Nilsson

  • Singer, songwriter and keyboardist born Harry Nilsson in 1941 in Brooklyn New York. Died in 1994 of heart failure.
  • Faced with living in near poverty in New York, he moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. An uncle who was a mechanic worked with him to develop his singing – eventually he developed a tenor voice with a range of 3½ octaves. He worked at the Paramount Theater and occasionally performed there, until the theater closed in 1960. He then took a job at a bank, working with computers at night, while honing his singing and songwriting during the day. By 1962, he was singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner and singing jingles. The following year, songs penned by Nilsson started to be performed by other artists – over the next several years, songs written by Nilsson were recorded by Little Richard, The Monkees, Glen Campbell and The Yardbirds.
  • Some early recordings were made by Nilsson, using the monikers Bo Pete, Johnny Miles and Foto-Fi Four. Nilssan as Foto-Fi Four released the song Stand Up and Holler after watching Beatlemania take hold in the U.S. in 1964 – also known as All For The Beatles, Nilsson handled all four vocal harmonies for the song. By 1966, his early recordings were sold to a record company, and his debut album, Spotlight on Nilsson, was released. Still uncertain about his future, he kept his job at the bank.
  • He subsequently signed with another major label, and his next album was released in 1967 – Pandemonium Shadow Show. While the album was not a commercial success, critics were impressed with his vocal skills and writing. The album included a cover of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home, as well as You Can’t Do That, a mash up of 20 different Beatles songs – the song is considered the first mash up song ever released. The Beatles themselves obtained a copy of the album, and Nilsson quickly became a favorite of the band, particularly John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Finally, Nilsson quit his job at the bank, ready to work in music full time.
  • As his popularity increased, he retained a manager who encouraged him to make a few television appearances and to do some live concerts in Europe. Nilsson did not enjoy the experiences, and he essentially remained a studio artist for his entire professional life.
  • His next album, Aerial Ballet, was released in 1968. It included the song Everybody’s Talking, which did not make the Hot 100 chart with its initial release. After the song was included in the soundtrack for the film Midnight Cowboy, it was re-released as a single, and it peaked at #6 on the chart, winning a Grammy award. Also included on the album was One – Nilsson’s version didn’t chart, but when Three Dog Night covered it in 1969, their version reached #5 on the Hot 100 chart (it is a top 50 all time personnel favorite of mine).
  • Nilsson’s music covered many genres and often was eccentric. His 1969 album Harry includes ballads, show tunes, Americana and soft-shoe style music. He wrote songs and the scores for several films, and he had an acting role in one of them, 1974’s Son of Dracula (also starring Ringo Starr). A children’s film for television called The Point! included the his song Me and My Arrow, reaching #34 on the Hot 100.
  • In 1971, he released the album Nilsson Schmilsson. It was his most successful album, with 3 songs in the Hot 100 Top 40, including his only #1 song, Without You. The song was a cover of the song by Badfinger, and it won Nilsson his second Grammy award. The other charting songs were Jump Into the Fire (peaking at #27) and the novelty song Coconut (reaching #8). These songs are great examples of the different styles of Nilsson – Without You is a power ballad, Jump Into the Fire is a hard rock song, and Coconut has a tropical Caribbean feel (“…she put the lime in the coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up…).
  • The 8 albums released by Nilsson from 1972 to 1980 reflected his journey through the 70s, largely influenced by his partying with friends Lennon and Starr. The partying took its toll on his voice, and he lost the upper range of his tenor as the decade progressed. He had minor hits with Spaceman in 1972 (peaking at #23) and Daybreak in 1974 (peaking at #39). He released an album that covered classic early 20th century standards; another album of song covers from the 50s, 60s and 70s; albums with continued contributions by Lennon and Starr; and odd songs with titles like Jesus Christ You’re Tall and Kojak Columbo. His final album, Flash Harry, was released in 1980. Late that year, John Lennon was murdered, and Nilsson withdrew from the music industry and focused his energy on campaigning for gun control and managing film, TV and other projects, none of which were successful. Ultimately, after his financial adviser embezzled his fortunes, he was broke.
  • A comeback was in the works in the 90s. Nilsson finished recording the vocal tracks for an album, but he died in 1994 before its release. Twenty-five years later, the album, titled Losst and Founnd, is scheduled to be released in November 2019.
  • Nilsson was one of those eccentric artists who music was too odd to sustain mega hits, but in retrospect can be appreciated for their brilliance. Since he practically never performed, there’s not much to be found on YouTube. But, I was able to find him performing Everybody’s Talking  – so here it is. Enjoy.

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