A Rockapaedia Obituary
Harry Nilsson died aged fifty-two of heart failure on 15th January 1994 in his Agoura Hills, California home.
He is interred in Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California, U.S.A.
Harry had suffered a massive heart attack in February 1993 and after surviving that, he began pressing his former label, RCA Records, to release a boxed-set retrospective of his career. He then resumed recording, attempting to complete one more album.
Harry Nilsson was born in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, U.S.A. in 1941. His paternal grandparents were Swedish circus performers and dancers, especially known for their "aerial ballet". His maternal grandparents were the cornerstone of his young life. While his grandmother played piano, his grandfather Charlie supported the family in a tiny railroad apartment on Jefferson Street in Brooklyn. His father, Harry Edward Harry Nilsson Jr., abandoned the family when Harry was three years old. An autobiographical reference to this is found in the opening to Harry Nilsson's song "1941":
Harry Nilsson's "Daddy's Song" also refers to this period in his childhood. He 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, a mechanic in San Bernardino, California, helped Harry Nilsson improve his vocal and musical abilities. In addition to his half-brother and a half-sister through his mother, he also had three half-sisters and one half-brother through his father.
Because of the poor financial situation of his family, Harry Nilsson worked from an early age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. When the theatre closed in 1960, he applied for a job at a bank, falsely claiming 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 the bank retained him even after uncovering his deception regarding being a high school graduate. He worked on bank computers at night, and in the daytime pursued his songwriting and singing career.
By 1958, Harry 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 Harry Nilsson a plastic ukulele, which he learned to play, and he later learned to play the guitar and piano. In the 2006 documentary Who Is Harry Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? Harry 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 Harry Nilsson's natural talent, helped when he got a job singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner in 1962. Turner paid Harry Nilsson five dollars for each track they recorded. When Harry Nilsson became famous, Turner decided to release these early recordings, and contacted Harry Nilsson to work out a fair payment. Harry Nilsson replied that he had already been paid – five dollars a track.
In 1963, Harry Nilsson began to have some early success as a songwriter, working with John Marascalco on a song for Little Richard. Upon hearing Harry Nilsson sing, Little Richard reportedly remarked: "My! You sing good for a white boy!" Marascalco also financed some independent singles by Harry 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 Harry Nilsson a contract, and release recordings by him under the name "Johnny Niles."
In 1964, Harry 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 Harry Nilsson's songs. Botkin also gave Harry Nilsson a key to his office, providing another place to write after hours. Through his association with Botkin, Harry 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 – $2,500 – to finance the recording of four Harry 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 Harry Nilsson's debut album. The fruitful association between Harry Nilsson and Tipton continued after Harry Nilsson signed with RCA Victor – Tipton went on to create the arrangements for nearly all of Harry 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 Harry Nilsson's life and career.
Harry 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 Harry Nilsson. None of Harry 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, Harry Nilsson remained on the night shift at the bank.
Harry Nilsson signed with RCA Victor 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 Harry 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 Harry Nilsson's "Cuddly Toy" after meeting him through their producer Chip Douglas , Harry 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 Harry Nilsson's death.
Some of the albums from Derek Taylor's box eventually ended up with the Beatles themselves, who quickly became Harry Nilsson fans. This may have been helped by the track "You Can't Do That". in which Harry Nilsson covered the John Lennon penned tune – and also worked references to 20 other Beatles tunes in the mix, usually by quoting snippets of Beatles lyrics in the multi-layered backing 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, "Harry Nilsson". McCartney was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, "Harry Nilsson".
"You Can't Do That" was Harry Nilsson's first hit as a performer; though it stalled at number 122 on the US charts, it hit top 10 in Canada.
When RCA had asked if there was anything special he wanted as a signing premium, Harry Nilsson asked for his own office at RCA, being used to working out of one. In the weeks after the Apple press conference, Harry Nilsson's office phone began ringing constantly, with offers and requests for interviews and inquiries about his performing schedule. Harry Nilsson usually answered the calls himself, surprising the callers, and answered questions candidly. Harry 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.
A message came, inviting Harry 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 Harry 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 more popular a year later when it was featured in the film Midnight Cowboy, and it would earn Harry Nilsson his first Grammy Award. The song would also become Harry Nilsson's first US top 10 hit, reaching number 6, and his first Canadian number 1.
Aerial Ballet also contained Harry 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. Harry 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 Harry 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 Harry Nilsson's composition "Daddy's Song."
With the success of Harry Nilsson's RCA recordings, Tower re-issued or re-packaged many of their early Harry Nilsson recordings in various formats. All of these reissues failed to chart, including a 1969 single "Good Times". This track, however, was resurrected as a duet with Micky Dolenz for the 2016 Monkees' CD release of the same name by adding additional parts to an unused Monkees backing track recorded in 1968.
Harry Nilsson's next album, Harry in 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. While the album still presented Harry 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". Harry Nilsson was so impressed with Newman's talent that he devoted his entire next album to Newman compositions, with Newman himself playing piano behind Harry Nilsson's multi-tracked vocals. The result, Harry Nilsson Sings Newman in 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 Harry Nilsson Sings Newman also marked the end of his collaboration with RCA staff producer Rick Jarrard, who recounted in the Harry Nilsson documentary that the partnership was terminated by a telegram from Harry Nilsson, who abruptly informed Jarrard that he wanted to work with other producers, and the two never met or spoke again.
Harry 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". Harry Nilsson's self-produced album of songs from The Point! was well received and it spawned a top 40 single, "Me and My Arrow".
Later that year, Harry Nilsson went to England with producer Richard Perry to record what became the most successful album of his career. Harry Nilsson Schmilsson yielded three stylistically different hit singles. The first was a cover of Badfinger's song "Without You" (by Welsh songwriters Pete Ham and Tom Evans), featuring a highly emotional arrangement and soaring vocals to match – recorded, according to Perry, in a single take. The performance earned him his second Grammy Award. The second single was "Coconut", a novelty calypso number featuring four characters all sung in different voices by Harry Nilsson.
Harry Nilsson followed quickly with Son of Schmilsson in 1972, released while its predecessor was still in the charts. Besides the problem of competing with himself, Harry 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 breakin' my heart / You're tearin' it apart / So fuck you" (a reference to his ongoing divorce), Harry Nilsson had traveled far afield from his earlier work. The album nevertheless reached number 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 number 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.
Harry Nilsson's disregard for commercialism in favor of artistic satisfaction showed itself in his next release, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night in 1973. Performing a selection of pop standards by the likes of Berlin, Kalmar and Ruby, Harry 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 Harry Nilsson back in California, and when John Lennon moved there during his separation from Yoko Ono, the two musicians rekindled their earlier friendship. John Lennon was intent upon producing Harry Nilsson's next album, much to Harry 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 were ejected from the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood for drunken heckling of the Smothers Brothers.
To make matters worse, at a late night party and jam session during the recording of the album, attended by Lennon, McCartney, Danny Kortchmar, and other musicians, Harry Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord, 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, Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr first rented a house together, then Lennon and Harry Nilsson left for New York. After the relative failure of his latest two albums, RCA Records considered dropping Harry Nilsson's contract. In a show of friendship, Lennon accompanied Harry 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 Harry Nilsson were no longer with the label. RCA took the hint and re-signed Harry Nilsson (adding a bonus clause, to apply to each new album completed), but neither Lennon nor Starr signed with RCA.
Harry Nilsson's voice had mostly recovered by his next release, Duit on Mon Dei in 1975. Finally, Harry Nilsson recorded what he later considered to be his favorite album Knnillssonn in 1977. With his voice strong again, and his songs exploring musical territory reminiscent of Harry or The Point!, Harry Nilsson anticipated Knnillssonn to be a comeback album. RCA seemed to agree, and promised Harry 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 Harry Nilsson Greatest Hits collection without consulting him, prompted Harry Nilsson to leave the label.