Harry Nilsson is a legend to many musicians and connoisseurs of 1960s and ’70s rock music, but an enigma to the mainstream listening public. Although Nilsson was prolific songwriter, his two biggest hits were written by others — “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Fred Neill and “Without You” by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger. In the preface to Harry Nilsson: The Life of Singer-Songwriter, author Alyn Shipton writes “… at the heart of all his records was the ability to communicate directly to the listener cleverly focusing on the emotions of the lyrics.”
Nilsson’s songwriting and multi-octave singing voice branded him as a rock music icon, but there was so much more to his story. He had a larger-than-life persona, a history of ribald adventures (many influenced by drugs and alcohol), famous friends, and an overall lust for life. Harry Nilsson: The Life of Singer-Songwriter covers all these subjects and more. Surprisingly, the book is the first major biography of the iconic singer, who passed away in 1994.
Harry Edward Nilsson III was born in Brooklyn’s rough Bushwick neighborhood in 1941, the son of Harry Nilsson Sr. and his wife Bette. Harry Sr. left the family when Harry was three, leaving Bette and a cadre of relatives to raise the boy and his siblings.
Nilsson addressed this abandonment in the song 1941 on his second album Pandemonium Shadow Show. “Daddy’s Song,” featured in a dance sequence with Davy Jones and Toni Basil in the Monkees’ movie Head, broached the same subject. Harry did see his father again and mend fences with him after he became successful.
Young Harry and his siblings were shuttled back and forth between relatives in New York and California. After dropping out of high school, lived with aunt and uncle. Later, when Harry was fired from his job as a caddy, his uncle told him the family couldn’t support him anymore. Undaunted, Harry hitchhiked to California. He wasted no time getting a job at a Van Nuys bank as a computer operator, and was quickly promoted to manager. He burned the candle at both ends, writing songs at night, holed at his publishing office desk, before returning to the bank. He recorded a few songs with Phil Specter, released a few singles on small labels and saw a number of his songs were recorded by other artists. He finally quit his day job when his song “Cuddly Toy” was recorded by the Monkees.
Nilsson incorporated lyrics from more than 20 Beatles songs into his cover of “You Can’t Do That” on his debut album Pandemonium Shadow Show. His music impressed the Fab Four so much he received calls from John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He dismissed both calls as pranks. Later, he came face to face with the Beatles. When he first saw George Harrison, he described him as “(wearing) a white windblown robe with a beard and long hair, looking like Christ with a Camcorder.” He later become close friends with Ringo Starr and John, and wrote “The Puppy Song” with for Apple artist Mary Hopkins at McCartney’s request.
After a bad experience performing live in front of an audience experience early in his career, Nilsson shunned live performances. He taped a few segments for the BBC and various TV programs, and this limited his mainstream appeal. He later conceded that this had been a mistake.
His most successful album, the stylistically diverse Nilsson Schmilson spawned the Grammy-winning “Without You,” the novelty song “Coconut” and the bass-heavy “Jump into the Fire.”
An eclectic artist always experimenting with new ideas, he interspersed his commercial offerings with Nilsson sings Newman, a collection of songs by another idiosyncratic songwriter, Randy Newman; and an album of standards called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. Recorded live in front of an orchestra, the latter sold poorly.
Shipton includes many examples of Nilsson’s high jinks — both of the sober and substance-infused variety. The Point, an animated TV special based on Nilsson’s album of the same name, aired as a Monday movie of the week in 1971. When an exec cancelled every meeting scheduled to discuss the project, Harry called the airlines and eventually found out the man’s flight number. Harry booked a seat next to him on a six-hour flight and got finally got his meeting. Such antics will make you say, “Ya gotta love this guy.”
Harry’s partying increased, however, as he hung out with the Hollywood Vampires, a loose-knit group of rock star drinking buddies, which included Starr, Micky Dolenz, Alice Cooper — and occasionally Lennon and Keith Moon. His excessive alcohol and cocaine use took its toll on his voice, which imploded while recording the Pussycats album with Lennon. His personal demons took over and lighthearted rock ‘n’ roll decadence turned to addiction.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Nilsson turned his attention to film, writing music for “Popeye” and “The Fisher King.” He co-wrote a screenplay, “The Telephone” with Terry Southern, with disastrous results. The film’s star, Whoopi Goldberg, later sued the production company. His family life with his wife Una and their six children was the only consistently bright spot of his last years. The family still lived comfortably despite the dearth of new moneymaking hits — until an employee embezzled his money, leaving him with only $300 in the checking account.
Throughout, Shipton keeps the focus firmly on Nilsson’s larger-than-life character, which gave famous friends and collaborators and friends a run for their money. Shipton has previously written several biographies of jazz musicians, including Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway, and Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie. He’s the jazz critic for The Times of London and an accomplished double bassist. Life of a Singer-Songwriter is his first biography of a rock musician, and it’s easy to see why he chose Nilsson. For all his rock ‘n’ roll eccentricities, he had a jazz-like artistry to his work.
Shipton had access to Nilsson’s unfinished autobiography and cooperation from his widow Una, sons Kief and Zak, daughter Annie and siblings Gary and Drake. Other interviewees included Stuart Grundy of the BBC, Eric Idle, Perry Botkin Jr, May Pang, Van Dyke Parks, Samantha Juste and Jimmy Webb. If you’re unfamiliar with him, you may be confused by all the fuss over an artist whose mainstream fame was so brief. You’ll know why after reading Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter.