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Music / Harry Nilsson

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"Everybody's talkin' at me..."

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
— "1941"

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.

In the first part of The '60s Nilsson pursued a music career while he also held a steady job as a computer programmer at a California bank. After years of writing songs and recording demos, he was signed to RCA Records in 1967. His work earned the admiration of The Beatles (Ringo Starr eventually became a close friend), which needless to say did wonders for his 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 peaked 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.


  • Spotlight on Nilsson (1966)
  • Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967)
  • Skidoo (1968)
  • Aerial Ballet (1968)
  • Harry (1969)
  • Nilsson Sings Newman (1970)
  • The Point! (1971)
  • Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)
  • Son of Schmilsson (1972)
  • A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973)
  • Son of Dracula (1974)
  • Pussy Cats [with John Lennon] (1974)
  • Duit on Mon Dei (1975)
  • Sandman (1976)
  • ...That's the Way It Is (1976)
  • Early Tymes (1977)
  • Knnillssonn (1977)
  • Flash Harry (1980)note 
  • Losst and Founnd (2019; Nilsson's vocals recorded in 1993)

"Put the Tropes in the coconut and call me in the morning."

  • A Cappella: "The Ivy Covered Walls"
  • Age-Progression Song: "1941".
  • 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 "Harry", an Image Song about Nilsson, written and performed by Eric Idle.
  • Anti-Love Song: "You're Breaking My Heart"
  • Big Applesauce: "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City".
  • 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.
  • Break-Up 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.
    • There's also "Don't Forget Me", a tender post-divorce song from Pussy Cats.
  • Christmas Songs: "Remember (Christmas)" is a perennial selection on Christmas compilations... despite having no Christmas connotations whatsoever in its lyrics (the instrumental bridge features some Snowy Sleigh Bells, however).
    • He wrote and recorded an original Christmas song called "Give, Love, Joy" for the Ziggy's Gift TV special in 1982. Six years later he contributed a few brief cover versions of holiday standards to an audiobook anthology of various stories called The Presence of Christmas. It's ultra-rare and those who've heard it don't have much good to say about it. One review calls it "so bad it's almost embarrassing".
  • Cover Album: Nilsson Sings Newman, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night....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.
  • Cover Version:
    • His two biggest hits were covers. And pretty obviously, Nilsson Sings Newman is nothing but covers of Randy Newman songs.
    • The Beatles uniformly agreed that his cover of "Mother Nature's Son" is their favourite Beatles cover song.
    • Out of 18 albums, only 4 (Skidoo, The Point!, Duit on Mon Dei, Knnillssonn) contain all original songs, and Knnillssonn is the only one with all the songs solely written by Nilsson.
    • Then there's the odd case of "Marry Me a Little". After it was cut from the original run of Company, Stephen Sondheim arranged for Nilsson to record it so he could give a copy to Judy Prince, the wife of producer Harold Prince, who'd loved the song, as a Christmas present (Nilsson even sings "Merry Christmas, Judy. Have a Happy New Year too" at the end). Despite the obviously limited quantity of the recording, a dub of the acetate eventually circulated among Nilsson fans, and a version taken from the master tapes finally got an official release in the RCA Albums Collection Boxed Set in 2013. The consensus opinion is that it's just as good as what Nilsson was releasing publicly at the time, and if he'd given it a wide release it might've been a career highlight for both him and Sondheim.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Part of his brand of humor. "Coconut" is pretty much one of the all-time party tunes of Cloud Cuckooland.
  • Credits Gag: The 1968 film Skidoo has Nilsson singing the entire end credits sequence: actors, crew members, and legal disclaimers. All of it.
  • "Days of the Week" Song: "(Thursday) Here's Why I Did Not Go to Work Today"
  • 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.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Nilsson's first releases, under the name "Bo-Pete", were rockabilly songs.
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: The intro for "Salmon Falls" clocks in at a full 1:40 (the entire song is a little over four minutes). Even more unusually, the main instrument in that intro is a steel drum.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song" was exactly that; the favorite Nilsson song of one Mr. Richland, a music publisher.
  • Fading into the Next Song:
    • Aerial Ballet: "I Said Goodbye to Me" into the reprise of "Little Cowboy".
    • Duit on Mon Dei: "Kojak Columbo" into "Easier For Me".
  • Fake Shemp: The cover photo of RCA's 1978 Greatest Hits album appears to show Nilsson looking at himself in a handheld mirror, but the back of the head that we see is actually a delivery man who showed up at RCA one day while they were working on the cover. They didn't have Nilsson pose for it because they didn't want him to know they were releasing the album (and he left the label after he found out).
  • Falling Bass: The detuning bass solo in the breakdown section of "Jump Into the Fire".
  • Football Fight Song: It's Major League Baseball instead of football, but "Yo Dodger Blue" ("L.A. loves you!") on Losst and Found is otherwise a perfect example
  • Fun with Acronyms: "Good Old Desk".
  • Generation Xerox: "1941".
  • God-Is-Love Songs: "Good Old Desk" (see Fun with Acronyms above), though it's pretty much admitted to be a joke. Not that it doesn't make a little bit of sense.
  • Green Aesop: "Cowboy", "Pretty Soon There'll Be Nothing Left for Everybody"
  • Grow Old with Me: "Down by the Sea" tackles this trope with a bit of irreverence:
    Now it's forty years after the laughs at the wedding
    And I'm dreading retirement, what would I do?
    The children are married and now the big question
    Is "Was it all worth it?" and who buries who?
    You bury me or I bury you?'
  • Halfway Plot Switch: Almost exactly halfway through, Son of Schmilsson's closing number "The Most Beautiful World in the World" changes from rock to a lush ballad, while the lyrics shift from talking about how the world sometimes sucks to how great it is.
  • Heavy Meta: "The Story of Rock and Roll", which he wrote but never formally recorded. It was a minor hit for The Turtles in 1968 (The Monkees also made an unfinished attempt at it).
  • Ironic Name: "Joy, to the world, was a beautiful girl, but to me Joy meant only sorrow."
  • Jukebox Musical: The 1977 London stage production of The Point! (starring Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) was a quasi-example. It was an Adaptation Expansion, with various songs from other Nilsson albums added, rewritten to fit the plot.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: "Moonshine Bandit"
    • "Pretty Soon There'll Be Nothing Left for Everybody" from Sandman.
  • Least Rhymable Word: "How To Write a Song"
    Don't try to rhyme silver with anything, yeah
    That goes for orange as well
    Now notice how cleverly I just used them both
    And all I have to do is rhyme well
  • Lyrical Cold Open: Most of the songs on The Point!, "Remember (Christmas)", "(Thursday) Here's Why I Did Not Go to Work Today".
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "Marchin' Down Broadway" is a super-cheery number about... celebrating America's victory over Japan in World War II.
    • The bouncy and wholesome-sounding "Cuddly Toy" was an obvious choice for Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz to sing as a duet when The Monkees covered it on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.. 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Aerial Ballet was named after the high-wire circus act of his Swedish grandparents.
  • New Sound Album:
    • Nilsson Schmilsson added extensive rock elements to his music for the first time, culminating with the Epic Rocking of "Jump into the Fire".
    • A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. Standards and traditional pop.
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: Son of Dracula, which was later re-released as Young Dracula in an obvious attempt to piggyback on Young Frankenstein's success. Nilsson was the second choice after David Bowie turned it down. Most fans think he acquits himself fairly well as an actor and is the only worthwhile thing in the whole movie.
  • One-Word Title: "One".
  • Only One Name: On many of his albums, he was credited as "Nilsson". (Which would make Harry a Pun-Based Title.)
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: "Don't Leave Me".
  • Pop-Star Composer: Of The Point and Popeye.
  • Posthumous Collaboration: Made a guest vocal appearance on the title track of the 2016 reunion album Good Times! by The Monkees, which he wrote. The music had been recorded in 1968 with Nilsson singing a guide vocal, and for the album they had Micky Dolenz record a new vocal track that got combined with Harry's voice.
  • The Power of Friendship: "Me and My Arrow".
  • 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 Explanation  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.
  • Repurposed Pop Song: "Coconut" was nothing less than a shoe-in for ads for Coke Lime.
  • Remix Album: Aerial Pandemonium Ballet from 1971 is one of the earliest examples. After the success of his album The Point, the record label considered rereleasing Nilsson's out-of-print early albums Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet. Nilsson felt those albums sounded outdated, so he remixed them and combined them into a single album. "It is a matter of intense debate among Nilsson fans whether this was a good idea."
  • Revenge of the Sequel: Son of Schmilsson.
  • 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 career Revisiting the Roots).
  • Scatting: An indelible part of his vocal style.
  • 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-Demonstrating Song: "How To Write a Song" from Sandman. Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • 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", though it's just taking its cues from the original version by Rick Christian, which is even more of a "Without You" soundalike.
    • 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.
  • Self-Titled Album: Harry.
  • Silly Love Songs: Though not as abundant as you'd believe.
  • 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.
  • Soprano and Gravel: Invoked in "Coconut".
  • Statuesque Stunner: "Jesus Christ You're Tall", in which the singer is smitten by a really tall woman, proposes that they marry and have tall children, who'll then have tall children of their own...and they'll all play basketball.
  • Studio Chatter: Featured on a few albums.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: "Who Done It?" is a quirky take on this.
    • Also "Ten Little Indians", where each Indian dies after violating one of the Ten Commandments.
  • Tenor Boy: His persona on his early albums.
  • Their First Time: His early song "This Could Be The Night", recorded by The Modern Folk Quartet in 1966 (but never formally recorded by Nilsson, save for a demo he did for The Monkees, at the behest of their producer Chip Douglas, who'd been a member of The Modern Folk Quartet), is unabashedly sung from the point of view of a teen boy who's certain that his girlfriend is going to finally have sex with him.
    Each time we kiss it takes a little bit longer
    And my love for you gets a little bit stronger
    And I feel like I'm-a-sittin' on dynamite
    So this could be the night
    The night I've waited for
  • Theme Naming: Notice all the albums with variations of "Nilsson" up there?
  • Train Song: "Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore"
  • Uncommon Time: "There Will Never Be" on Pandemonium Shadow Show starts off in 5/4 and toggles between that and 3/4 for the rest of the song.
  • Values Dissonance: Invoked for parody with several songs on Harry... a kind of super-sanitized chipper '50s worldview in the face of war, social changes, and more.
  • Vocal Evolution: Unfortunately, not the positive kind, as years of hard living made his voice deeper and hoarser over the course of his career.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: The subject of "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song", a one-time Teen Idol who's reduced to playing to audiences of his core admirers so small he knows them each by name.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Once in a while, with "Puget Sound" as a standout.
    In a cardboard town on the Puget Sound
    A crackerjack was jackin' up the bottom of a frown
    While a little wooden man and his tiny papermate
    Danced a crazy jigsaw puzzle and they laughed at all the hate

Alternative Title(s): Nilsson