Singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson moved to California with his family when he was a child and, after graduating from an L.A. parochial school, became a processor at a Van Nuys, California, bank. In the meantime, he learned guitar and piano. By the mid-'60s, using the Nilsson name for his musical persona, he was writing songs, trying to sell them during the day while working nights at the bank. He sold three tunes to Phil Spector; two were recorded by the Ronettes and one by the Modern Folk Quartet. Nilsson also earned extra money by singing on demos and in radio commercials, and in 1967 he signed with RCA. While Nilsson was recording his debut LP, his "Cuddly Toy" became a hit for the Monkees, as his "One" would be for Three Dog Night in 1969.
Despite extravagant critical acclaim, Shadow Show sold poorly. However, it did bring a call from London one night: "It's John…John Lennon. Just want to tell you your album is great! You're great!" Later, Brian Epstein made an unsuccessful attempt to woo Nilsson from RCA to Apple. At a press conference for the launching of the Apple label, the Beatles answered "Nilsson" when asked who their favorite artist and group were.
Aerial Ballet fared better, as it included the smash hit "Everybody's Talkin'," a Fred Neil song that stayed in the U.S. Top 10 much of 1969 and was the theme song for the film Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson had written another song intended to be that film's theme, "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" — a #34 hit in 1969. Harry sold fairly well, too, and Nilsson composed scores for Otto Preminger's film Skidoo (1968), for which he sang the closing credits, and the TV sitcom The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969). Nilsson would later write and sing an original score for the animated TV movie The Point, which yielded the #34 hit "Me and My Arrow." (A 1976 London stage production of The Point would unite ex-Monkees Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz.) Nilsson never performed a public concert, and he only rarely made televised appearances.
In 1970 Nilsson recorded an album of his friend Randy Newman's compositions. Though critically acclaimed, it sold little. The next year, though, Nilsson achieved his commercial breakthrough with Nilsson Schmilsson, which, with the #1 hit version of Badfinger's "Without You," eventually went platinum. The "Schmilsson" persona, a sort of schmaltzy alter ego, returned on subsequent LPs like the gold Son of Schmilsson; Nilsson proudly announced that he was recording with Frank Sinatra's arranger, Gordon Jenkins. As time went on, Nilsson never quite matched Schmilsson's success. Still, several hits followed: "Coconut" (#8, 1972), "Jump Into the Fire" (#27, 1972), and "Space Man" (#23, 1972).
He made the Son of Dracula (1974) film with Ringo Star, then became Lennon's drinking buddy during the ex-Beatle's separation from his wife, Yoko Ono. During this time, the two recorded Pussy Cats, an album of old rock & roll songs. Nilsson faded from the recording scene during the '80s, straightened out, started a family, and pursued business interests, which included a Hollywood-based film distribution company. After John Lennon's murder, Nilsson became a gun-control advocate, joining the Washington, DC-based Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence. He made a low-key return to recording with 1988's A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night, on which he sang such pop standards as "Over the Rainbow" and "It's Only a Paper Moon." In 1993 he suffered a heart attack, which inspired him to begin writing and recording again in earnest, even though he had no contract. Just a few days after finishing a new album, and with producer Al Kooper already working on a Nilsson tribute album, he died of heart disease at age 52, leaving behind a wife and seven children. The 1995 tribute album For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson featured Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, Adrian Belew, and others.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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