Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Harry Nelson, 15 June 1941 NYC; 15 January 1994 near Los Angeles) Singer, songwriter. He grew up on the West Coast and worked in a bank while he tried commercial songwriting; he had limited success with songs for the Ronettes and others, and also wrote jingles and sang on demos. His debut album Pandemonium Shadow Show '67 on RCA provided hits for the Monkees ('Cuddly Toy') and Three Dog Night ('One'); it didn't sell particularly well, but was the beginning of a cult, and enabled him to give up the bank job. His wacky sense of humour led to friendships with John Lennon and the equally wacky UK disc jockey Kenny Everett. Aerial Ballet '68 shared its predecessor's whimsy, including Randy Newman's 'Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear', also a hit single in Fred Neil's 'Everybody's Talkin' ', used in the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack and a no. 6 hit USA/ 23 UK (his own projected theme for the film, 'I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City', also made the USA top 40).

Meanwhile his songs were being covered, 'Ten Little Indians' by the Yardbirds, '1941' by Tom Northcott, etc. After soundtracks Skidoo and The Point, the latter an animated TV film (and later a musical show), and albums Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman (with Randy Newman on piano) and Aerial Pandemonium Ballet (a compilation of his first two albums), all '69-71, he hit the jackpot with 'Without You', written by Badfinger's Tom Evans and Pete Ham and acquired through the Apple connection: the no. 1 hit boosted Nilsson Schmilsson to no. 3, but the album was his most coherent and deserved to do well. It also included his third and last top ten hit 'Coconut' in his whimsical style (later used by Quentin Tarantino in the soundtrack of Reservoir Dogs), but now the wit that Lennon had admired was replaced by the breathy ballad style of the big hit. Son Of Schmilsson '72 also did well. He was also one of the era's geniuses in the studio, stretching the technology, often recording a great many takes, knowing what he was going to do with each one when he got them all together.

Being able to give up his bank job and move to London, Nilsson pursued a riotous lifestyle; Cass Elliott (of the mamas and the Papas) and Keith Moon (The Who's drummer) both died of overindulgence (four years apart) in his flat. He sold the flat to Pete Townshend, but continued to spend several months each year in London. A Little Touch Of Schmillson In The Night '73 was a set of standards with Gordon Jenkins which made the top 50 LPs; Son Of Dracula '74 was a soundtrack with Ringo Starr (for whom he'd sessioned on Ringo '73) and a relative flop; no. 60 LP Pussycats '74 was a set of rock covers produced by Lennon; the rest of his LPs did not reach the top 200 albums and lacked the individual touches of his earlier work: Duit On Mon Dei, Sandman, That's The Way It Is and Knnillssohn '75-7, plus The World's Greatest Lover (did not chart at all) and Greatest Hits '76 (including 'Kojak Columbo', not a hit but a throwback to the old humour). An album called Flash Harry was released in the UK but not in the USA. Yet some say that he did some of his best singing on the later albums, and that they were not promoted very well. Along the way he contributed to Robert Altman's Popeye (1980), and later dabbled in film distribution. When he died he was working on Personal Best, a two-disc compilation of his RCA work. Nillson was a talent who never took himself too seriously; his death of a heart attack at a young age was a shock.

There was a story going around that it was Nilsson using the name Jimmy Cross who sent up the teenage death-song genre (Jody Reynolds's 'Endless Sleep' etc) with 'I Want My Baby Back': the singer digs up his girlfriend's coffin and gets inside it to sing the last chorus; the single on the Tollie label reached the Hot 100 '65. The story seems to be a red herring: some editions of Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles said that Cross played a bit part in the film The Amazing Colossal Man in 1957, but the Internet Movie Data Base says that that actor's years were 1907-81. It seems more likely that (as Wikipedia says) this Cross was an American radio producer and singer (17 November 1938; 8 October 1978). The story about Cross being Nilsson did not appear in the first edition of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music in 1989, but was included in the 1998 edition, which leads this author to believe that he cribbed it from an obituary after Nilsson died. Kenny Everett (1944-95) once described the Cross record as the worst he had ever heard; one wonders if he may have been the source of the story, playing a prank on Nilsson. Unfortunately we can't ask either of them. Alyn Shipton is writing what will be the definitive biography, with the cooperation of the Nillson estate, and no doubt will sort it all out.