Some have praised Harry Nilsson as a genius and others have criticized him as indefensibly self-indulgent, but few deny the singularity of his work. And though his ability to incorporate a wide range of vocal and songwriting styles in his compositions earned him a devoted following, he never approached the business side of the music industry in a way that would make him a major star. Nilsson's oddball personality was often seen as a detriment to his success. "Nilsson's giddy, often anachronistic eclecticism and his weakness for the bottle relegated him to relative obscurity. They could not, however, eclipse his grand gifts," wrote Entertainment Weekly's David Hiltbrand in 1995, a year after Nilsson passed away at the age of 52. During his most active period of songwriting and performing, roughly from 1967 to 1978, he never toured and only rarely appeared on television, preferring to focus his energies on creative activities. Ironically, though several of the songs he wrote became huge hits for other acts, his two most commercially successful songs as a performer were written by others.
After making the baseball and basketball teams at school in Long Island, New York, near the age of 16, Nilsson moved out to California to finish high school. He began working as assistant manager at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, but by 1967, he was a computer specialist at the Security First National Bank in Van Nuys, where his colleagues knew him as Harry Nelson. At the same time, he was developing his skills as a musician, playing guitar and piano, and as a songwriter, plying these trades under the one-word moniker Nilsson. Nilsson began making the rounds of record companies and producers with his songs—he had released a few unsuccessful singles on the Mercury and Capitol labels in the early 1960s—in the meantime cutting demos and singing commercial jingles. He released a handful of early singles under pseudonyms like Bo Pete and Johnny Niles. His persistence began to pay off when three of his songs (two for The Ronettes) were recorded by acts whose albums were produced by the legendary Phil Spector, and by 1967 Nilsson had recorded enough material on his own to release Spotlight on Nilsson for Tower Records.
The album apparently did little in the way of sales, but it did enhance Nilsson's reputation in the recording industry. It was not long before RCA signed him to an exclusive contract and released the album Pandemonium Shadow Show. The record featured six Nilsson originals, as well as cover versions of songs by the Beatles and Ike and Tina Turner. Although sales were again small, the album received considerable radio airplay and attracted favorable critical attention for Nilsson's broad range of vocal and song styles. Other musicians were also impressed; the Monkees had recorded "Cuddly Toy" on their Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. before Pandemonium's release, and the Yardbirds covered "Ten Little Indians." Perhaps even more important, Pandemonium Shadow Show impressed John Lennon, who reportedly listened to it for 36 hours and then called Nilsson from England to tell him that it was a great album, beginning an enduring relationship between Nilsson and members of the Beatles.
The singer's next album, 1968's Aerial Ballet, also provided songs for other acts, including Three Dog Night, whose version of "One" became a number five hit in 1969, and resulted in Nilsson's first million-seller. Nilsson himself made the top ten on the Billboard singles chart with an Aerial Ballet song written by one Fred Neil called "Everybody's Talkin'." One of only two cuts on the album not written by Nilsson himself, the gently rippling, introspective track also served as the theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, beating out Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay," and earned the singer a Grammy Award. Nilsson's personal choice for the movie's theme, his own composition "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City," would become a hit for him in 1970.
"I Guess the Lord," along with another hit, "Waiting," appeared on Nilsson's 1969 album, Harry. But while he remained active in the recording studio, Nilsson was becoming increasingly involved in film and television. In 1968, he composed the score for Skidoo, a comedy directed by Otto Preminger starring Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing. Nilsson even made a cameo appearance in the film as a security guard. The following year he delved into television, penning incidental music and the catchy "Best Friend" for the TV comedy series The Courtship of Eddie's Father. His biggest television success, though, came in 1971, when he scripted, wrote the music for, and sang on the soundtrack of an animated special titled The Point, which spawned the Top 40 hit "Me and My Arrow."
Not forsaking his recording career, however, Nilsson had released Nilsson Sings Newman, a tribute to fellow Los Angeles singer-songwriter Randy Newman, in 1970. In 1971, the soundtrack to The Point, which went to number 25 on the Billboard album chart, yielded a hit single with "Me and My Arrow," but Nilsson's real commercial success began later that year with the release of Nilsson Schmilsson. That album, sales of which would eventually make it a platinum record, hit number three, and the single "Without You"—written by Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans but distinguished by Nilsson's swooping, heartfelt delivery—topped the charts for four weeks, became a million-seller and the biggest hit of Nilsson's career, and earned him a second Grammy, in 1972. (The song sold 800,000 copies in the United Kingdom) Other Schmilsson singles to make the charts were "Jump Into the Fire" and "Coconut," which climbed to number eight.
The landmark album also introduced Nilsson's "Schmilsson" persona, an ingratiating alter-ego as adept at crooning and singing silly little ditties as he was at performing more mainstream pop and rock. Nilsson continued to cultivate this persona for two more albums, 1972's gold Son of Schmilsson, at one time a resident of the number 12 spot, and 1973's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which also had success on the charts. The former yielded another hit single, "Spaceman." Little Touch, though, consisted entirely of straightforward standards. Critics almost unanimously agreed that this period marked a decline in the quality of Nilsson's recordings. Some attributed the change to narcissism, others to a fizzling of creative energy.
Nilsson nonetheless remained busy. In 1974, drawing on his longstanding relationship with members of the Beatles and still active in the movie industry, he collaborated with Beatles drummer Ringo Starr on the score and soundtrack to the goofy horror musical Son of Dracula, in which Starr and Nilsson appeared. "Day-break," a song from the film, would be Nilsson's last hit single, charting at number 39. Also in 1974, he released another album of standards—this time rock-and-roll songs like the 1950s chestnut "Rock Around the Clock" and Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues"—entitled Pussy Cats, produced by John Lennon. Controversy ensued that year, according to Rock Movers & Shakers, when Nilsson and Lennon were thrown out of the Los Angeles club the Troubadour for heckling comedian Tommy Smothers. Nilsson also became an unfortunate part of the dark side of rock and roll history in the '70s. After recording and living in London, England, when Nilsson returned to California, he rent out his British flat to various traveling musicians. In 1974, while staying at Nilsson's flat, Cass Elliot (also known as Mama Cass), singer from the folk group the Mamas & the Papas, died in his bed. Four years later, Keith Moon, drummer for legendary rock band The Who, also died in the same bed.
Nilsson was amply occupied in the recording studio over the next few years, but albums such as Duit on Mon Dei (1975), … That's the Way It Is (1976), and Knnillssonn (1978) did not fare well commercially and received lukewarm critical notices. Finally, RCA, the company that had been so eager to sign Nilsson to a contract when he was just starting out, severed its ties with the singer-songwriter after releasing The World's Greatest Lover and Nilsson's Greatest Music in 1978.
For the Record …
Born Harry Edward Nelson III on June 15, 1941, in Brooklyn, NY; died on January 15, 1994, in Los Angeles, CA; married twice, second wife's name Una; children: six: Annie, Beau, Ben, Kief, Olivia, Oscar, Zak.
Released singles on Mercury and Capitol labels, early 1960s; musician, songwriter, and commercial-jingle singer, Los Angeles, mid-1960s; released singles while a Computer specialist, First Security National Bank, Van Nuys, CA, 1967; released first album, Spotlight on Nilsson, Tower Records, 1967; signed with RCA records and released Pandemonium Shadow Show, 1967; song "Everybody's Talkin'," became theme to film Midnight Cowboy, 1968; wrote script and music for animated television special The Point, 1971; collaborated with Ringo Starr on music for film Son of Dracula, 1974; signed with Mercury Records, released Flash Harry, 1980; formed film distribution company, mid-1980s.
Awards: Grammy Awards, Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male, for "Everybody's Talkin'," 1969; Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, for "Without You," 1972.
Two years later, however, Nilsson was granted a reprieve from the footnotes of music history by Mercury Records. Flash Harry, his album debut on that label, released under the full name Harry Nilsson, would not be a successful comeback effort; despite collaborations with Lennon, Starr, and Monty Python's Flying Circus member Eric Idle, the album was a commercial failure.
As though confirming public assumptions that his creative career had run out of steam, Nilsson turned to business endeavors in the 1980s. He remained active in movies, but only financially, becoming the owner of a film distribution company called Hawkeye Entertainment. One of their more successful turns was the Whoopi Goldberg film The Telephone. He dabbled in other people's projects including Ringo Starr's 1981 album Stop and Smell the Roses.
His interest in songwriting and performing seemed to have been revived by the early 1990s, with reports circulating that he was seeking a new record deal and making plans to actually go on tour. This new motivation was in part spurred on by the life-altering financial loss Nilsson suffered when a trusted assistant embezzled his money from his RCA savings and Hawkeye. The assistant was later convicted and sent to prison, but Nilsson and his family's future became unstable. Tragedy struck again, when Nilsson suffered a heart attack on Valentine's Day in 1993. Hospitalized for two weeks, his album plans were put on hold.
When a recovering Nilsson returned to his home, he began writing new material for a potential new album as well working with RCA to release a three-disc compilation of his best work. But for the remainder of the year, Nilsson's health began to take a nosedive and two days after he was said to finally have completed his new record, Nilsson died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home. Mark Hudson, producer of Nilsson's last album was in the studio with the songwriter mere days before he passed. "I thought he was on the road back," he told Billboard.com. "It seemed like the color was back in his face. His eyes were sparkling. He was so up. The day before he died we were finishing some vocals. He was real happy." Nilsson left behind his wife Una and six children to uphold his legacy. "Everyone loved him," Nilsson's former manager David Spero told the New York Daily News a few days after his death. "He was that kind of person. He never looked out for himself. He cared about everybody else." In 1995, honoring their talks with Nilsson, RCA released the compilation Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology.
Singles; on RCA Records
"Everybody's Talkin'," 1968.
"Without You," 1971.
"Jump Into the Fire," 1972.
Albums; on RCA, except as noted
Spotlight on Nilsson, Tower, 1967.
Pandemonium Shadow Show, 1967.
Aerial Ballet, 1968.
Nilsson Sings Newman, 1970.
The Point, 1971.
Nilsson Schmilsson, 1971.
Son of Schmilsson, 1972.
A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, 1973.
Son of Dracula, 1974.
Pussy Cats, 1974.
Duit on Mon Dei, 1975.
…That's the Way It Is, 1976.
The World's Greatest Lover, 1978.
Nilsson's Greatest Music, 1978.
Flash Harry, Mercury, 1980.
A Touch More Schmilsson, 1988.
Without Her-Without You, BMG, 1990.
Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology, RCA, 1995.
Logan, Nick, and Bob Wooffinden, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Harmony Books, 1982.
Naha, Ed, Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.
Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, February 24, 1995.
New York Daily News, January 18, 1994.
Pollstar, March 1, 1993.
Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993.
"Nilsson Lives on with 3 Releases," Billboard.com,http://www.billboard.com (March 4, 2005.)