Harry Nilsson

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Irony was not lost on Harry Nilsson. As one of the most talented singer songwriters on the planet, he already knew by the age of forty that his legacy would ultimately rest on a brace of compositions written by others.

Possessed of a three and a half octave range, diverse instrumental skills and an acute sense of melancholia, Harry was also one of life’s hellraisers. He’d curtailed the drinking and drugs by 1980 but the damage was already done and the poignancy of his premature end at the age of fifty three with acute cardioid problems is magnified by the domestic contentment of his last years. Nilsson had finally grown up, but his heart had grown old.

Nilsson entered the music industry as a songwriter, collaborating on three songs with Phil Spector and selling “Without Her” for $10,000. This song alone was a piece of work to make any listener sit up and pay attention for as with Lennon’s “Across the Universe” it demands absolute concentration on the part of any vocalist in both areas of dynamic pacing and breath control. It was ultimately a hit for Glen Campbell, a typical irony of Nilsson’s career: his two biggest hits (“Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You”) were other people’s songs, and his own songs were most successful covered by others (e.g. Three Dog Night’s version of “One”). This was the guiding tension in Nilsson’s career for whilst RCA wanted him to do the technically immaculate balladeering that was comfortably marketable, he was committed to proving himself as a songwriter.

He created an incredible and eclectic body of work during the late ’60s and early ’70s writing such hits as ‘Cuddly Toy’ for The Monkees before moving on to conceive and write the score for the children’s film ‘The Point’. He won a Grammy for ‘Everybody’s Talkin’, the theme from “Midnight Cowboy” which he didn’t write, and which would prove to be a source of major irritation.

His rise was meteoric. During this time, he became the guy everybody had to know; one week, he was a cult artist, barely successful enough to leave his graveyard shift bank job; the next week, he was receiving admiring phone calls from The Beatles inviting him to England to hang out while they cut The White Album.

Before long, Harry Nilsson was off and running, cranking out daringly original records, culminating in 1971’s “Nilsson Schmillson”, which included ‘Coconut’, ‘Jump Into The Fire’ (the searing rocker that Martin Scorsese used to great effect in Goodfellas) and of course, his breathtaking cover of Badfinger’s ‘Without You’ (another Grammy win).

In much the same way that as a young boy barely into my teens I was watching “The Old Grey Whistle Test” whilst all my schoolfriends remained conversant only with “Top of the Pops”, most of my contemporaries were equally unaware of Harry. “Who is Nilsson?” they would say. Well Harry was ‘the missing Beatle’ with an abundant talent known only to the cognisenti. Even today his name elicits either instant reaction and enthusiasm – ‘I love Harry Nilsson!’ – or a total blank stare. People either know him and love him, or they have no idea. My humble website is but yet another small effort in steering people in the direction of his back catalogue.

Elton John’s percussionist Ray Cooper, a brilliant musician in his own right, talks about how, upon hearing Nilsson’s unadorned vocal take through his headphones during a recording session, was almost unable to play, so big and stupendous being Harry’s voice that he froze, stunned that such natural beauty could come from one man.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and raised by a single mom. He grew up in a poor household, so he quit school in the ninth grade and went right to work. He worked at a theater for a time, then applied to work for a bank and lied about his credentials. He worked out so well at the bank that even after they found out about his lying, they kept him on.

His early musical career included co-writing a song for Little Richard and also working with Phil Spector. In 1966 he signed with RCA Victor and released his first album, “Pandemonium Shadow Show.” Beatles press officer Derek Taylor hooked The Beatles up with this record. Harry and The Beatles had a mutual respect for each other’s work and soon grew to be good friends. After Harry Nilsson wrote a hit for The Monkees called “Cuddly Toy,” he figured he was making enough money as a songwriter that he could quit his job at the bank.

It was his second release “Aerial Ballet” that featured Harry’s cover of the Fred Neil song “Everybody’s Talkin” which appeared in the film ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ It’s a deceptively difficult studio recording featuring two acoustic guitar tracks, one instrument conventionally strung with the secondary high part tuned to EADACE (low to high). It later won Harry his first Grammy. This album also contained the song “One” (“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do…”), which was covered by Three Dog Night. Promoters would call him up at his office and ask him if they could book him, but he found performing live unsettling, so he always refused.

He also was involved with the animated film ‘The Point!’ and created the song “Me and My Arrow” specifically for the movie. Later that year, he recorded “Nilsson Schmilsson”, which was to become the most successful album of his career. It contained the single “Without You” (a Badfinger cover) and of course, “Coconut,” which is a whole song based on just one chord – C7. Nilsson Schmilsson – and in particular “Without You” – demonstrated Harry’s multi-octave vocal range and put him in a league above the typical pop singer. He could sound downright operatic at times.

As with any artist who has a long, prolific career, there tend to be periods of depression and critical downfall. Harry Nilsson’s blue period in ’73/‘74 essentially consisted of partying with John Lennon in California, resorting to heavy drinking and drug use, trashing hotel rooms and jumping out of moving cars. As part of a stagnated youth it was probably hilarious on occasions but lennon was harming his immigration proceedings and his fight to stay in the land of the free, whilst Nilsson was ballooning in weight and rupturing his vocal cords during the “Pussycat” sessions.

The pair became estranged after Lennon returned to Yoko in 1975 to start a family and whilst the former Beatle remained fond of his old friend he knew the dangers of socialising once more with the “Kid from Brooklyn”, not least the lure of the nearest bar.

‘Pussy Cats’ changed Nilsson’s career irrevocably. It’s more fun to read about than to hear. Shortly after its release, his partnership with Lennon allowed Nilsson the opportunity to negotiate a new previously unprecedented $5 million contract with RCA, yet thereafter, he never released a project as interesting, or with as much conviction. Interestingly, the company had been (reportedly) considering dropping Harry, but when Lennon joined his friend in the RCA office negotiations, he would mischieviously hint at a possible future signing to the label by both himself and Ringo if they retained Nilsson’s services. The pair’s EMI/Apple contract was due to expire in February 1976, and Beatles reunion rumours were rife at the time. Sensing the distinct possibility of owning at least two if not all four members, RCA ended up keeping Harry but, but would never add John and Ringo to its roster of acts. Whilst the pair no doubt repaired to the nearest bar afterwards to celebrate Harry’s good fortune – the contract including an unprecedented clause stating that RCA would cover all studio costs, an outlay conventionally borne by the artist – we can surmise that the sheen eventually wore thin for this most mercurial of singers. How else can one explain “Duit on Mon Die”, his 1975 release, a near suicidal collection guaranteed to aggravate every RCA executive within earshot of the nearest available turntable. Having had “God’s Greatest Hits” vetoed by the label as a possible album title, Harry would commence proceedings with a brief pino demo of ‘Jesus Christ, you’re tall’ before serving up a meandering collection of ramshshackle pop. Only the obvious single pull, ‘Kojack Columbo’, offered radio playlist possibilities. The following year (1976), he would release the superior “Sandman”, a particular favourite of mine, that features the achingly beautiful ‘Will she miss me’ and the danceable “Pretty Soon There’ll Be Nothing Left for Everybody”, but by then, the public wasn’t listening. Perhaps, in one introspective moment, Nilsson realised that he had secured an RCA contract superior to anything ever offered to the label’s best selling act Elvis Presley, simply on the back of his Beatles connection. One beaujolais evening too many may have convinced him to offer a riposte to ‘the suits’ for their stupidity, with a vastly indulgent piece of work. Certain artists would simply have offered melodious gratitude, but not a personality like Harry.

Nilsson would strive to put his career back in harness in the late 70’s and his 1977 album release “Knnillssonn”, featuring the plaintiff “All I think about is you”, returned him to favour with US radio stations. In Britain Simon Bates made the release his single of the week on BBC Radio One but tastes were changing and the era of thrashed chords and sputum on stage was upon us as Punk took hold of the British subconscious. The album was also derailed by the death of fellow RCA recording artist Elvis Presley which scuppered the company’s planned marketing campaign and refocused its attention on the re-promotion of The King’s back catalogue. Only three years on from John Lennon’s personal intervention with RCA executives which helped Nilsson to secure the largest ever advance for a recording artist, Harry felt compelled to ask his employers to cancel his contract.

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. He began to appear at Beatlefest conventions and he would get on stage with the house band “Liverpool” to either sing some of his own songs or “Give Peace a Chance”, no mere events in view of his lifelong aversion to stage work.

Nilsson suffered a massive heart attack on February 14, 1993. Fortunate to survive, he began pressing his old label, RCA, to release a boxed-set retrospective of his career, and resumed recording in an attempt to complete one final album that was posthumously released. He also continued to work on various other projects right up until his death in 1994 from myocardial infarction at his Agoura Hills, California, home.

In the eyes of the world, it was a sad yet predictable end to an essentially low key career that had initially promised so much. There were emotional issues in Harry’s life that would colour much of his personality and subsequent behaviour and as ever, relationships that would fall by the wayside. His father’s early desertion left permanent scars that he would address in one of compositions later in life.

He was survived by his third wife, Una (née O’Keeffe), and their six children (Annie, Beau, Ben, Kief, Olivia, Oscar), his son Zachary Nine Nilsson from his marriage to Diane Clatworthy, and one grandson (Caleb). He was married to Sandy Maganiello (1964 to 1966), Diane Clatworthy (1969 to 1974) and Una O’Keeffe (1976 to his death in 1994).

His second wife maintains that as much as Harry might have aspired to being a good husband and father, the lure of his musical ambitions always took him off for weeks on end until he finally failed to return home at all. He was a very tall imposing man for his day and whilst one woman’s recollection is barely conclusive proof of a lifetime’s habit, there is the suspicion that he took liberties with women. Stephanie LaMotta, daughter of the former World Heavyweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta and his fourth wife, Dimitria, is a fighter like her father. An actress as well as a boxing and fitness instructor, since 1979 she has also battled multiple sclerosis (MS), the disease of the central nervous system for which there is no known cure. In spite of bouts of paralysis and near blindness, Stephanie trained dozens of clients, including celebrities, at the Los Angeles Youth Athletic Center gym and created a video, Stephanie LaMotta’s Boxersize Workout, before MS confined her to a wheelchair. She was romantically involved for a short while with Ringo Starr, during which time she encountered Nilsson. The following link suggests their first meeting was less than auspicious.


Nevertheless, if the drink and drugs were blighting Nilsson’s sense of civility, recollections from close friends filmed for inclusion in a BBC documentary testify to him finding love with his third wife, whereupon he settled down to a life of domesticity, raising a large family whilst continuing to work on special movie projects. He was also reconciled with his estranged son from his second marriage towards the end of his life.


In addition he endured the trauma of embezzlement when his financial adviser stole his lifetime earnings as a recording artist leaving he and his third wife Una with only $300 in the bank. Coupled with mountainous debts, the situation might have tipped many a man over the edge yet Harry reacted with dignity and stoicism to focus on the dual need to sustain his family and to raise finances.

His financial adviser served a penal sentence of two meagre years and never made restitution to Nilsson’s family after his death. I have worked myself for thirty three years in financial services, and have seen the effect of temptation on many an individual living a champagne lifestyle on lemonade money. These individuals incense me, for they tarnish the industry’s reputation and leave families in turmoil.

In the years since Nilsson’s premature passing, his estate has financially benefited from the marketing of his innovative composition “Coconut”, which is written intriguingly on the solitary chord of C7 without ever losing listener interest. The song has been featured in the following movies, “Kill Bill”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Practical Magic” and “Wag The Dog” but most tellingly of all, Coca Cola was granted licensing rights to advertise lime coke using the revised lyrics “You put the lime in the Coke you nut…”. I would ordinarily cringe at such an affront to artistic credibility whilst others might suggest I chill out. Whatever one’s viewpoint, Harry loved Una and understandably wanted the best for her, so if the commercial enterprise replenished even a fraction of his stolen fortune then ‘all well and good’ say I. In any event, there would be more to follow.


In a move to further swell the coffers, 2013 heralded the release of a massive Nilsson retrospective, a 17-disc box set of ‘The Complete RCA Albums Collection.’ The box set contained remastered versions of the 14 records the legendary singer, songwriter and carouser recorded for RCA from 1967 to 1977, including hit-filled albums like ‘Nilsson,’ as well as his album-length interpretations of standards and Randy Newman songs. In addition, there were three CDs of demos, outtakes and various sketches. This included the demo of ‘Cuddly Toy’. Celebrating his early success whilst mourning his unfulfilled genius, The Times art correspondent, Will Hodgkinson was moved to write on 26 July:… Nilsson is a largely forgotten figure, although much of his music isn’t. And when you listen to the fruits of Nilsson’s decade-long purple patch on RCA, covered comprehensively on this 17-CD Boxed set, you realise that he should have been up there with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen…Hanging out with Lennon and rendering yourself insane with drink is a lot more appealing than hard work, but when you’re blessed with a voice and a writing ability like Harry Nilsson’s, it’s also something of a minor tragedy.


Recommended listening

Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967)

The album that brought Nilsson to the attention of The Beatles thanks in no small part to their publicist Derek Taylor who mailed them each a copy of the disc.

Long before Stars on 45 or the group’s flirtation with the Cirque du Soliel, Nilsson showed the earliest potential for Beatles medleys by juxtaposing twenty of their well known numbers within the basic framework of Lennon’s Wilson Picket tribute “You Can\‘t Do that”. The tempo is slower and the overall effect majestic; small wonder Harry had already rejected thoughts of live work, so intricate being the vocal harmonies he was by now overdubbing in the studio.

Aerial Ballet (1968)

Harry’s third opus and named after his grandparents who were Swedish circus performers with an act known as the “Aerial Ballet!”

Nilsson classics abound – “One”, “Good old desk”, “Everybody’s talkin’” – whilst the “The wailing of the willow’ reinforces his credentials as a balladeer.

There’s much to savour in the entire Nilsson catalogue. Amongst my own personal collection, I have the triple album collection ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’, ‘Aerial ballet’ and the controversial re-mix album ‘Aerial pandemonium Ballet’ available on a two CD set. At the same time I picked up ‘Son of Schmilsson’, ‘Duit on mon dei’,‘Sandman’, the notorious ‘Pussycats, and the wonderful ‘A little touch of SCHMILSSON in the night’. Eight albums from Harry for the princely sum of £14 – good business on any day!

Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

Nilsson’s seventh album, released by RCA Records in 1971 and an artisic tour de force. Commercially, the collection produced three of his better known songs, achieved chart success and marked the first of two collaborations with producer Richard Perry.

Two of Harry’s self-penned songs, “Jump into the Fire” and “Coconut”, subsequently became hits and the album performed well at the 1973 Grammy Awards, earning a nomination for Album of the Year, whilst taking the prize for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance with “Without You”, a cover of a song written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger.

Typical of Harry’s personality, he chose to alienate his more conservative fan base with the eclectic follow up release “Son of Schmilsson”; his eighth album it featured guest appearances from George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the former contributing slide guitar to the notorious number “You’re breaking my heart” which featured the line “You’re breaking my heart / You’re tearing it apart / So fuck you”, a reference to his ongoing divorce. Harrison loved the number which is unsurprising given his longstanding affection for both Lennon’s ‘knickers’ reference in “I am the Walrus” and his crude liverpudlian sexual “Four of fish and finger pie” contribution to McCartney’s “Penny Lane”.

The Point (1971)

Conceived on acid, Nilsson’t take on “Gulliver’s travels” is an enchanting fairy tale with an accompanying soundtrack featuring the very best in melodic pop sensibilities so readily associated with Lennon-McCartney in their earliest incarnation.

Oblio and his faithful Arrow live in the land of points where every person sports a pointed head and despite his obviously different physicality, the two integrate well into the community for a period of time before being derailed by the jealous son of The Count. Suitably enraged at his son’s defeat at the hands of our hero in a competitive game the Count makes overtures to the king and forcibly argues that the law requires all things in the land of point to have a point. As a result of the tribunal review, Oblio and Arrow are banished to the pointless forest whereupon they discover that, contrary to public perception, their new surroundings have indeed many points. After a series of adventures the pair find their way back to the pointed land where they handle the Count’s anger with aplomb and enrapture the residents with their tales of adventure.

Oblio refutes the perception of the so named pointless forest and makes a plausible case for his own integration back into the society he has known for so long. His journey of discovery reaches its apex when a voice in the crowd confirms that “He has a point there”, and in best tradition, the story concludes with a happy ending.

Anticipating the enormity of his success in the 80’s with the “Thomas the tank engine and friends” franchise, Ringo Starr narrates the animated film of Nilsson’s fable with just the right amount of downbeat liverpudlian bonhomie.

A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973)

An album of classic 20th-century standards scored by longtime Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins, and produced by Beatles press publicist Derek Taylor.

A standards album produced decades before Rod Stewart turned the concept into a religious calling it met with modest chart success, but is nevertheless regarded as the finest example of Nilsson’s virtuosic singing. I had the album for years on good quality vinyl and transferred it over to compact disc for safety reasons. The unusual twists of melody and red herring arrangements appeal to my musical sensibilities. Later, I would obtain the album on an official CD at a bargain basement price.

The title is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act 4, in which the Chorus refers to Henry’s nocturnal visit to his troops as “a little touch of Harry in the night”.

The album returned to the marketplace reinvigorated as “A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night” containing an intro and outro and seven additional songs from the recording session.

Knillsson (1977)

Harry’s fourteenth album for RCA Victor and a miraculous return to form. It should have heralded a much deserved renaissance in his commercial fortunes, but events would sadly overtake him with the death of Elvis Presley.


The King’s passing in August 1977 saw an unprecedented explosion in the American public’s demand for his records. By September 1977, Elvis had eight albums on Billboard’s “50 Hot Country LPs” chart whilst worldwide demand for his catalogue remained high. RCA’s pressing plants were put on overtime, and the roster of other artists would suffer accordingly. At the time of Presley’s untimely demise, ‘Knnillsson’ was top forty with a bullet, but thereafter airtime was virtually non existent, and the album would soon sink like at stone.

The Thing about Harry (BBC Radio 1997)

A two part rockumentary in which Stuart Grundy traces the late Harry Nilsson ‘s career.


Many of the interviewees that appear in the 2010 film documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)” also appear in this earlier incarnation – Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Perry Botkin Jr., Richard Perry, May Pang, Gerry Beckley).

Jimmy Webb offers some interesting insights into Harry’s compositional style and the rudimentary nature of his piano playing, and the programme is also notable for the contribution from Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ former press officer and close friend of Nilsson’s, who sadly died later that year.

Recommended viewing

The music of Nilsson (BBC Tv – 1971)

They said that Scotch blank VHS video tapes would come with a lifetime guarantee but the manufacturers never discussed the effect of time on their picture quality. Three years before his untimely death in 1997, Beatles press officer Derek Taylor introduced a welcome repeat transmission of Harry’s early special for the BBC. Today my copy looks like it was recorded during a snowstorm and the versions currently available on YOUTUBE are only marginally clearer. Perhaps somebody at the Beeb will have the foresight to remaster this special and reissue it on DVD.

The performances on this special showed Harry at his best, performing slower, more moving renditions of his best songs to date at a time when his near operatic vocal range was operating at its majestic best. Songs from his early albums are well to the fore and the promo for ‘Coconut’ is inspired. The song “One” was covered by Three Dog Night, who took their cover version to #1 on the US charts in 1969.

Harry Nilsson – The missing Beatle (BBC Tv – 2011)

Programmes about or featuring Nilsson are rare delicacies indeed and I wasn’t about to miss this entry in the Beeb’s weekly schedule.

Alan Yentob introduces John Scheinfeld’s documentary “Harry Nilsson – The Missing Beatle”, a film that tells the story of the riotous life and music of the Brooklyn born troubadour. Nilsson, a friend and hero of Lennon’s, was one of the most successful and influential, but least known, songwriters of his generation. He is remembered as much for his wild lifestyle as for his outstanding performance of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ from the movie soundtrack ‘Midnight Cowboy’.

The film showcases new and archived audio and film, including home movies, music videos, promotional films and segments from the unreleased documentary made during the recording of ‘Son Of Schmilsson’, ‘Did Somebody Drop His Mouse’? The film also features interviews with Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Ray Cooper, the Smothers Brothers and Micky Dolenz, former drummer with the Monkees. Performance footage is predictably sparse and confined to early television appearances since Harry assiduously avoided touring throughout his entire career.

Recommended reading

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter (Alyn Shipton) 2013

In view of the plethora of titles in print devoted to modern third rate acts who can barely maintain true vocal intonation in a recording studio without recourse to ‘autotune’ software, it seems incredible that no biography of an immense talent such as Nilsson had been published by 2013. Thankfully, Alyn Shipton was to rectify this wrong with a masterful volume on the life and times of Harry.

A major celebrity at a time when huge concerts and festivals were becoming the norm, Nilsson shunned live performance. His venue was the studio, his stage the dubbing booth, his greatest triumphs masterful examples of studio craft. He was a gifted composer of songs for a wide variety of performers, including the Ronettes, the Yardbirds, and the Monkees, yet Nilsson’s own biggest hits were almost all written by other songwriters. He won two Grammy awards, in 1969 for “Everybody’s Talkin’” (the theme song for Midnight Cowboy), and in 1972 for “Without You,” had two top ten singles, numerous album successes, and wrote a number of songs – ‘Coconut’ and ‘Jump into the Fire’, to name just two, that still sound remarkably fresh and original today. He was once described by his producer Richard Perry as “the finest white male singer on the planet,” but near the end of his life, Nilsson’s career was marked by voice-damaging substance abuse and the infamous deaths of both Keith Moon and Mama Cass in his London flat.

Tracing the troubadour’s life from his Brooklyn childhood to his Los Angeles adolescence, Shipton charted Nilsson’s gradual move into the spotlight as a talented songwriter. Combining interviews from Nilsson’s friends, family and associates, and material drawn from an unfinished draft autobiography Nilsson was writing on prior to his death, Shipton probed beneath the enigma and the paradox to discover the real Harry Nilsson, thereby revealing one of the most creative talents in 20th century popular music.

What makes Shipton’s book essential reading is not just his enthusiasm for the subject, which is evident on each page, but his honesty, as well. No one can talk about Nilsson without talking about his failures: He sabotaged his career through drugs and drink and an unwillingness to become the hit machine he so clearly could have been; he damaged his voice not only through substance abuse but also in an attempt to impress John Lennon; although his own father abandoned him as a child he could not avoid doing the same with his eldest son. That said, there’s no way you can do anything but love Nilsson, maybe even because of those failures. He was, by all accounts, warm, generous, funny, brilliant, and a guy who had a heart large enough to match his outsized personality. His rich, avuncular voice could make you laugh not only when he sang, but also when he spoke, and his singing could help heal even the deepest wounds.


There are a handful of factual inaccuracies but little of any consequence – expect the definitive version on first re-print…




Well, it’s a start isn’t it? and hopefully over time, will flourish. As ever, with an artist like Harry, the website domain holder needs some creative input from the family – documents, private photos and recollections – to flesh out the content. Let’s hope the site can maintain sufficient interest in the Nilsson legacy to involve those who knew and loved him.