HARRY NILSSON: “WITHOUT YOU”, SINGER/SONGWRITER
by Alan L. Chrisman
Harry Nilsson, singer/songwriter, had quite the life; several hits and albums, and was friends with The Beatles. He had hits with “Everybody’s Talking” (’69), “Without You” (‘71) and “Coconut” (’72). He also wrote “One”, a hit for Three Dog Night.
He also had many ups and downs, perhaps fitting for someone whose grandparents were circus performers and whose father left when he was two. He got work at an early age, as a bank clerk, because he was self-trained on computers, but wrote songs at night.
He struggled for several song writing years, until he released his first real album, Pandemonium Side Show, in 1966. It contained a cover of The Beatles’ song ” You Can’t Do That” and other re-created sounds that impressed The Beatles and they proclaimed him as their favorite American artist, which helped raise his profile. In 1968, Nilsson released his 2nd album, Ariel Ballet, with a song by Fred Neil, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, that became a hit from the movie Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman and John Voigt.
Nilsson worked for Phil Spector and wrote “One “ ( ‘is the loneliest number’) for Three Dog Night and songs for The Monkees and their film, Head, directed by Jack Nicholson. He had another hit with “I Guess the Lord Must Live in NYC”, originally written for Midnight Cowboy. In 1970, Nilsson dedicated a whole album to a little known songwriter at the time, Randy Newman, Nilsson Sings Newman.
He next did the soundtrack to a children’s animation feature, The Point, about a child that doesn’t fit in with the song, “Me and My Arrow”. But in 1971, Nilsson had a #1 with his version of Beatles-produced band, Badfinger’s (see my previous article on Badfinger) classic song, “Without You”, on his album Nilsson Schmilsson which also had the hits, “ Coconut” and “Jump in The Fire”.
But Nilsson, despite his success, was always trying different directions, and who rarely performed live, then turned to covers of 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s songwriters like Irving Berlin, with fascinating renditions of “As Time Goes By” and “It Had to be You”, etc., with a full orchestra, on his “ A Touch of Schmilsson in The Night “ album.
Then in 1973, during John Lennon infamous “long weekend”, when separated from Yoko, Lennon produced Nilsson’s Pussy Cats LP. The result is an interesting combination of original songs and old rock covers like “ “Rock around The Clock”, Jimmy Cliff’s “ Many Rivers To Cross” and Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, with drinking buddies, Ringo and The Who’s Keith Moon on drums and Jesse Ed Davis on guitar. But When John Lennon was killed in 1980, Nilsson took it particularly hard, and he and his song writing was never the same.
The flat Nilsson had in London, near the Beatles’ Apple headquarters, which he rented out to other musicians was also tragically the location, where both Mama Cass Elliot in ’74, and later Keith Moon in ’78, died. And Nilsson found out in 1990 that his financial advisor had stolen all the money he had made from his recordings and he only had $300 in the bank. He would die in 1994 of heart failure and a 2-Cd retrospective of his work was released in 1995.
So Harry Nilsson, singer/songwriter, had quite the life; a close friend of The Beatles and an eclectic writer of some great songs and albums which are highly recommended.
See below Harry Nilsson do Badfinger’s “Without You”: