection from his first two albums was released in 1971 as "Aerial Pandemonium Ballet". It was no great success but it sold better than either of the albums it was drawn from, reaching #149 on the top 200 charts.
Nilsson never cashed in on his success in the usual manner. He never performed in concert but there were several T.V. appearances such as the Sonny&Cher show and the BBC . He preferred to spend his time in the studio instead. In 1971 he released his all time best seller "Nilsson Schmilsson". It spent one year on the charts, reaching #3. It went gold and spawned two more hit singles: "Jump Into The Fire" and " Coconut". With "Coconut", Nilsson finally had a top ten hit that he both sang and wrote.
While "Nilsson Schmilsson was still on the charts he released "Son Of Schmilsson". It was a successful album hitting #12 on the chart and went gold. However, there was something about"Son Of Schmilsson" that offended fans that had been drawn to Nilsson by the hit "Without You". That something had to do with Harry's fondness of off color humor. In 1972 his use of the F-word in the song "You're Breaking My Heart" lost him many fans. He broadened his range from the well crafted sensitive songs of his earlier releases,to a darker more somber style.
In 1973 Harry released "A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night". This collection of pre -pop/rock songs was a labor of love for Nilsson but weren't exactly in step with the times. His next album, "Son Of Dracula" was the sound track for Ringo's movie, in which he also acted. The movie was ill fated and vanished as quickly as it appeared but the album made it to #120 on the chart and spun off a top 40 single "Daybreak". The song would be Nilsson's last hit.
Most of Harry's Notoriety stems from a period in the mid-1970s when he was a drinking buddy with John Lennon in Los Angeles. During that period of time, John Lennon was separated from Yoko Ono. Nilsson and Lennon were thrown out of L.A.'s Troubadour club in a well publicized incident. It was around that time that Lennon offered to produce Nilsson's next album. During the recording of this album Nilsson lost his voice and ruptured one of his vocal cords, keeping it a secret out of fear that Lennon would quit the project. The album was released as "Pussy Cats" and was the last album of Nilsson's to reach the top 100.
By the time he recorded "Duit On Mon Dei" , Nilsson's voice had returned ,though he had lost his upper register. That album and "Sandman" ( 1975 ) seemed a part of the trilogy started by "Pussy Cats". Nilsson's next album, "...That's The Way It Is" ( 1976 ) consisted mainly of covers with the musicians "Live" in the studio with very little overdubs. There were some classic Nilsson moments, particularly on the Randy Newman song "Sail Away".
In 1977, Nilsson released "Knnillssonn". This was Harry's last album for RCA, and in his opinion his best. In the early 1980's, Nilsson made one album for Mercury "Flash Harry", but it was not released in the U.S. He withdrew from the studio into family life and other ventures. Harry spent much time campaigning for gun control after Lennon was shot in 1980. In the '90s Nilsson was diagnosed with diabetes. He suffered a heart attack on Valentine's Day in 1993. After his amazing survival, he started writing and recording again. He had just recorded the last vocal tracks for a new album when he died at home on January 15, 1994.