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Harry Nilsson Biography

Home > Music > N > Nilsson, Harry > Biography

Birth Name: Harry Edward Nilsson III
Born: 1941/06/15
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died: 1994/01/15
Years Active: 1958–1994
Genres: Rock, Pop, Rock And Roll

Harry Nilsson (born 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.

In 1963, Nilsson began to have some early success as a songwriter, working with John Marascalco on a song for Little Richard. Mercury Records offered Nilsson a contract that would 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. 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 of $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 of Capitol Records, and the tracks were subsequently included on Nilsson's debut 1966 album “Spotlight on Nilsson.” 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.

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 The Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, who bought an entire box of copies of the album to share this new sound with others. Some of the albums from 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, Lennon was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, “Nilsson.” McCartney 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 U.S.

“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 U.S. hit at the time of release, the song would become extremely popular a year later when it was featured in the film “Midnight Cowboy,” and it would earn Nilsson his first Grammy Award. The song would also become Nilsson's first US top 10 hit, reaching #6. “Aerial Ballet” also contained Nilsson's version of his own composition, “One,” which was later taken to the Top 5 of the U.S. charts by Three Dog Night.

Nilsson's next album, 1969’s “Harry,” 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,” used in the 1971 Sophia Loren movie “La Mortadella.” While the album still presented Nilsson as primarily a songwriter, his astute choice of cover material included, this time, a song by a then-little-known composer named 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, 1970’s “Nilsson Sings Newman,” was commercially disappointing but 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.

Nilsson's next project was an animated film, “The Point!,” created with animation director Fred Wolf, and broadcast on ABC television in February 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 would become 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” which was rewarded with Nilsson's second Grammy Award. The second single was “Coconut,” a novelty calypso number featuring three characters all sung in different voices by Nilsson. 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 1972’s “Son of Schmilsson,” 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[2] and his decision to give free rein to his bawdiness and bluntness on this release alienated some of his earlier, more conservative fan base. Still, the album reached #12 in the U.S. and the single “Spaceman” was a Top 40 hit.

Nilsson's disregard for commercialism in favor of artistic satisfaction showed itself in his next release, 1973’s “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.” Performing a selection of pop 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.

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 and drug use than it did for musical collaboration. In a widely publicized incident, they were ejected from the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood for drunken heckling of the Smothers Brothers.

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 1974’s “Pussy Cats.”

Nilsson's voice had mostly recovered by his next release, 1975’s “Duit on Mon Dei,” but neither it or its 1976 follow-ups, “Sandman” and “...That's the Way It Is” were 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 earlier work, 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.

Nilsson's musical work after leaving RCA Victor was sporadic. He wrote all the songs for Robert Altman's 1980 movie-musical “Popeye.” Nilsson recorded one more album, 1980’s “Flash Harry,” co-produced by Bruce Robb and Steve Cropper, which was released in the U.K. but not in the U.S. 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. 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, 1984’s “Every Man Has A Woman.” 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.

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 Starr embraced Nilsson on stage.

Nilsson suffered a massive heart attack in 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-disc anthology he worked on with RCA, “Personal Best,” was released.