Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson

Synopsis of Pop Music

"Well I can't forget this evening,
And your face as you were leaving,
But I guess that's just the way the story goes..."

When reporters asked the Beatles who their favorite musician was in 1967, they gave their answer without hesitation: Harry Nilsson. Although people didn’t know him by name, this singer/songwriter’s songs were already familiar thanks to cover versions by performers like the Monkees. Just the same, Harry Nilsson would soon be wowing pop listeners around the world with his amazing three-octave range as he scored hits with songs like “Everybody’s Talkin” and “Without You.” In the process, he became one of the most influential pop musicians of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

Although he was born in New York, Harry Nilsson moved to Los Angeles with his family in his early teens. In this city, he blossomed as a musical talent. By the time his teen years ended, he was working as a musician during the day and moonlighting as a night-shift bank employee. He branched out into songwriting, and his tunes were soon being recorded by performers like the Monkees, the Yardbirds and Glen Campbell. However, he still yearned to be a performer and used his success as a songwriter to get his own recording contract in 1967.

Harry Nilsson made his debut as a recording artist with Pandemonium Shadow Show. This sprightly collection of songs mixed pop and rock elements in a way that made his music feel timeless. Indeed, songs like the cello-driven love lament “Without Her” and brass-heavy memoir “1941” could have been hits in any era of pop music. This album also contained “You Can’t Do That,” a unique medley that wove bits of several Beatles songs into a tune that sounded oddly familiar and yet unlike any of the songs it borrowed from. The Beatles loved it and were soon singing Nilsson’s praises to the press.

In 1968, Harry Nilsson wrote his first soundtrack for the comedy Skidoo. It contained one of his prettiest ballads, the lushly-orchestrated “I Will Take You There.” One of the most unique songs on the album was “Cast and Crew,” in which Nilsson put the film’s end credits to music and sang them. Nilsson also recorded Aerial Ballet in 1968, another lovely collection of baroque pop songs highlighted by Nilsson’s gorgeous cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” This touching song about homesickness became Nilsson’s first hit single and was also used in the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy.

In 1969, Three Dog Night scored a big hit with their rocking cover of the Nilsson song “One.” Meanwhile, Harry Nilsson branched out into television by doing music for the show The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. He also penned and performed its unforgettable theme song, the rollicking “Good Friend.” The next year, Nilsson wrote the score and songs for the classic animated television special The Point. Despite all the television activity, Nilsson also found the time to effortlessly churn out delightful pop albums like Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman.

By this point, Nilsson had experienced success as both a singer and a songwriter. However, he would become a true star with the release of Nilsson Schmilsson in 1971. This album brought a new slickness to his sound and it quickly spawned an array of hits. The first was the gorgeous lost-love ballad “Without You,” a cover of a song by Badfinger that made perfect use of Nilsson’s extraordinary vocal range. “Coconut,” a comical calypso tune about a jungle cure for a stomachache, also became a Top-10 hit. The uncharacteristically hard-rocking “Jump Into The Fire” gave the album one more Top-30 hit.

Harry Nilsson scored another hit album in 1972 with Son Of Schmilsson, which featured a pop hit in the orchestral sci-fi fantasy “Spaceman.” The next year, he covered pre-rock pop classics on A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. For this album, he utilized Frank Sinatra’s musical arranger Gordon Jenkins to create lush versions of songs like “As Time Goes By” and “Over The Rainbow,” delivering some of his best-ever vocals.

Harry Nilsson returned to modern pop in 1974 with Pussy Cats, a mixture of oldies and originals produced by Nilsson’s good friend John Lennon. He also appeared with Ringo Starr in the horror spoof Son Of Dracula. Plenty of Nilsson songs graced its soundtrack, including a reggae-flavored original entitled “Daybreak,” which became a Top-40 hit when released as a single. Nilsson continued to record until 1977, closing out his career on RCA records with Knnillssonn. It contained the heart-melting love song “Perfect Day,” which was later used in the film All That Jazz.

At this point, Nilsson took a few years off to enjoy his recent marriage. He return in 1980 by writing the score for the Robin Williams comedy Popeye. Nilsson's next album of originals, Flash Harry, contained “Brighter Side Of Life,” a song written by Nilsson’s comedian friend Eric Idle. A few years later, Idle would revive this song with his collaborators in Monty Python for the finale of the classic comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

For the rest of the 1980’s, Nilsson pretty much retired from the music business. He spent much time working for gun-control causes in honor of his friend John Lennon and also opened a successful film production company. In the 1990’s, Nilsson decided to return to solo work after contributing songs to The Fisher King soundtrack. However, Nilsson passed away from a heart ailment during the sessions for his comeback album. A year later, friends and fans like Brian Wilson and Aimee Mann paid homage to Nilsson on the tribute album For The Love Of Harry.

All in all, Harry Nilsson’s ability to create a timeless pop sound has left an indelible mark on pop culture. A good example of this phenomenon is how often Nilsson’s songs pop up in films. A short of list of recent films using Nilsson’s songs would include Goodfellas (“Jump Into The Fire”), Reservoir Dogs (“Coconut”), You’ve Got Mail (“I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City”) and High Fidelity (“The Moonbeam Song”). These examples are all very different kinds of films, yet Nilsson’s classic sound fits them like a glove in each case. This is as good a testament as any to how wonderful and timeless his music truly is.

Artist Release History

1967 - Pandemonium Shadow Show
1968 - Aerial Ballet
1968 - Skidoo
1969 - Midnight Cowboy
1969 - Harry
1970 - Nilsson Sings Newman
1970 - The Point
1971 - Nilsson Schmilsson
1971 - Aerial Pandemonium Ballet
1972 - Son of Schmilsson
1973 - A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night
1974 - Son of Dracula
1974 - Pussy Cats
1975 - Duit on Mon Dei
1975 - Sandman
1976 - That's the Way It Is
1977 - Knnillssonn
1978 - All-Time Greatest Hits
1979 - Night After Night
1988 - A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night
1996 - Presence of Christmas

Pop Sub Categories


Essential Music Albums

Nilsson Schmilsson (RCA)
Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology (RCA)

Band Members

Harry Nilsson  vocals

Other Pop Music Links