January 15, 1994 – Harry Edward Nilsson III aka Nilsson was born on June 15, 1941 in Brooklyn New York. His paternal grandparents were Swedish circus performers and dancers, especially known for their “aerial ballet” (which is the title of one of Nilsson’s albums). His father, Harry Edward Nilsson Jr., abandoned the family when young Harry was three. An autobiographical reference to this is found in the opening to Nilsson’s song “1941” and “Daddy’s Song”.
Because of the poor financial situation of his family, Nilsson worked from an early age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. When the theatre closed in 1960, he applied for a job at a bank, falsely claiming he was a high school graduate on his application (he only completed ninth grade). He had an aptitude for computers however, which were beginning to be employed by banks at the time. He performed so well the bank retained him even after uncovering his deception regarding being a high school graduate. He worked on bank computers at night, and in the daytime pursued his songwriting and singing career.His uncle, a mechanic in San Bernardino, California, helped Nilsson improve his vocal and musical abilities.
By 1958, Nilsson was intrigued by emerging forms of popular music, especially rhythm and blues artists like Ray Charles. He had made early attempts at performing while he was working at the Paramount, forming a vocal duo with his friend Jerry Smith and singing close harmonies in the style of the Everly Brothers. The manager at a favorite hangout gave Nilsson a plastic ukulele, which he learned to play, and he later learned to play the guitar and piano. In the 2006 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, Nilsson recalled that when he could not remember lyrics or parts of the melodies to popular songs, he created his own, which led to writing original songs.
Uncle John’s singing lessons, along with Nilsson’s natural talent, helped when he got a job singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner in 1962. Turner paid Nilsson five dollars for each track they recorded. (When Nilsson became famous, Turner decided to release these early recordings, and contacted Nilsson to work out a fair payment. Nilsson replied that he had already been paid – five dollars a track.)
Nilsson went on a steady track upwards to success with songwriting credits that included names like Phil Spector, Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, the Monkees, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds, but did not give up his bank job until late 1966. With special admiration for his work from the Beatles and especially John Lennon, Nilsson’s name became household. (When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, Lennon was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, “Nilsson”. McCartney was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, “Nilsson”.
Nilsson acquired a manager, who steered him into a handful of TV guest appearances, and a brief run of stage performances in Europe set up by RCA. He disliked the experiences he had, though, and decided to stick to the recording studio. He later admitted this was a huge mistake on his part.
Yet within a couple of years, he started making records with casual disregard for how things were done. He made albums that jumped from style to style, and from era to era. He made an album of 1940s standards long before anyone else thought of it (eat your heart out Rod Stewart!). And he was a hard-drinking artist who rarely played live.
His real breakthrough came in 1971 when he recorded Badfinger’s “Without You” with reached Billboard No.1 for 4 weeks.
Close friends with John Lennon who produced his album “Pussycats” in 1973, he also maintained an apartment in London that became a tragedy chamber with a curse as Mama Cass Elliott was found dead there in 1974 at age 32 from heart failure and the Who drummer Keith Moon four years later also at age 32 from an overdose of Clomethiazole, a prescribed anti-alcohol drug.
Nilsson was profoundly affected by the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980. He joined the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and overcame his preference for privacy to make appearances for gun control fundraising. He began to appear at Beatlefest conventions and he would get on stage with the Beatlefest house band “Liverpool” to either sing some of his own songs or “Give Peace a Chance.”
After a long hiatus from the studio, Nilsson started recording sporadically once again in the mid to late 1980s. Most of these recordings were commissioned songs for movies or television shows. One notable exception was his work on a Yoko Ono Lennon tribute album, Every Man Has A Woman (1984); another was a cover of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” recorded for Hal Willner’s 1988 tribute album Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. Nilsson donated his performance royalties from the song to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
His career took several turns before he passed away but it was always interesting and it rarely repeated itself.
Nilsson himself passed away on January 15, 1994 at his California home from heart failure.