Well in 1941 a happy father had a son and by 1944 the father walked right out the door And in '45 the mom and son were still alive but who could tell in '46 if the two were to survive Well the years were passing quickly but not fast enough for him So he closed his eyes through '55 and he opened them up again When he looked around he saw a clown and the clown seemed very gay And he set that night to join that circus clown and run away
Harry Edward Nilsson III (June 15, 1941 – January 15, 1994), sometimes credited as simply Nilsson, was an American singer/songwriter with a versatile voice that boasted multiple octaves in its prime. An idiosyncratic, savvy composer with a unique flair for Cloud Cuckooland-ishness, his career saw him going from clean-cut baroque pop prodigy to scruffy, carousing pop-rocker. Rather uniquely for the period, he was a Reclusive Artist who seldom, if ever, performed live, his career sustained by little else than his recorded output.When a relative newcomer during the late 1960s, Nilsson earned the admiration of The Beatles (Ringo Starr eventually became his heterosexual life partner), which needless to say did wonders for Nilsson's own notability. His big commercial break came when his cover of "Everybody's Talkin'" (originally written by Fred Neil) was featured in the film Midnight Cowboy, earning him a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in the process. He would win the same award again a few years later for his performance of what has now become a pop standard; "Without You" (written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger).His fame reached a peak in the early 1970s; as time went on, Nilsson's continuing drug and alcohol abuse took a toll on both his voice and career; his career as a recording artist ended with the release of his last album in 1980. His untimely death of heart failure in 1994 occurred just as he was aiming for a musical comeback.
Album Intro Track: Pandemonium Shadow Show opens with Nilsson attempting a circus ringmaster-type introduction. Aerial Ballet has him doing a tap-dancing routine. Duit on Mon Dei starts off with a rough demo version of "Jesus Christ You're Tall", which he recorded a finished version of on the next album, Sandman. Flash Harry opens with a song about Nilsson, written and performed by Eric Idle.
The Beatles: A presence in Nilsson's career dating all the way back to 1964, when he wrote and recorded a tribute song to them called "Stand Up and Holler" (credited to the non-existent Foto-Fi Four when it was released). Pandemonium Shadow Show featured his version of "You Can't Do That" that skillfully wove in lines from other Beatles songs, plus a cover of "She's Leaving Home". This attracted attention from The Beatles themselves, most famously when Lennon and McCartney cited Nilsson as their "favorite band" in the press conference announcing the formation of Apple Records. He covered "Mother Nature's Son" on Harry (the original may well have been influenced by Nilsson in the first place), and did a version of "Blackbird" around the same time that wouldn't be released for several decades. He hung out with Ringo and John constantly in the early 1970s. Ringo played drums on a few Nilsson sessions. John produced Pussy Cats. Harry starred in the Apple Films production Son of Dracula. He covered George's "That Is All". John's murder led Harry to become a gun control advocate, and he made a few appearances at Beatles fan conventions in the 1980s.
Book Ends: A Little Touch of Schmilsson in The Night opens with a snippet of "As Time Goes By" and closes with the whole song.
...That's The Way It Is goes the opposite direction, opening with the full version of "That Is All" and closing with a short reprise.
Breakup Song: Oh, so many... "Without You" being the most obvious example.
It was a cover of a song by Badfinger, but their version doesn't have a fraction of Nilsson's emotional oomph.
Christmas Songs: "Remember (Christmas)" is a perennial selection on Christmas compilations... despite having no Christmas connotations whatsoever in its lyrics (there are some sleigh bells in the instrumental bridge, though).
Cover Album: Nilsson Sings Newman. ...That's The Way It Is (all but two songs are covers), Pussy Cats (five of ten) and Pandemonium Shadow Show (six of twelve) come close.
And on the receiving end too, with the tribute album For The Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson, and The Walkmen did a track-for-track version of Pussy Cats.
Dead Artists Are Better: Nilsson's death didn't get much notice beyond the standard celebrity obituaries in 1994note It didn't help that a 6.7 earthquake hit the LA area two days later, dominating news coverage. The joke among his friends was that it was actually Harry throwing a fit after learning there were no bars in Heaven.. Understandable, since he hadn't released an album in over 13 years. At that point he was mainly remembered for a handful of hits and as John Lennon's "Lost Weekend" drinking buddy. Since then a confluence of factors helped rejuvenate his reputation: several Nilsson songs featured prominently in movies, a small but enthusiastic fandom, websites devoted to his work, a well-executed remaster and reissue campaign by RCA, the acclaimed documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) and biography Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton, plus the enduring popularity of The Point.
Denser and Wackier: His evolution from the clean-cut, angelic-voiced orchestral pop prodigy of the late 60s to the bearded, throaty, often profane barfly of the 70s.
Disappeared Dad: Messed him up, but good. He attributes his own self-admitted flaws as a father to this. This also becomes the subject of at least two of his songs.
Even worse, his mother tried to protect his feelings by telling him that his father died heroically in World War II. After gaining notice as a singer, he learned that his dad was alive and well and was remarried with children.
The bouncy and wholesome-sounding "Cuddly Toy" was an obvious choice for Davy Jones to sing when The Monkees covered it. As for the lyrics, they're vague enough to be interpreted in different ways (some quite sinister), but they're plainly about some sort of unwholesome sexual encounter.
Power Ballad: "Without You" was an early attempt to mix ingredients that later became Power Ballad mainstays.note solo piano intro, musical buildup, prominent drums at key moments, vocal starting out soft then getting more forceful toward the end. Really the only thing keeping it from being the Ur Example is lack of a guitar solo. What makes it interesting is that Nilsson was approaching it from the opposite direction: a pop guy adding heavier elements to his music.
Precision F-Strike: "You're breakin' my heart... you're tearin' it apart... so FUCK YOU!" Possibly the most commercial song on the album, and the least likely to see airplay!
There's some swearing in "The Flying Saucer Song", which gets Lampshaded.
Pun-Based Title: Duit on Mon Dei is a riff on the motto of the British Monarchy, "Dieu et mon droit". Apparently this began as an inside joke among The Beatles during the Apple Corps era, then Ringo put it on the cover of his Ringo album.
Rule of Three: His studio albums divide neatly into informal trilogies: Pandemonium Shadow Show/Aerial Ballet/Harry (early virtuoso pop); Nilsson Sings Newman/The Point!/Aerial Pandemonium Ballet (concept albums); The Schmilsson albums; Pussy Cats/Duit on Mon Dei/Sandman (the Hollywood party animal period); ...That's the Way It Is/Knnillssonn/Flash Harry (late period Revisiting The Roots).
Self-Backing Vocalist: One of the masters, due to his (then) uncanny vocal range. When he was first starting out, record executives were more interested in signing his "backup singers."
Self Plagiarism: His version of "I Don't Need You" (not the original, but released before the Kenny Rogers version) has an arrangement that blatantly copies "Without You".
His beloved theme song for the TV series The Courtship of Eddie's Father, "Best Friend". He rewrote the lyrics of an album outtake song called "Girlfriend", took the backing track of the rhythmically similar "Daddy's Song", and combined them into a "new" piece.
Softer And Slower Cover: His version of Louis Jordan's "Early In The Morning", taking an uptempo 1940s "jump blues" song and turning it into an anguished, stark ballad, with just Nilsson's vocal and an organ (played by him).
The Something Song: A few more than a few; "Daddy's Song", "The Lottery Song", "The Puppy Song" being a mere three examples.
Song Of Song Titles: Nilsson's cover of "You Can't Do That" features backing vocals singing the titles of various Beatles songs during the verses.
We Used to Be Friends: George Aliceson Tipton was Nilsson's arranger up until Nilsson Schmilsson, when he abruptly quit after recordng just one song. More than just an arranger, though, Tipton was a musical mentor and cohort for Nilsson (more than one person has compared the Nilsson/Tipton partnership to George Martin and The Beatles). To this day Tipton steadfastly refuses to discuss his work with Nilsson or why they split up. The best guess is that there was some dispute over credits and money, plus Nilsson's dissolute lifestyle making him harder to work with.
Welcome to the Caribbean, Mon!: A suprising number of his songs have a Caribbean feel, even if the lyrics don't reflect it. "Coconut" is the most famous, but the albums Duit on Mon Dei and Sandman prominently feature steel drums and marimbas in their instrumental mixes. He also later covered the calypso standard "Zombie Jamboree".