'It's funny – when you start talking about Harry, because of the tragedy of his death, you begin in somber, serious, reverent tones, because he was too much bigger than life that this death wouldn't leave an enormous hole in your heart. But as you go on, you always end up laughing, remembering this line or that joke." So songwriter Jimmy Webb sums up the memory of his close friend Harry Nilsson, who died Jan. 15 at his California home after a struggle with heart disease. The 52-year-old singer/songwriter, one of the most accomplished and diverse pop talents of the late 1960s and early '70s, had just completed vocal tracks for an album that would have been his first in well over a decade.
Born Harry E. Nilsson III in Brooklyn, N.Y., he often went by the single name Nilsson. His first break was in 1964, when he became part of Phil Spector's California songwriting stable. After signing with RCA, where he spent the balance of his career, he made two highly praised albums, Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet. They were poor sellers, but Shadow Show was brought to the attention of the Beatles by their press agent Derek Taylor; the group invited Nilsson to its Apple headquarters in 1968, where they made fast friends. In 1969 a song from Aerial Ballet, "Everybody's Talkin'," was used on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy; it eventually became Nilsson's first Top 10 hit and won him a Grammy.
In 1970, Nilsson scripted and scored an animated made-for-TV children's movie, The Point, and made an album of Randy Newman covers (Nilsson Sings Newman), on which Newman himself played the piano.
Nilsson's self-effacing nature was underscored by the title of his biggest album, 1971's Nilsson Schmilsson, which yielded the Top 40 hits "Coconut" and "Jump Into the Fire" and the No. 1 "Without You" (originally written and recorded by the Apple band Badfinger and recently covered by Mariah Carey). The subsequent Son of Schmilsson album went gold and produced the immortal verse "You're breakin' my heart/You're tearin' it apart/So fuck you."
Nilsson's greatest notoriety may have come not as an artist but as John Lennon's partner in crime during Lennon's mid-'70s estrangement from Yoko Ono. The carousing took its toll on Nilsson's reputation: "It still haunts me," he told journalist Dawn Eden in an interview conducted just eight days before his death. "People still think I'm a rowdy bum from the '70s who happened to get drunk with John Lennon, that's all."
After one hangover too many, Lennon and Nilsson went into the studio as a form of work therapy; the result, 1974's charming, ramshackle Pussy Cats, which Lennon produced. Nilsson's work thereafter was more desultory, and by the end of the '70s, he seemed to have dropped out of sight altogether.
What Nilsson was doing was straightening himself out, pursuing other business interests and procreating – he is survived by seven children, six by his widow, Una. After Lennon's 1980 death, Nilsson turned his energies to gun control with the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. His return to recording was precipitated by his heart attack of last year. He told Eden he wanted to make three more CDs. Sadly, he was able to work on only one of those albums before dying, and he did so without the benefit of a record deal."
This story is from the March 10th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.