Harry Edward Nilsson III (June 15, 1941 – January 15, 1994) was an American singer-songwriter who achieved the peak of his commercial success in the early 1970s. On all but his earliest recordings he is credited as Nilsson. He is known for the hit singles "Everybody's Talkin'" (1969), "Without You" (1971), and "Coconut" (1972). Nilsson also wrote the song “One” made famous by the rock band Three Dog Night. His career is notable for the fact that he was one of the few major pop-rock recording artists of his era to achieve significant commercial success without ever performing major public concerts or undertaking regular tours.
He was awarded Grammys for two of his recordings; best male contemporary vocal in 1969 for "Everybody's Talkin'", a prominent song in the Academy Award-winning movie Midnight Cowboy, and best male pop vocal in 1972 for "Without You."
Life and career
Nilsson was born in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1941. His paternal grandparents were Swedish circus performers and dancers, especially known for their "aerial ballet" (which is the title of one of Nilsson's albums). His father, Harry Edward Nilsson, Jr., abandoned the family when young Harry was three. An autobiographical reference to this is found in the opening to Nilsson's song "1941":
- Well, in 1941, the happy father had a son
- And in 1944, the father walked right out the door
Nilsson's "Daddy's Song" also refers to this period in Nilsson's childhood.
Nilsson grew up with his mother Bette and his younger half-sister. His younger half-brother Drake was left with family or friends during their moves between California and New York, sometimes living with a succession of relatives and stepfathers. His Uncle John, a mechanic in San Bernardino, California, helped Nilsson improve his vocal and musical abilities.
He had a half-brother and a half-sister through their mother. He also had three half-sisters and one half-brother through his father.
Because of the poor financial situation of his family, Nilsson worked from an early age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. When the Paramount closed in 1960, Nilsson applied for a job at a bank, falsely stating he was a high school graduate on his application (he only completed ninth grade). He had an aptitude for computers, which were beginning to be employed by banks at the time. He performed so well that the bank retained him after discovering the lie about his education. He worked on bank computers at night, and in the daytime pursued his songwriting and singing career.
As early as 1958, Nilsson was intrigued by emerging forms of popular music, especially rhythm and blues artists like Ray Charles. He had made early attempts at performing while he was working at the Paramount, forming a vocal duo with his friend Jerry Smith and singing close harmonies in the style of the Everly Brothers. The manager at a favorite hangout gave Nilsson a plastic ukulele, which he learned to play, and he later learned to play the guitar and piano. In the 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, Nilsson recalled that when he could not remember lyrics or parts of the melodies to popular songs, he created his own, which led to writing original songs.
Uncle John's singing lessons, along with Nilsson's natural talent, helped when he got a job singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner in 1962. Turner paid Nilsson five dollars for each track they recorded. (When Nilsson became famous, Turner decided to release these early recordings, and contacted Nilsson to work out a fair payment. Nilsson replied that he had already been paid – five dollars a track.).
In 1963, Nilsson began to have some early success as a songwriter, working with John Marascalco on a song for Little Richard. Upon hearing Nilsson sing, Little Richard reportedly remarked: "My! You sing good for a white boy!" Marascalco also financed some independent singles by Nilsson. One, "Baa Baa Blacksheep", was released under the pseudonym "Bo Pete" to some small local airplay. Another recording, "Donna, I Understand", convinced Mercury Records to offer Nilsson a contract, and release recordings by him under the name "Johnny Niles."
In 1964, Nilsson worked with Phil Spector, writing three songs with him. He also established a relationship with songwriter and publisher Perry Botkin, Jr., who began to find a market for Nilsson's songs. Botkin also gave Nilsson a key to his office, providing another place to write after hours. Through his association with Botkin, Nilsson met and became friends with musician, composer and arranger George Tipton, who was at the time working for Botkin as a music copyist. During 1964 Tipton invested his life savings – $2500 – to finance the recording of four Nilsson songs, which he arranged; they were able to sell the completed recordings to the Tower label, a recently-established subsidiary ofCapitol Records, and the tracks were subsequently included on Nilsson's debut album. The fruitful association between Nilsson and Tipton continued after Nilsson signed with RCA Records – Tipton went on to create the arrangements for nearly all of Nilsson's RCA recordings between 1967 and 1971 but their association ended in the 1970s when the two fell out for unknown reasons. Whatever the cause, it was evidently a source of lingering resentment for Tipton, who was one of the few significant collaborators who refused to participate in the 2010 documentary on Nilsson's life and career.
Nilsson's recording contract was picked up by Tower Records, which in 1966 released the first singles actually credited to him by name, as well as the debut album Spotlight on Nilsson. None of Nilsson's Tower releases charted or gained much critical attention, although his songs were being recorded by Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, The Shangri-Las, The Yardbirds, and others. Despite his growing success, Nilsson remained on the night shift at the bank.
Signing with RCA Victor
Nilsson signed with RCA Victor in 1966 and released an album the following year, Pandemonium Shadow Show, which was a critical (if not commercial) success. Music industry insiders were impressed both with the songwriting and with Nilsson's pure-toned, multi-octave vocals. One such insider was Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, who bought an entire box of copies of the album to share this new sound with others. With a major-label release, and continued songwriting success (most notably with The Monkees, who had a hit with Nilsson's "Cuddly Toy" after meeting him through their producer Chip Douglas), Nilsson finally felt secure enough in the music business to quit his job with the bank.Monkees member Micky Dolenz maintained a close friendship until Nilsson's death in 1994.
Some of the albums from Derek Taylor's box eventually ended up with the Beatles themselves, who quickly became Nilsson fans. This may have been helped by the track "You Can't Do That", in which Nilsson covered one Beatles song but added 22 others in the multi-tracked background vocals. When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, John was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, "Nilsson". Paul was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, "Nilsson".
Aided by the Beatles' praise, "You Can't Do That" became a minor hit in the US, and a top 10 hit in Canada.
When RCA had asked if there was anything special he wanted as a signing premium, Nilsson asked for his own office at RCA, being used to working out of one. In the weeks after the Apple press conference, Nilsson's office phone began ringing constantly, with offers and requests for interviews and inquiries about his performing schedule. Nilsson usually answered the calls himself, surprising the callers, and answered questions candidly. (He recalled years later the flow of a typical conversation: "When did you play last?" "I didn't." "Where have you played before?" "I haven't." "When will you be playing next?" "I don't.") Nilsson acquired a manager, who steered him into a handful of TV guest appearances, and a brief run of stage performances in Europe set up by RCA. He disliked the experiences he had, though, and decided to stick to the recording studio. He later admitted this was a huge mistake on his part.
Once John Lennon called and praised Pandemonium Shadow Show, which he had listened to in a 36-hour marathon. Paul McCartney called the following day, also expressing his admiration. Eventually a message came, inviting him to London to meet the Beatles, watch them at work, and possibly sign with Apple Corps.
Pandemonium Shadow Show was followed in 1968 by Aerial Ballet, an album that included Nilsson's rendition of Fred Neil's song "Everybody's Talkin'". A minor US hit at the time of release (and a top 40 hit in Canada), the song would become extremely popular a year later when it was featured in the film Midnight Cowboy, and it would earn Nilsson his firstGrammy Award. The song would also become Nilsson's first US top 10 hit, reaching #6, and his first Canadian #1.
Aerial Ballet also contained Nilsson's version of his own composition, "One", which was later taken to the top 5 of the US charts by Three Dog Night and also successfully covered in Australia by John Farnham. Nilsson was also commissioned at this time to write and perform the theme song for the ABC television series The Courtship of Eddie's Father. The result, "Best Friend", was very popular, but Nilsson never released the song on record; the original version of the song (entitled "Girlfriend") was recorded during the making of Aerial Ballet but not included on that LP, and it eventually appeared on the 1995 Personal Best anthology, and as a bonus track on a later release of Aerial Ballet. Late in 1968, The Monkees' notorious experimental film Head premiered, featuring a memorable song-and-dance sequence with Davy Jones and Toni Basil performing Nilsson's composition "Daddy's Song." (This is followed by Frank Zappa's cameo as "The Critic," who dismisses the 1920s-style tune as "pretty white.")
With the success of Nilsson's RCA recordings, Tower re-issued or re-packaged many of their early Nilsson recordings in various formats. All of these re-issues failed to chart, including a 1969 single "Good Times".
Nilsson's next album, Harry (1969), was his first to hit the charts, and also provided a Top 40 single with "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" (written as a contender for the theme to Midnight Cowboy), used in the Sophia Loren movie La Mortadella (1971) (US title: Lady Liberty). While the album still presented Nilsson as primarily a songwriter, his astute choice of cover material included, this time, a song by then-little-known composer Randy Newman, "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear". Nilsson was so impressed with Newman's talent that he devoted his entire next album to Newman compositions, with Newman himself playing piano behind Nilsson's multi-tracked vocals. The result, Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), was commercially disappointing but was named Record of the Year by Stereo Review magazine and provided momentum to Newman's career. The self-produced Nilsson Sings Newman also marked the end of his collaboration with RCA staff producer Rick Jarrard, who recounted in the Nilsson documentary that the partnership was terminated by a telegram from Nilsson, who abruptly informed Jarrard that he wanted to work with other producers, and the two never met or spoke again.
Nilsson's next project was an animated film, The Point!, created with animation director Fred Wolf, and broadcast on ABC television on February 2, 1971, as an "ABC Movie of the Week". Nilsson's self-produced album of songs from The Point! was well received and it spawned a hit single, "Me and My Arrow".
Later that year, Nilsson went to England with producer Richard Perry to record what became the most successful album of his career. Nilsson Schmilsson yielded three very stylistically different hit singles. The first was a cover of Badfinger's song "Without You" (by Pete Ham and Tom Evans), featuring a highly emotional arrangement and soaring vocals to match – recorded, according to Perry, in a single take. His superb performance was rewarded with Nilsson's second Grammy Award.
The second single was "Coconut", a novelty calypso number featuring four characters (the narrator, the brother, the sister, and the doctor) all sung (at Perry's suggestion) in different voices by Nilsson. The song is best remembered for its chorus lyric ("Put de lime in de coconut, and drink 'em both up"). Also notable is that the entire song is played using one chord, C7th.
The third single, "Jump into the Fire", was raucous, screaming rock and roll, including a drum solo by Derek and the Dominos' Jim Gordon and a bass detuning by Herbie Flowers.
Nilsson followed quickly with Son of Schmilsson (1972), released while its predecessor was still in the charts. Besides the problem of competing with himself, Nilsson was by then ignoring most of Perry's production advice and his decision to give free rein to his bawdiness and bluntness on this release alienated some of his earlier, more conservative fan base. With lyrics like "I sang my balls off for you, baby", "Roll the world over / And give her a kiss and a feel", and the notorious "You're breaking my heart / You're tearing it apart / So fuck you" (a reference to his ongoing divorce), Nilsson had traveled far afield from his earlier work. The album nevertheless reached #12 on the Billboard 200, and the single "Spaceman" was a Top 40 hit in October 1972. The follow-up single "Remember (Christmas)", however, stalled at #53. A third single, the tongue-in-cheek C&W send up "Joy", was issued on RCA's country imprint Green and credited to Buck Earle, but it failed to chart.
Nilsson's disregard for commercialism in favor of artistic satisfaction showed itself in his next release, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973). Performing a selection ofpop standards by the likes of Berlin, Kalmar and Ruby, Nilsson sang in front of an orchestra arranged and conducted by veteran Gordon Jenkins in sessions produced by Derek Taylor. This musical endeavor did not do well commercially. The session was filmed, and broadcast as a television special by the BBC in the UK.
1973 found Nilsson back in California, and when John Lennon moved there during his separation from Yoko Ono, the two musicians rekindled their earlier friendship. Lennon was intent upon producing Nilsson's next album, much to Nilsson's delight. However, their time together in California became known much more for heavy drinking than it did for musical collaboration. In a widely publicized incident, the two degenerates were ejected from the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood for drunken heckling of the Smothers Brothers.Both men also caused property damage during binges, with Lennon trashing a bedroom in Lou Adler's house, and Nilsson throwing a bottle through a 30-foot-high hotel window.
To make matters worse, Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord during the sessions for this album, but he hid the injury for fear that Lennon would call a halt to the production. The resulting album was Pussy Cats. In an effort to clean up, Lennon, Nilsson and Ringo Starr first rented a house together, then Lennon and Nilsson left for New York.
After the relative failure of his latest two albums, RCA Records considered dropping Nilsson's contract. In a show of friendship, Lennon accompanied Nilsson to negotiations, and both intimated to RCA that Lennon and Starr might want to sign with them, once their Apple Records contracts with EMI expired in 1975, but would not be interested if Nilsson were no longer with the label. RCA took the hint and re-signed Nilsson (adding a bonus clause, to apply to each new album completed), but neither Lennon nor Starr signed with RCA.
Nilsson's voice had mostly recovered by his next release, Duit on Mon Dei (1975), but neither it nor its follow-ups, Sandman and ...That's the Way It Is (both 1976) met with chart success. Finally, Nilsson recorded what he later considered to be his favorite album, 1977's Knnillssonn. With his voice strong again, and his songs exploring musical territory reminiscent of Harry or The Point!, Nilsson anticipated Knnillssonn to be a comeback album. RCA seemed to agree, and promised Nilsson a substantial marketing campaign for the album. However, the death of Elvis Presley caused RCA to ignore everything except meeting demand for Presley's back catalog, and the promised marketing push never happened. This, combined with RCA releasing a Nilsson Greatest Hits collection without consulting him, prompted Nilsson to leave the label.
1 Curzon Square in 2012 showing flat on 4th floor, top-left was Nilsson's flat in London and the site of Keith Moon's death.
Nilsson's 1970s London flat, at Flat #12, 9 Curzon Street on the edge of Mayfair, was a two-bedroom apartment decorated by the design company that Starr and Robin Cruikshank owned at that time. Nilsson cumulatively spent several years at the flat, which was located near Apple Records, the Playboy Club, Tramp (nightclub) and the homes of friends and business associates. Nilsson's work and interests took him to the US for extended periods, and while he was away he lent his place to numerous musician friends. During one of his absences, ex-Mamas and Papas singer Cass Elliot and a few members of her tour group stayed at the flat while she performed solo at the London Palladium, headlining with her Torch Songs and "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore." Following a strenuous performance with encores, Elliot returned to the flat to relax and sleep and was discovered in one of the bedrooms, dead of heart failure at 32, on July 29, 1974.
On September 7, 1978, The Who's drummer Keith Moon returned to the same room in the flat after a night out, and died at 32 from an overdose of Clomethiazole, a prescribed anti-alcohol drug. Nilsson, distraught over another friend's death in his flat, and having little need for the property, sold it to Moon's bandmate Pete Townshend and consolidated his life in Los Angeles.
Nilsson's musical work after leaving RCA Victor was sporadic. He wrote a musical, Zapata, with Perry Botkin, Jr., libretto by Allan Katz, which was produced and directed by longtime friend Bert Convy. The show was mounted at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, but never had another production. He wrote all the songs forRobert Altman's movie-musical Popeye (1980), the score of which met with unfavorable reviews. Nilsson's Popeye compositions included several songs that were representative of Nilsson's acclaimed "Point" era, such as "Everything is Food" and "Sweethaven". The song "He Needs Me" featured years later in the film Punch-Drunk Love. Nilsson recorded one more album, Flash Harry, co-produced by Bruce Robb and Steve Cropper, which was released in the UK but not in the US. From this point onward, Nilsson increasingly began referring to himself as a "retired musician".
Nilsson was profoundly affected by the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980. He joined the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and overcame his preference for privacy to make appearances for gun control fundraising. He began to appear at Beatlefest conventions and he would get on stage with the Beatlefest house band "Liverpool" to either sing some of his own songs or "Give Peace a Chance."
After a long hiatus from the studio, Nilsson started recording sporadically once again in the mid to late 1980s. Most of these recordings were commissioned songs for movies or television shows. One notable exception was his work on a Yoko Ono Lennon tribute album, Every Man Has A Woman (1984) (Polydor); another was a cover of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" recorded for Hal Willner's 1988 tribute album Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. Nilsson donated his performance royalties from the song to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
In 1985 Nilsson set up a production company, Hawkeye, to oversee various film, TV and multimedia projects he was involved in. He appointed his friend, satirist and screenwriterTerry Southern, as one of the principals. They collaborated on a number of screenplays including Obits (a Citizen Kane-style story about a journalist investigating an obituary notice) and The Telephone, a comedy about an unhinged unemployed actor.
The Telephone was virtually the only Hawkeye project that made it to the screen. It had been written with Robin Williams in mind but he turned it down; comedian-actress Whoopi Goldberg then signed on, with Southern's friend Rip Torn directing, but the project was troubled. Torn battled with Goldberg, who interfered in the production and constantly digressed from the script during shooting, and Torn was forced to plead with her to perform takes that stuck to the screenplay. Torn, Southern and Nilsson put together their own version of the film, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in early 1988, but it was overtaken by the "official" version from the studio, and this version premiered to poor reviews in late January 1988. The project reportedly had some later success when adapted as a theatre piece in Germany.
In 1990, Hawkeye floundered and Nilsson found himself in a dire financial situation after it was discovered that his financial adviser Cindy Sims had embezzled all the funds he had earned as a recording artist. The Nilssons were left with $300 in the bank and a mountain of debt, while Sims served less than two years and was released from prison in 1994 without making restitution.
In 1991, the Disney CD For Our Children, a compilation of children's music performed by celebrities to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, included Nilsson's original composition "Blanket for a Sail," recorded at the Shandaliza Recording Studio in Los Angeles.
Nilsson made his last concert appearance September 1, 1992, when he joined Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band on stage at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada to sing "Without You" with Todd Rundgren handling the high notes. Afterwards, an emotional Ringo Starr embraced Nilsson on stage.
Nilsson suffered a massive heart attack on February 14, 1993. After surviving that, he began pressing his old label, RCA, to release a boxed-set retrospective of his career, and resumed recording, attempting to complete one final album. He finished the vocal tracks for the album with producer Mark Hudson, who still retains the tapes of that session.
Nilsson died of heart failure on January 15, 1994 in his Agoura Hills, California, home.
In 1995, the 2-CD anthology he worked on with RCA, Personal Best, was released.