Cautionary Tales: Harry Nilsson

By Matthew Greenwald 07/22/15

The booze and cocaine downfall of The Beatles' favorite songwriter.

Harry Nilsson
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“Harry spent a lot of time in search of a good time…and he caught it, and it caught him in the end…” Eric Idle

As Tom Smothers mentions at the beginning of the excellent documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), people either get who he is right away, or have no idea who you’re talking about. Although known as one of the finest songwriters of the 1960s and '70s, the two songs he will probably be remembered for the most are “Without You” (originally written by members of classic British pop-masters Badfinger), and “Everybody’s Talkin’” (from the Academy Award-winning film Midnight Cowboy, which was written by cult folk genius Fred Neil). Both songs won Grammy awards.

However, his own compositions became huge hits for other artists: “One” by Three Dog Night, “Cuddly Toy” by The Monkees, and although not a huge hit on its own, Harry’s epic "This Could Be the Night” (a collaboration with none other than Phil Spector), was the theme song for the popular 1966 TNT pop concert film. It remained Rodney Bingenheimer’s theme song for his weekly radio show on KROQ. It’s also known as one of Brian Wilson’s favorite all-time songs.

None of Harry’s career was what you’d call "conventional" in the pop world. For instance, he never performed live, and like most musicians—then and now—he never made touring or concerts a part of his career. However, he had genuine success in all fields of entertainment: records, films, television, stage, and of course, songwriting.

Harry was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and grew up in abject poverty, living in a cramped apartment with uncles, aunts, cousins and a half-sister. Harry’s mother told him that his father died a war hero, but the truth was that he never really returned from war as a merchant seaman, and divorced his wife when Harry was about four. Harry’s mother, Betty, had her own issues—a gregarious woman who had no trouble finding male companionship. She was also a chronic alcoholic and had a serious habit of writing bad checks throughout the country, which eventually caught up with her, and she served jail time more than once. Harry also had an uncle and grandfather who drank as well, so this was obviously a family problem.

By the time he was in his teens, Harry had followed his mother to the Left Coast, and found a bit of independence working at his uncle’s garage. His uncle was apparently a very gifted singer, and taught Harry the basics of harmony, pitch and vocal delivery. Harry soon developed a 3½ octave range, which could either rumble the ground or break glass. He gradually learned piano and guitar; he was a natural.

After a stint working at the Paramount Theatre in both LA and the Bay Area, he scored very high in computer aptitude tests, and secured a solid job at Security First National Bank in Van Nuys, eventually becoming head of the computer processing department, supervising the processing of over $200 million in checks nightly on the "swing shift."

During the day, he made rounds through the LA record industry, writing songs, recording demos and singing commercial jingles; some of these included ads for Ban deodorant, Red Roof Inn, and others. During this period (’62-’66), he had minor record deals with the Mercury and Tower labels (affiliated with Capitol) not much happened with these releases, but there was indeed some potential. “Good Times” from the Tower sessions is one of the finest examples of his early work:

During this period, Nilsson briefly worked with Phil Spector, writing and recording several tracks, many went unreleased until Spector’s 1991 box set. However, the aforementioned “This Could Be The Night” became an underground LA classic recorded by The Modern Folk Quartet:

As nice as that is, the original Nilsson demo (with false start) is even more impressive:

At the beginning of 1967, Nilsson signed with RCA, a label he stayed with for 11 years and where he had his first real success. Soon after signing, he got a huge break auditioning several of his songs for The Monkees, who were selling about four million copies per album. The group were highly impressed with Harry’s songs, and cut “Cuddly Toy” for the late 1967 album, Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. The album easily floated up to the Top 10. Harry finally quit the bank.

Although his RCA debut was not a massive success, word was getting around about Nilsson, especially through Derek Taylor, who became a lifetime friend and confidant of Harry’s. Taylor had been The Beatles' press officer in ’62-4 but left to come to LA to be a freelance publicist, handling The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Monterey Pop Festival and other important events; his British connections, however, remained strong. Before returning to Britain to run The Beatles’ Apple publicity, he sent several copies of Harry’s debut to The Fabs, among others, who raved over it.

In May of 1968, Lennon and McCartney came to the US to officially launch their own Apple Records conglomerate. When asked who their favorite American songwriter was, The Beatles immediately replied, “Nilsson; Nilsson for President!” Asked who their favorite group was they also replied, “Nilsson, he’s also our favorite group…”

You know what happened next; all hell broke loose in Harry’s career. It was a blur of success after success. Three Dog Night took Harry’s “One” into the Top 5. The Beatles had Harry over to England during the White Album sessions; while there, McCartney had Harry write a song for an act he was producing for Apple named Mary Hopkin. The song “The Puppy Song” was the follow-up to her international smash record, “Those Were The Days.” Director John Schlesinger selected “Everybody’s Talkin'” as the theme song for Midnight Cowboy—over Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay.” It was during this period that cocaine and booze became part of Harry’s daily intake.

Soon after this, Nilsson involved himself in two television projects; one was the music for the hugely successful Courtship Of Eddy’s Father. Following this, he wrote and performed the music for an animated feature for children of all ages, The Point, which eventually became a stage production many times through the decades—even to the present day.

In 1971, he recorded, in partnership with producer Richard Perry, the biggest album of his career, Nilsson Schmilsson, which sold over three million copies and contained three Top-10 hits including one of the greatest pop anthems ever,  “Without You”:

According to producer Richard Perry, at this moment, Harry was arguably the finest white male singer on the planet. But during the follow-up album (Son Of Schmilsson), his drinking and cocaine use reached prodigious levels. His wife left him, taking their young son with her. Although his friendships with John Lennon and Ringo Starr were very close, the Nilsson album that Lennon produced (Pussy Cats) did not fare well, neither did several that followed. Harry was also losing his voice due to his excesses. A bright spot appeared when he met a young Irish girl named Una; the two married and had six children.

For a brief period, Harry cut down on his excesses and cut one last wonderful album, Knnillssonn, which was a tremendous return to form. RCA knew they had something of Harry’s they could promote, and started to…but a couple of weeks later, RCA’s other big artist, Elvis Presley, died and so did any promotion muscle the label had behind Nilsson's comeback record.

The last decade of Harry’s life was riddled with physical setbacks (two major heart attacks) and embezzlement of several million dollars by his “trusted” accountant. None of this helped prolong his life, and ultimately, his excesses caught up with him. To end this article, though, it would only be fitting to close out with one of the standouts of the exquisite, somewhat lost 1977 masterpiece, Knnillssonn. This would have been the single, had things worked out differently. Harry, all I think about is you…

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California. He last wrote about The Byrds.

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