The man with the golden voice, and a gifted songwriter, died at age 52. That’s a tragedy. He burned up the 1970s with hits, his voice all over the radio, then he was gone, and mostly forgotten.
“Everybody’s Talkin,'” “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” “Without You,” “Me and My Arrow,” and “Coconut” were just some of his hits. He wrote songs covered by other artists. He recorded an album of Randy Newman songs, and an album of songbook classics, probably the first mainstream vocalist to do so. He rarely did the expected.
Nilsson was an enigmatic figure, so much talent, so many unusual career decisions, and his problems. He seemed to walk away from his career in the 1980s, when he probably needed the money most, but he didn’t really care. He was married three times and had eight children to support, he was also diagnosed with diabetes and had heart problems, no doubt from a life of smoking, drinking and drugs. After John Lennon was killed, Nilsson devoted his time to hand gun awareness. In a documentary of his life Who is Harry Nilsson, he was strapped for cash and peddled his songs for use in ads and films during the last years of his life.
There were some low points in career, but some great ones. His life is worthy of much more than a blog, but through my eyes, let’s remember some of his more interesting times.
Midnight Cowboy – Nilsson sang the title song, Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” which was a top ten hit in America. Nilsson had already recorded the song when the film’s director was shopping for soundtrack music. Nilsson wrote the song, “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” which didn’t make the film, so he released it on his own, a top forty hit.
Midnight Cowboy raised Nilsson’s stature as a singer and songwriter.
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father – Every week for three years, Nilsson’s song was played in the opening. The theme to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” television series, “Best Friend” which was a reworking of a song called “Girlfriend” that was never released while he was alive. The show was a cross between a comedy and drama, and Nilsson’s music kept a light and fun aire about the episodes.
The Beatles – Nilsson was a favorite of several Beatles, they said so at their New York press conference to announce Apple Records. That endorsement gave him instant credibility. He was friends with John Lennon and Ringo Starr. They drank together. And drank and drank. Nilsson was with Lennon when he got through out of a club with a sanitary napkin taped to his forehead. This was part of “The Lost Weekend.” He and Lennon were at work on a Nilsson album at the time, and these sessions resulted in a ruptured vocal chord and permanent damage to the heavenly top range of his vocals.
The Point! (1970) – The soundtrack from an animated television film written by Nilsson. The main character, Oblio, is a round-headed boy in a land where everyone else has a pointed head. Oblio and his dog Arrow, are sent away from their home. “Me and My Arrow” was one of Nilsson’s most cherished songs.
Next year, The Point! will be re-released for its 50th anniversary, along with the soundtrack album. Ringo Starr provides a new narration to the film.
Nilsson Schmilsson (1971) was Nilsson’s sixth album, a Gold Album and nominated for Grammy Best Album of the Year. “Coconut” reached number six on the chart, while “Without You” made it to number one, and selected as the Grammy Award Best Performance of the Year. “Without You” was written by two members of Badfinger (“Come And Get It”, “No Matter What”) and features one of Nilsson’s phenomenal vocal efforts. His top range was an extra gear few singers had.
Ringo played on several tracks of Son of Schmilsson (1973), the follow-up album. Ringo and Nilsson shared the same producer, Richard Perry.
A Good Year – The 2006 film by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe, used three Nilsson songs on the soundtrack. “Gotta Get Up”, “Jump into the Fire”, and “How Can I Be Sure of You.” All songs from Nilsson Schmilsson. These songs show the versatility of Nilsson. He wrote bright, bouncy pop songs and then could channel his manic energy into a smoking rocker like “Jump into the Fire.”
New Album – When he died in 1994, he was at work on album of new songs with producer Mark Hudson (Hudson Brothers, Ringo Starr). The album remained unfinished, but will be released this year.