Ringo Starr called him “his best friend.” John Lennon said he was “my favorite group.” He was Harry Nilsson and although he was one of the greatest singers and songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s, he’s all but unknown to the general public in 2013 — so much so that director John Scheinfeld titled his 2010 documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?
RCA/Legacy is working to rectify this oversight with the July 30 release of The RCA Albums Collection, a 17-CD boxed set that collects all 14 of the albums he recorded from the label from 1967 through 1977 along with three discs titled Nilsson Sessions, which feature previously unreleased tracks from 1967-1968, 1968-1971, and 1971-1974.
The release of the box comes on the heels of the publication of Alyn Shipton’s exhaustive bio Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Oxford University Press.
For legendary songwriter and Nilsson pal Jimmy Webb, the focus on his old friend is long overdue. “Harry was a singer from another parallel universe where they grow singers,” he says. “There was no one like him. I may be a little biased, but the only two people I can think of right off-hand, who were around when he was singing, who could touch him, were Paul McCartney and Glen [Campbell] — and Glen was a much more orderly, traditional kind of a singer. Both Paul and Harry had these kind of athletic, gymnastic-like voices, elastic voices, and could do all kinds [of things] with their voices that ordinary people can’t.”
Nilsson was an accomplished songwriter in his own right, penning hits for Three Dog Night (“One”), the Monkees (“Cuddly Toy”) and the Yardbirds (“Ten Little Indians”). In a strange twist of fate, he didn’t write his two biggest hits, 1969’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” famously heard in the film Midnight Cowboy; and his 1972 chart-topping cover of Badfinger’s “Without You,” also a hit for Mariah Carey more than two decades later.
It was a misunderstanding about the former song that led Nilsson’s friendship with Webb to a rocky start, as recounted in Shipton’s book. At David Geffen’s insistence, Webb was encouraged to join in a game of hoops at the music mogul’s home in order to meet Nilsson. Unknown to Webb, he had already gotten under Nilsson’s skin. In 1968, he wrote and produced Richard Harris’ album The Yard Went on Forever. In the liner notes for a song titled “Gayla,” Webb put the letters “BN” with an asterisk. At the bottom of the album’s sleeve, there was another asterisk noting “Before Nilsson.” It was Webb’s attempt to point out that he wrote the line “skipping like a stone through the garden” before the similar line “skipping over the ocean like a stone” appeared in Nilsson’s version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin.'”
“He took it as possibly the opening shot in a game of one-upmanship,” Webb says. “He said, ‘Why’d you put that thing on the album?’ And really came on kind of tough with me. He said, ‘I think you ought to think about your motivations? It seemed like a cheap shot to me.’ He just came right off the blocks and was in my face. It turned out, as the years passed [we became great friends]. I ended up giving the eulogy at the guy’s funeral, but it wasn’t love at first sight.”
To this day, Webb remains a great admirer of his work. “If you listen to [his albums such as 1968’s] Aerial Ballet or [1967’s] Pandemonium Shadow Show, it’s an education for those young songwriters and singers out there if you want to see how determined and how athletic he was as a singer,” Webb says. “I didn’t really end with that Badfinger song, ‘Without You.’ That was just the tip of the iceberg with him. You listen to this incredible set of albums and there are several places where you want to stop and repeat that, and say, ‘Wow, did he really do that?’ As an industry, we weren’t using a lot of gimmickry then. It was really flesh-and-blood human beings singing into microphones. And you go, ‘Wow, how could he possibly overdub himself that way and absolutely get it spot-on perfect every time?'”
And as Webb notes, Nilsson was an eccentric, hanging out in bars, quoting comedian Lenny Bruce’s routines word-for-word, making bets that he could stuff a soft-boiled egg into a beer bottle, and — with his amazing mathematician-like mind — telling people what day of the week their birthday would fall on in coming years. He once borrowed Webb’s brand new Jaguar XJS, drove it cross-country to New York — during which time he was incommunicado for more than two weeks — and sent it back trashed on a flatbed train.
“It looked like it had been in an around-the-world rally,” Webb recalls. “There was no tread on the tires. I couldn’t imagine what these guys were doing with it.” However, Nilsson made good by having it refurbished to make it better than ever. “Being Harry, he redid the car for me,” he adds. “He put in a whole interior in and a beautiful new sound system and dropped a new engine in it. Of course, that was Harry’s idea of a joke.”
Although Webb is a legendary songwriter in his own right, having penned such classics as “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away” and “MacArthur Park,” it took more than a decade into their friendship before Nilsson relented and recorded one of his songs, “Campo de Encino.” On his 2007 album, Live and At Large, Webb’s version is preceded by a monologue about Nilsson.
Nilsson’s version sees its first release as a bonus track on the expanded version of 1972’s Son of Schmilsson that’s included in The RCA Albums Collection. It’s a beautifully sung rendition in which Nilsson inexplicably pronounces the San Fernando Valley suburb the song is named for as “Enchino.” Says, “To me that’s Harry just clowning around and throwing something in there probably to annoy me more than anything else,” Webb says. “But I was glad. We’d been friends for a long time before he finally broke down and recorded one of my songs.”
Those new to Nilsson will find his music to be incredibly contemporary. His “You’re Breakin’ My Heart,” also from the original Son of Schmilsson, paved the way for Cee-Lo’s “F**k You,” nearly four decades later. Aimee Mann covered his “One,” included on 1968’s Aerial Ballet and a Top 10 hit for Three Dog Night in 1969, and it was prominently featured in the 1999 film Magnolia. LCD Soundsystem did a faithful version of “Jump Into the Fire,” from 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson at their final 2011 show at Madison Square Garden.
As Webb notes, Nilsson was also one of the first artists to do a standards album, 1973’s A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, with arrangements by Frank Sinatra-arranger Gordon Jenkins, years before his trend-hopping peers.
Since Nilsson was not found of performing live, he became a video innovator instead, as evidenced by his clip for his top 10 hit “Coconut,” which was also included on Nilsson Schmilsson.
After he discovered that his financial adviser had embezzled much of his savings, Nilsson sold his publishing, and several of his songs turned up in commercials — including “Coconut” in a spot for Sprite; and “Me and My Arrow,” from his animated film and soundtrack The Point, in a Plymouth commercial. Years earlier, he altered his song “Girlfriend” from Aerial Ballet to “Best Friend” for the theme of ’70 sitcom “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”
Sadly, Nilsson’s hard living began to catch up to him. “There was this phase he was going through when he was doing the ‘lost weekend’ with John Lennon and he leaned on me a couple of times and I helped him out,” said Webb. In the mid-’70s, Nilsson would often drop by Webb’s Encino studio. “He’d come by with Ringo Starr or Iggy Pop, you’d never know who he’d be with.”
While recording his 1974 album Pussycats, produced by John Lennon, Nilsson reportedly screamed so much during the sessions there was blood on the microphone. “He told me that,” Webb recalls. “And he came to my house a few times and he was coughing up blood and I told him, ‘You guys ought to tone it down a little bit.’ I gently tried to steer him away from that style or whatever it was that they were doing.”
“He was this amazing vocalist, who began to systematically destroy his own talent,” Webb recalls. “It was a very painful thing for me when he began to dismantle his genius, this jewel that was in his forehead, this blessing from God. It was hard for me personally to hear the voice go, because it was such a perfect thing.”
It’s with sadness that Webb remembers his final encounter with Nilsson. They had dinner with fellow songwriter Stephen Bishop and their wives and girlfriends at Beverly Hills restaurant The Ivy. Although Nilsson then had a heart condition, he ate fried chicken off someone else’s plate. When the meal was over, he suggested that he and Webb go for a drive back to their hotel in Santa Monica alone.
“We pulled up in a real quiet spot in front of the hotel and he pulled out a couple of cassettes and said, ‘I want you to listen to some stuff.’ And I say, ‘OK, great.’ And he played maybe 20 songs and took the cassette out and shoved another one in, probably played another 20 songs. We were out there for hours. He didn’t say anything. It was just song after song after song — sweet, brilliant, witty off-the-wall Harry — different and great. Afterward, he said, ‘Well, What do you think?’ And I said, ‘I love it.’ And he said, ‘I hope so, because that’s my life work. Thanks for listening.’ That was the last thing he said to me. I wish there had been somehow a happier parting because I felt there was a certain air of sadness about the whole thing.”
Harry Nilsson died of heart failure on Jan. 15, 1994 at the age of 52. Two days later, on the morning of his funeral, a massive earthquake rocked the Los Angeles area. “There was no fuss over the fact that he was gone because the Northridge Quake flattened about half of Southern California. It was not a slow news day when he passed over,” Webb says.
Those who know Nilsson joked that the earthquake was his final flip of the bird, but then again, it was another fluke that sabotaged a bid for more recognition. Says Webb, with some resignation, “There have been a lot of things that have conspired that have made him sort of the Unknown Soldier.”