In 1968, Paul McCartney was asked to name his favorite songwriter. His answer: “Nilsson.”
When asked to name his favorite group, he gave the same answer: “Nilsson.”
That Nilsson was Harry Nilsson, who was then mostly unknown, still working at a bank while writing songs at RCA’s Hollywood office. Being declared this Beatle’s most famous singer and group had a profound impact, as one might imagine, on Harry’s life; suddenly the phone was ringing off Harry’s hook with movie, stage and television offers, all new for this budding tunesmith who’d never performed in public before.
One night the phone rang around 4 am. Harry, roused from his sleep, lifted the receiver to hear John Lennon on the other end crowing his praises in his unmistakable Liverpool scouse accent:
“You’re fantastic, man,” Lennon told him. “Let’s get together and do something.”
The following week at approximately the same time Paul McCartney called to repeat a similar sentiment. Nilsson soon found himself in London, at the invitation of the Fab Four, attending sessions for the White Album. Harry stayed with Lennon and met John’s new girlfriend at the time, a conceptual Japanese artist named Yoko Ono, who was busy working on her art film Smile then.
Within days, The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein tried, unsuccessfully, to buy out Nilsson’s contract from RCA, hoping to sign him to Apple.
Harry, dubbed by Beatles publicist Derek Taylor as “the Beatle across the water,” was now in the running, among everyone from New York DJ Murray the K to Yoko Ono, for the much coveted fifth Beatle status.
Producer Richard Perry (the ears behind Harry’s hit-filled 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson) called Harry “the American Beatles all on his own.” If that seems overblown, check out Harry’s stacked harmonies on “The Moonbeam Song,” which are just as lush and transcendent as the Beatles’ Abbey Road epiphany “Sun King” or a spoonful of the Beach Boys’ sweet sonic marmalade.
“I spent a lot of time with Harry around the time of his first album,” Al Kooper said in a recent phone interview.
“I went to visit him at his home in L.A. That first day we smoked a lot of pot and just laughed. Then we went swimming in his pool, with our clothes on, for what was the first and only ‘Brian Jones Memorial Swim Party.’ Later on, we sat down at his piano and traded songs. His voice and songs were fantastic, some of the greatest I’d ever heard.”
Kooper’s band, the original Blood, Sweat & Tears, would cut a groovy bossa nova rendition of Harry’s “Without Her,” on their 1968 debut album, Child is Father to the Man. A year later, Al’s first solo album, I Stand Alone, included a soulful version of Nilsson’s “One,” which was much hipper than the overblown version by Three Dog Night. On his following album, You Never Know Who Your Friends Are, Al cut a Beach Boys-inspired arrangement of Harry’s “Mourning Glory Story.”
Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry’s seventh album, was recorded both at RCA in Hollywood and London’s Olympia Sound, and produced a string of hits. These include his chart-topping version of Badfinger’s yearning power-ballad, “Without You, which won him a Grammy for Best Male Vocalist of 1973.
Harry’s own songs “Coconut” and “Jump Into the Fire” both became hits; the unedited version of “Jump,” which appeared on the album, featured Chris Spedding’s drilling guitar, Jim Keltner’s driving drums and a cool bass-de-tuning bass solo by Herbie Flowers. Martin Scorsese later used the song as the smoldering soundtrack to the climax scene of his mafia opus Goodfellas.
Other bright moments on the album included the McCartney-esque “Gotta Get Up” and “The Moonbeam Song.”
Legendary poet/songwriter Stephen Kalinich, best known for his collaborations with Brian Wilson, recalled his first encounter with Nilsson at a party which included such musical luminaries as Ringo Starr and Van Dyke Parks.
“Brian sat me right next to Harry,” said Kalinich, “and we talked all night. We spoke about poetry and architecture, and particularly Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Harry was very sweet and kind. He had a lot of joy and sadness. As a person he had great qualities, which are in his songs.”
To Stevie’s ears, Nilsson Schmillson is “a beautiful record… his greatest album. ‘The Moonbeam Song’ is one of the most touching songs I have ever heard. It’s delicate, powerful, and poetic. It gets to my soul. The words inspire me so much. Harry’s vocals and music were so versatile and different. His harmonies on
‘Without You,’ and ‘Jump into the Fire’ kicks ass!”
Though he was a world-class songwriter, Harry was unusual in that he loved to record the work of other songwriters. These days he’s best known for his classic recordings of two songs he didn’t write: “Without You,” by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and “Everybody’s Talking,” by Fred Neil. The latter was famously used as the theme song for the film Midnight Cowboy, which garnered Harry a Grammy in 1969 for Best Male Vocalist.
And in 1970, Harry did what no other great songwriter has done: he recorded an entire album of another songwriter’s songs, Nilsson Sings Newman. Dedicated to the work of the brilliant songsmith Randy Newman, it remains one of the greatest under-appreciated albums ever. In turn, Randy considered Harry “a great, great songwriter,” and typical of his self-deprecating humor, joked that the album might do more harm than good to Harry’s career.
Although not always the leading man, Nilsson played a major role in rock and roll mythology. He was John Lennon’s sidekick during the ex-Beatle’s legendary “Lost Weekend” in Los Angeles (summer 1973 – early 1975), along with Ringo, Keith Moon and auxiliary Beatle bassist and designer of the iconic Revolver album cover, Klaus Voormann.
Lennon and Nilsson’s only hope of salvation while in the thrall of debauchery came through music. Harry supplied a lyric for Lennon’s “Old Dirt Road,” when the Beatle called him needing help. Harry offered “trying to shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind,” which Lennon loved and used, recording the song for Walls and Bridges.
Lennon produced Harry’s 1974 Pussycats, which included a song they wrote together, “Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga,” as well as Harry’s humorous self-elegy, “Don’t Forget Me,” and a poignant take on the Doc Pomus/Mort Schuman classic “Save The Last Dance for Me.” But while attempting a primal-scream-like vocal on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord, which never quite healed, and to this day Pussycats is considered a tragically-flawed album. Hearing him destroy his voice on record is something a lot of fans and friends abhorred.
“Harry was an unbelievable singer, but he killed his voice with alcohol,” Al Kooper lamented. “The whole alcohol/drug thing just became too much… I couldn’t hang with him anymore.”
Other dark tales that add to Harry’s legend include not one but two tragic and famous deaths at his London flat. First came that of Mama Cass Elliot, who died in her sleep from a heart attack (and not from choking on a sandwich) while at his home. Next came Keith Moon, the lunatic drummer of the Who, who took 32 Heminevrin sleeping pills, which he used so as not to drink, and overdosed there. These understandably spooked Harry, who never stayed another night in the flat, and gave it to Pete Townshend.
Then there’s the mystery of who, or what, is supposedly buried in Harry’s grave. According to Marianne Faithfull, who swears she heard the story from a reliable source, Nilsson’s body, stilled by heart failure and bloated by drug and alcohol abuse, was left overnight in a casket at a Los Angeles funeral home when the big Northridge earthquake of ’94 struck. The popular version of the tale contends that Nilsson’s casket fell into a fissure and was lost forever.
In place of Harry’s body, the story goes, the coffin was filled with stones. Marianne, who had an “absolute worship and adoration of Harry,” maintained that “it’s the sort of story that Harry could have written about in a song. He would have enjoyed it.”
Following Nilsson’s death, the tribute album For the Love of Harry – Everyone Sings Nilsson, produced by Al Kooper and Danny Kapilian, was released in 1995 with performances by Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb and Adrian Belew.
“Don’t Forget Me”
By Harry Nilsson
In the wintertime
Keep your feet warm
But keep your clothes on and don’t forget me
Keep the memories
But keep your powder dry, too
In the summer
By the pool side
While the fireflies are all around you
I’ll miss you when I’m lonely
I’ll miss the alimony, too
Don’t forget me, don’t forget me
Make it easy on me just for a little while
You know I’ll think about you
Let me know you’ll think about me, too
And when we’re older
And full of cancer
It doesn’t matter now, come on, get happy
‘Cause nothing lasts forever
But I will always love you
Don’t forget me
Please don’t forget me
Make it easy on me just for a little while
You know I’ll think about you
Let me know you think about me, too .”