There was a time I listed my Top Three artists as Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, and Harry Nilsson. Who knew that Sinatra would outlive the other two?
I first learned of Harry Nilsson the same way much of ‘Merka did, when The Beatles name-checked him twice during their ’68 press conference to announce the formation of Apple. Wait! What? Who? The Harry Nilsson Web Pages picks up the story:
The album came to the attention of the Beatles (through Derek Taylor their press agent). At the press conference to announce the formation of Apple, the Beatles were asked “Who is your favorite American artist?” to which John Lennon replied, “Harry Nilsson.” When asked “What is your favorite American group?” Paul McCartney replied, “Harry Nilsson.”
Harry’s arrangement of “You Can’t Do That” weaves some 20-something other Beatles’ songs in and around the Lennon-McCartney melody.It needs to be heard to know why The Beatles were so knocked out by it.
The great irony of Harry Nilsson’s all-too-short artistic career is that while he is an amazing songwriter, the two songs he is best known for were not written by him: “Without You” was written by two of the members of Badfinger and was originally recorded by that group, while “Everybody’s Talkin'” was written by Fred Neil.
That’s why we’ll start with songs Harry wrote. Here’s a rare version of “Coconut” created for one of his his BBC shows. All vocals are Harry re-recorded specifically for this ‘video’ and the instrumentation is minimalist. to say the least:
Many people have covered Nilsson’s “One.” His version followed by the obscure Chris Clark on the even more obscure Motown subsidiary label Weed, because that’s what this LP was apparently fueled by.
Here is a rare tee vee appearance of Harry’s on The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour. Harry was a good friend of The Smothers Bothers, which is why he thought he and John Lennon could heckle them at The Troubadour, but we won’t rehash THAT story. “Think About Your Troubles,” the second song here, is personally one of my favourite Harry Nilsson songs. I like the circular story. I like how it sums up this larger dynamic than the listener and then says, “You think you’re the center of the universe? Well, I got news for you.” The third song is from the upcoming “The Point” cartoon, which is remembered fondly by many big kids.
Another rarity from his BBC tee vee special is this medley of three covers intertwined, Walk Right Walk, Cathy’s Clown, Let The Good Times Roll all recorded with 3-part harmony done by Harry himself.
Here’s the very obscure Miss Butter’s Lament, written by fellow Canadian Bob Segarini.
When Harry Met John resulted in Pussy Cats, an album that marked the nadir of Harry’s career. Yet there are still some true gems on this LP. Harry makes his ravaged voice work for this incredibly emotional cover of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross.
I could go on and on, but this makes a good starting point for Harry Nilsson if you are just getting to know him.
*1941, by Harry Nilsson