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Harry Nilsson

Although he synthesized disparate elements of both rock and pop traditions, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson was at heart a maverick whose allegiance belonged to neither. His initial series of albums in the late '60s made him a personal favorite of the Beatles, who found a natural affinity with his knack for catchy melodies, witty lyrics, and extraordinary vocal range. Thought of as a songwriter first and a performer second, he became a pop star himself in the late '60s and early '70s with "Everybody's Talking" and "Without You." He lost some of his original audience, however, with subsequent detours into pre-rock styles of pop, and did little recording over the last 15 years of his life.

Nilsson had been struggling to make inroads into the music business for over five years before his critically acclaimed 1967 album, Pandemonium Shadow Show. He made demos, sang commercial jingles, and shopped songs, all the while keeping his job at a Los Angeles-area bank. In the mid-'60s, he wrote a few songs with Phil Spector that were recorded by the Ronettes and the Modern Folk Quartet; occasionally he released records of his own. The Monkees recorded his "Cuddly Toy," and the Yardbirds did "Ten Little Indians" on a single in their waning days. But Nilsson didn't quit his bank job until after the release of Pandemonium Shadow Show, which gave him creative rein in the studio for the first time, and showcased his three-and-a-half-octave voice to full advantage.

The album caught the attention of the Beatles (helped, no doubt, by its ingenious medley of classic Beatle tunes, "You Can't Do That"). John Lennon and Paul McCartney named him as their favorite American singer at a press conference, an extraordinary accolade for an unknown. (Nilsson was sometimes even rumored to be joining the group.) Three Dog Night took his "One" into the Top Ten in 1969, and Nilsson's second LP, Aerial Ballet, continued the ambitious pop/rock direction of his debut, marrying his slightly eccentric, bouncy (if sometimes precious) tunes to baroque orchestral production. When one of its songs, "Everybody's Talkin'," was used as the theme for the Midnight Cowboy film, Nilsson had his first Top Ten hit. The irony was that, although Nilsson was primarily identified as a singer/songwriter, the song was actually a cover of a composition by folk-rocker Fred Neil.

But Nilsson would never be content to be pigeonholed into definite categories, as demonstrated by his two 1970 albums. One was devoted entirely to covers of songs by Randy Newman (then just emerging as a performer); another was his soundtrack to an animated children's special, The Point (including the hit "Me and My Arrow"). And it was another cover (of a Badfinger album track) that gave him his biggest single, the number one smash "Without You." Yet Nilsson didn't cash in on his stardom in a conventional manner; he never performed in concert (there were occasional television appearances), preferring to craft his artistry in the studio.

"Without You" appeared on 1971's Nilsson Schmilsson, which included a couple of other hits, the faux-tropical "Coconut" and the surprisingly gritty "Jump Into the Fire," which rates as his hardest-rocking cut. During the first half of the 1970s, he continued to broaden his range from the well-crafted, peppy, sensitive tunes that had dotted his early releases, cutting some tougher, more sour work. He lost some of his constituency, however, with 1973's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, a collection of pre-rock pop standards with an orchestra conducted by arranger Gordon Jenkins (most noted for his work with Frank Sinatra). His affection for the music wasn't entirely surprising, as there had always been a strong Tin Pan Alley flavor to much of his writing, but it wasn't exactly in step with the times.

Much of Nilsson's notoriety stems from a period in the mid-'70s when he was a drinking buddy of John Lennon in Los Angeles (where Lennon was living during a separation from Yoko Ono). The drunken pair were thrown out of L.A.'s Troubadour club in a well-publicized incident, following which Lennon offered to produce Nilsson's next album. The timing was not opportune; Nilsson lost his voice during the sessions, rupturing one of his vocal cords, keeping it a secret out of fear that Lennon would abandon the project. Released as P**sy Cats, it was his last album to make the Top 100. During the same period, he also embarked on a project with another L.A.-based ex-Beatle, Ringo Starr, acting and writing music for the little-seen Son of Dracula film.

The upper register of Nilsson's voice, which was ultimately his greatest asset, had been permanently (though not irredeemably) damaged. After a few rather unsuccessful late-'70s album, Nilsson withdrew from the studio into family life and other business ventures, spending much of his energies campaigning for gun control after Lennon was shot in 1980. In failing health in the 1990s, diagnosed with diabetes and suffering a massive heart attack, he died in early 1994, just after finishing the vocal tracks for a new album. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

tommyo6969
His lifestory is on Netflx.Amazi i n g talent;loved by millions.
prsnyc
Genius. Serious, clever, comical, poignant, all of the above. Love Harry.
Absolute perfection! I'm enamored by his music.
I should say, I Can't think - sorry
i can think of a more underrated artist in all of popular music - he was a genius with a beautiful voice
the nilsson schmilsson cover pphoto story I heard went as follows... the photographer hired to take Harry Nilsson's photo for the album cover rang his doorbell and he answered the door in a bathrobe, smoking a hashpipe... the guy just whips out a camera and'click'.. . v o i l a , . . . a l b u m cover
love this song and the young boy it reminds me of !! he is forever in my heart and forever young
seths3
Great Song!
Don't read this because it actually works. You will be kissed on the nearest possible Friday by the love of your life. Tomorrow will be best day of your life. However if you don't post this you will die in 2 days. Now you've started reading this don't stop. This is so scary. Post this on at least 5 songs in 143 minutes. When done press f6 and your lover's name will come up on the screen. This is so scary because it actually works. F6
Excellent! Pandora corrected the mistake and now give proper song writing credit to Pete Ham and Tom Evans for Without You. Great song!
Whatever anyone else might say, he was indeed great! Nilsson Schmilsson was an absolute work of ART, displaying an incredible diversity. Lloyd Thompson.
I don't know why Lawrence Young and Ke Ke Wyatt are credited with writing the beautiful Without You on Pandora when it was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger. It's a major error since the song was on Nilsson's 1971 album and Wyatt wasn't even born until 1982. Ham and Evans deserve the credit for such a great song.
Coincidental l y , the big L.A. earthqu
ake of '94 hit two days after Harry died.
hilahsvander l 0
Would have been better if they mentioned that he died not from his failing health but rather in an earthquake.
cool guy but what's up with the creepy bathrobe pic
Lime in the Coconut, Jump Into the Fire, Spaceman, Without You, I could go on and on, he was something else
orstenm
the point, saw it once, but still sticks with me
orstenm
didn't he do the music for animated feature The Arrow. me and my arrow,straig h t up and narrow??
Excellent write-up on Nilsson. He is one of my favorite artists and I would have loved to have met him. This bio is exquisitely written and sympathetic to a beloved songwriter.
Harry!! Still Fresh and New
I really like this song! oh cool, you worked with Harry,@Sheri l y n 0 3 that's too cool :)
sherilyn03
I worked with Harry at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles in 1958 and 1959. He was great!!!! I love his music.
P.S. Thank you Pandora for being such a fountain of wisdom... Have found information on singers that I would of otherwise never known.. Awesome channel...
I had no idea that Mr. Nilsson passed away.. I have loved this song since I heard it in the 70's.. It was always my most favorite song of all time. I feel so sad that Mr. Nilsson passed. What a great talent.
rbriggs93
Listen to the album Nilsson Schmilsson and you will know why this guy was dubbed the American Beatle. Awesome talent.
What I don't get about this guy... who in their right mind makes an album cover of himself in a bath robe looking like he just woke up and was like Oh, the photographer is here for the album cover? Just take a picture and be done with it.

Great voice, great music, but... rather lacking in presentation .
...don't want to gush or anything, but Pandora is giving me a great education along with even greater music...
dproctor8
Huge talent. Major loss.
floradora77
Harry is my favorite band.
DOESN'T SOUND QUITE RIGHT TO ME EITHER. TOO FAST AND NOT FROM THE NILSSON SCHMILSSON ALBUM I HAVE.
Harry Nilsson had the most beautiful voice ever. Really.
What's with the version of Gotta Get Up on here? This is not the version from Nilsson Schmilsson that I remember.
love his music
Who is Harry Nilsson is an awesome documentary. It makes you love him even more.
Check out the documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson . . . showing on Netflix. Can't get enough of his voice.
rbriggs93
Harry was awesome. Smooth, funky and funny too.
George Harrysong play's lead on you're breaking my heart, your tearing it apart, so puck you.
aadams209
Loved this guy from the first time I ever heard him in 1971
neptunes2
Chaek out Brian Wilson doing a cover of Without You. A Jem!
rnbabydoll
I am grateful to have heard and experienced fine, fine music...I am in awe of this song!
kimkassen
Nobody does it for me like "HARRY"....a true artist. I am so glad that I was able to grow up listening to this wonderful music!
Very nice indeed, a song track in my life.
check out the point.do you get the point of the story?
you broke my heart, you tore it apart, so F**k you.
perhaps the best torch song ever written.
suzebradley3 8
i still have my original son of dracula....n e e d to get on digital
m.ringe
I think I have all of Harry's albums and saw Son of Dracula over a dozen times with the kids in the neighborhood (they were teenyboppers and I was a college student who happened to have the only car!) Wish I could find a copy of it, I'd like to see it again. "They are all my children, Baron Frankenstein , but HE, is special!" He sure was.
God bless Harry! One in a million - good song writer - good interpretati o n s of other folks songs - GREAT singer.
I fell in love with Nilsson's music in the 1970's. Everyone else (with exceptions like Don McLean) was loud and made my uptight. He was and probably always will be my personal favorite artist.
great artist under appreciated
ksanamer0
Thanks Mom and Dad!
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