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Harry Nilsson

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Biography

Although he synthesized disparate elements of both rock and pop traditions, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson was at heart a maverick whose allegiance belonged to neither. His initial series of albums in the late '60s made him a personal favorite of the Beatles, who found a natural affinity with his knack for catchy melodies, witty lyrics, and extraordinary vocal range. Thought of as a songwriter first and a performer second, he became a pop star himself in the late '60s and early '70s with "Everybody's Talking" and "Without You." He lost some of his original audience, however, with subsequent detours into pre-rock styles of pop, and did little recording over the last 15 years of his life. Nilsson had been struggling to make inroads into the music business for over five years before his critically acclaimed 1967 album, Pandemonium Shadow Show. He made demos, sang commercial jingles, and shopped songs, all the while keeping his job at a Los Angeles-area bank. In the mid-'60s, he wrote a few songs with Phil Spector that were recorded by the Ronettes and the Modern Folk Quartet; occasionally he released records of his own. The Monkees recorded his "Cuddly Toy," and the Yardbirds did "Ten Little Indians" on a single in their waning days. But Nilsson didn't quit his bank job until after the release of Pandemonium Shadow Show, which gave him creative rein in the studio for the first time, and showcased his three-and-a-half-octave voice to full advantage. The album caught the attention of the Beatles (helped, no doubt, by its ingenious medley of classic Beatle tunes, "You Can't Do That"). John Lennon and Paul McCartney named him as their favorite American singer at a press conference, an extraordinary accolade for an unknown. (Nilsson was sometimes even rumored to be joining the group.) Three Dog Night took his "One" into the Top Ten in 1969, and Nilsson's second LP, Aerial Ballet, continued the ambitious pop/rock direction of his debut, marrying his slightly eccentric, bouncy (if sometimes precious) tunes to baroque orchestral production. When one of its songs, "Everybody's Talkin'," was used as the theme for the Midnight Cowboy film, Nilsson had his first Top Ten hit. The irony was that, although Nilsson was primarily identified as a singer/songwriter, the song was actually a cover of a composition by folk-rocker Fred Neil. But Nilsson would never be content to be pigeonholed into definite categories, as demonstrated by his two 1970 albums. One was devoted entirely to covers of songs by Randy Newman (then just emerging as a performer); another was his soundtrack to an animated children's special, The Point (including the hit "Me and My Arrow"). And it was another cover (of a Badfinger album track) that gave him his biggest single, the number one smash "Without You." Yet Nilsson didn't cash in on his stardom in a conventional manner; he never performed in concert (there were occasional television appearances), preferring to craft his artistry in the studio. "Without You" appeared on 1971's Nilsson Schmilsson, which included a couple of other hits, the faux-tropical "Coconut" and the surprisingly gritty "Jump Into the Fire," which rates as his hardest-rocking cut. During the first half of the 1970s, he continued to broaden his range from the well-crafted, peppy, sensitive tunes that had dotted his early releases, cutting some tougher, more sour work. He lost some of his constituency, however, with 1973's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, a collection of pre-rock pop standards with an orchestra conducted by arranger Gordon Jenkins (most noted for his work with Frank Sinatra). His affection for the music wasn't entirely surprising, as there had always been a strong Tin Pan Alley flavor to much of his writing, but it wasn't exactly in step with the times. Much of Nilsson's notoriety stems from a period in the mid-'70s when he was a drinking buddy of John Lennon in Los Angeles (where Lennon was living during a separation from Yoko Ono). The drunken pair were thrown out of L.A.'s Troubadour club in a well-publicized incident, following which Lennon offered to produce Nilsson's next album. The timing was not opportune; Nilsson lost his voice during the sessions, rupturing one of his vocal cords, keeping it a secret out of fear that Lennon would abandon the project. Released as Pussy Cats, it was his last album to make the Top 100. During the same period, he also embarked on a project with another L.A.-based ex-Beatle, Ringo Starr, acting and writing music for the little-seen Son of Dracula film. The upper register of Nilsson's voice, which was ultimately his greatest asset, had been permanently (though not irredeemably) damaged. After a few rather unsuccessful late-'70s album, Nilsson withdrew from the studio into family life and other business ventures, spending much of his energies campaigning for gun control after Lennon was shot in 1980. In failing health in the 1990s, diagnosed with diabetes and suffering a massive heart attack, he died in early 1994, just after finishing the vocal tracks for a new album. ~ Richie Unterberger
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Top Tracks

  1.   Track
    Popularity
  2.   Everybody's Talkin'
  3.   Without You
  4.   Coconut
  5.   Me and My Arrow
  6.   Gotta Get Up
  7.   One
  8.   I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City
  9.   Jump Into the Fire
  10.   You're Breakin' My Heart
  11.   Spaceman
  12.   Best Friend
  13.   You Can't Do That
  14.   She Sang Hymns Out of Tune
  15.   Subterranean Homesick Blues
  16.   Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga
  17.   Let the Good Times Roll
  18.   The Puppy Song
  19.   1941
  20.   City Life
  21.   Ain't It Kinda Wonderful
  22.   The Moonbeam Song
  23.   Girlfriend
  24.   As I Wander Lonely
  25.   Together
  26.   Harry featuring Charlie Dore
  27.   Pussy Cats Radio Spots by Eddie Lawrence
  28.   Early in the Morning
  29.   Joy
  30.   Living Without You
  31.   Remember (Christmas)
  32.   Mr. Bojangles
  33.   Marchin' Down Broadway
  34.   Love Story
  35.   She's Leaving Home
  36.   Jesus Christ You're Tall
  37.   Bath
  38.   Per Chi
  39.   It Is He Who Will Be King (Outro)/Daybreak
  40.   So You Think You've Got Troubles
  41.   It's Been So Long
  42.   Don't Let Me
  43.   Aerial Ballet Radio Spot
  44.   Driving Along
  45.   Oblio's Return (Narration)
  46.   The Pointed Man (Narration)
  47.   Life Line
  48.   The Clearing in the Woods (Narration)
  49.   Down
  50.   Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)
  51.   End Title Medley by Thomas Pierson
  52.   Fairfax Rag
  53.   How Can I Be Sure
  54.   Lazy Moon
  55.   It's a Jungle Out There
  56.   Ballin' the Jack
  57.   I'd Rather Be Me
  58.   Sail With Me
  59.   Everybody's Got to Eat
  60.   The Path That Leads to Trouble
  61.   She Drifted Away
  62.   Leave the Rest to Molly
  63.   Feet
  64.   A Souvenir (Also Sprach Schmilsson Schmixon)
  65.   Lucille
  66.   Searchin'
  67.   This Could Be the Night
  68.   Ballin' the Jack
  69.   Sweet Lorraine by Dr. John
  70.   A Tree Out in the Yard (Central Park)
  71.   Son of Schmilsson Radio Spot
  72.   Nisson Schmilsson Radio Spots
  73.   BBC Saturday Club Introduction featuring Brian Matthew
  74.   Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear
  75.   Lullabye in Ragtime
  76.   You Can't Take Your Love (Away From Me)
  77.   She's Yours
  78.   I'm Gonna Lose My Mind
  79.   Growin' Up
  80.   Do You Believe
  81.   Born in Grenada
  82.   Thursday or, Here's Why I Did Not Go to Work Today
  83.   Bright Side of Life
  84.   How Long Can Disco On
  85.   It's So Easy
  86.   I've Got It
  87.   Rain
  88.   I Don't Need You
  89.   Old Dirt Road
  90.   Best Move
  91.   Cheek to Cheek
  92.   Vine Street
  93.   Take 54
  94.   Will She Miss Me
  95.