Harry Nilsson’s greatest commercial successes consisted of the single Everybody’s Talkin’ and his great rock album Nilsson Schmilsson, but perhaps he is best remembered these days for being John Lennon’s drinking buddy in the infamous year-long “lost weekend”. Not bad, being famous for two marvelous achievements and notorious for one rather dubious one, but it’s long past time for Harry’s greatest contributions to be recognized. Those were three in number:
1. Arguably, excluding Roy Orbison, Harry Nilsson possessed the finest singing voice of his generation. With a range of three octaves, and the most expressive phrasing of any rock or pop singer, male or female, Harry was the most underrated singer of the last half of the twentieth century. He was The Beatles’ favorite American singer, and no less an arranger than Gordon Jenkins (who often worked with Sinatra) said he was the best singer alive.
Strange to say, Harry’s career was almost entirely confined to the recording studio and to television guest spots. He prided himself on being an amateur performer, meaning he never toured, he never played for concert or arena audiences, and he never accepted money for his appearances. He was however a recording studio genius, who created brilliant multi-tracking work which featured his own voice as soloist, while supplying both the backup singing and large choral effects. Of course, Harry had the most advanced ninth-grade education in history behind him.
2. His 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman is a work of the highest artistic quality, consisting of Nilsson’s vocals and Randy Newman as songwriter and pianist. The album sold slightly, but was selected by the influential Stereo Review magazine as Album of the Year in their pop category. It is by no means a pop album; it is more an art album or a lieder performance. The songwriting is deceptively plain and the lyrics simple, but the songs and Harry’s singing are unforgettable. I’ve been listening to this album regularly for a few decades now, and with any luck I’ll have the privilege of auditioning it for the next thirty or forty years. It will be time well spent. At first listen you might well think the tunes could have been written in the early 20th century (an effect I believe Randy Newman was consciously striving for), but a few hearings will convince you that these songs are as contemporary and as meaningful today as any current release.
Standout tracks should not be named as this album is an organic whole unlike any other, excepting of course another Nilsson album mentioned below. I am compelled to say, though, that “Living Without You”, however, is a stone-cold masterpiece and the closing number, “So Long Dad”, is filled with Newman’s trademark irony and Nilsson’s delicious and seemingly offhand vocals. No other singer alive today could present this material in the inimitable and superlative Nilsson manner.
3. Harry’s 1973 album A Little Touch of Schmilsson In The Night is a work that presaged Willie Nelson’s Stardust and Linda Ronstadt’s tryptych of standards Round Midnight by several years. While the Willie and Linda works sound quite dated now, Harry’s album by contrast is destined to be more and more appreciated As Time Goes By, if you will excuse the pun. Here he sings with full 39-piece orchestra, and the splendid arrangements of Gordon Jenkins provide incredible accompaniment in a dynamic, thoughtful and romantic setting.
Jenkins had previously arranged work for everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. Jenkins said that the songs on this album, dating mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, have never received a better interpretation than that provided by Nilsson. This is extravagant praise coming from a man of considerable musical talent himself. Listen to Harry singing Lazy Moon, a tune once recorded by Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy. Harry sings all of the album’s material with great love, but none more so than on this song as Hardy was one of his heroes. The innovative and masterful creation of this album is evidenced in the intros to each song, each of which is taken from another song on the album; the effect renders a symphonic construction, a seamless and unforgettable transition from one number to another which leaves the listener spellbound. This album is one of the mostly finely thought-out sequences of material ever imagined and executed in popular song.
When you hear Harry sing the lines “Fine at the start but left with a heart that is breaking” and “Beautiful girls, walk a little slower when you walk by me” you are hearing a singer at the peak of vocal artistry: this from a man who also gave us in Nilsson Schmilsson some of the greatest pop and rock singing ever in “Without You” and “Jump Into The Fire” and “Everybody’s Talkin'”. No one else I can think was ever held in such high regard simultaneously by symphony players and The Beatles and musicians such as rock drummer Jim Gordon and producer Richard Perry and well, you name it, they all loved Harry Nilsson.
The gatefold cover has some beautiful touches. The front cover features an Oliver and Hardy gag (Nilsson is showing using his thumb as a lighter). Open the cover and you are treated to several marvelous pictures of Nilsson and the musicians. The back cover is an artistic treasure, featuring a cartoon drawing for each song, accompanied by notes on the song’s origin.
Harry has a passionate fan club, as is evidenced by the terrific (by invitation only) website www.fortheloveofharry.blogspot.com, but he deserves several million more listeners. Secure these recording in any format available, but for God’s sake don’t stream merely one or two tunes. Harry made albums and he made them carefully, so indulge yourself with the whole enchilada.
You may not get Nilsson right away; but open yourself to wonder at the beauty and range of his voice and you may learn to appreciate his imaginative choice of material.