Harry Nilsson deserves to be one very important songwriter to any fan of melody and pop music from the 20th Century. He was known to many by hits such as ”ËEverybody’s Talkin’ and ”ËCoconut’ amongst a career of numerous perfect yet experimental pop melodies.
As well as an illustrious career in song-writing he was also circling with the most iconic pop culture social groups of the 1970s. He partied and caused chaos with John Lennon, who praised Nilsson’s material consistently throughout his career, and both Keith Moon and Mamas and Papas singer Cass Elliot’s separate deaths occurred in his London flat, which was later sold to Pete Townshend due to Nilsson’s unease about the events caused in his absence. He was also part of the extraordinary yet very real and raw bootleg studio sessions of ”ËA Toot And a Snore In 1974′, involving the only reunion of Lennon and McCartney, post-Beatles, joined by Stevie Wonder amongst others in what appears on record to be an experimental drug fuelled jam session.
“In 1941, the happy father had a son
And in 1944 the father walked right out the door”Â
The son’s name was Harry Edward Nilsson III, born to a poor family in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, New York. At the time Bushwick was known as a rather rough area to grow up in, as Nilsson himself admitted it was “a crummy place to grow up if you’re blonde and white”Â. In 1944 his father abandoned the family, leaving Nilsson’s mother, Bette to raise 3 year old Harry, and later his younger half-brother and sister. This would later be reflected through Nilsson’s music frequently in tracks such as ”Ë1941′ and ”ËDaddy’s Song’. Ultimately the uncanny resemblance to John Lennon’s life evidently drew the two musicians together, leaving them with an extraordinary bond beyond the appreciation and admiration for one another’s music.
Nilsson was renowned later in his life for his strong yet easily identifiable vocals that would later benefit him on Grammy award winning single, ”ËEverybody’s Talkin’. These vocal skills were developed at an early age by one of Harry’s only male role models in his early life, Uncle John. Of course he already had the natural talent there, but the encouragement from his uncle clearly gave the young Nilsson boy the confidence and ability to become a professional, something that would carve his later career and his main attraction and ability leading him towards commercial success.
His career would go from super pop star from one fluke cover to experimental extremes. His 1969 folk-rock hit ”ËEverybody’s Talkin’ was a clean and heavenly Fred Neil cover that swiftly drove Nilsson to global fame. The song would feature on the soundtrack for the film, Midnight Cowboy and later Nilsson was awarded a Grammy for his iconic vocal performance. Like most artists who find success with a cover, Nilsson would deny this is what made him successful and rejected this as his greatest work.
During the early 1970s Nilsson worked closely on studio time and rarely played live shows. He recorded the iconic and still powerful today ”ËNilsson Schmilsson’ album most notably featuring tracks such as ”ËCoconut’ and ”ËWithout You’, the screaming and heartbreaking Badfinger anthem that would later be covered and covered and covered again by the corporate pop world, and in the present day can be heard being mutilated by the X-Factor pop puppets on an almost yearly basis. I believe the track defines Harry Nilsson’s vocal ability. Although he is much more than just a singer, this track shows the strength and deep-rooted talent that initially attracts people to him. At points he reaches notes that sound unreachable, but his voice never breaks. Harry Nilsson was a vocal experimentalist of his time, and saw no limits to where he could go next. Not only were the other album tracks melodic, genius and absolutely hilarious, but he could sing with raw passion and with unique flair.
As the 70s progressed, much like Lennon and Harrison, Nilsson moved away from the material world, and joined with Lennon on drunken and drug-fuelled antics, most notably an incident in the Troubadour Nightclub in West Hollywood where the two mavericks were kicked out for drunken heckling and property damage.
The bond between Nilsson and Lennon grew stronger and eventually reflected in his art. Lennon produced Nilsson’s album Pussy Cats, featuring ex-Beatle, Ringo Starr and associate from their time in Hamburg, Klaus Voormann. On a personal level, I love this period of his work. The clear Lennon influenced echo and raw emotion is prevalent throughout the album and the combination of the two true artists on one LP is something that amazes me as a listener.
Today, on what would be Nilsson’s 71st birthday, I’m paying tribute to one of my favourite artists. Although I wasn’t yet on this earth to enjoy this truly stunning musician and song-writer, I feel he will always be a huge influence to me in how I develop my music taste. Much like John Lennon, he never had the perfect upbringing, or even the ideal adulthood, but his honest reflection of this in his art was admirable and touching. I will be talking about Harry Nilsson for the rest of my life.