Sep 272011

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Few would argue that Harry Nilsson was one of the best and most unique American singer-songwriters of his time. Nilsson crafted complex multi-layered vocal pop for his amazing voice, which had a range of three and one-half octaves. He wrote beautiful, personal, and emotional songs that earned him the respect of his peers, critical acclaim, and occasional commercial success – though his two Grammy awards were not for originals. Yet Nilsson is a largely forgotten cult figure; a legacy he himself insured with his stubbornness, his insecurities, numerous bad career decisions and an appetite for destruction more commonly associated with contemporaries like Keith Richards, John Bonham and Keith Moon. (Ironically, both Moon and Mama Cass would die in Nilsson’s London apartment, which he allowed his friends to use when he was in the States.)

Nilsson spent the early 1960s in L.A. working mundane jobs (theater manager, banker) and writing songs in his spare time. Publishers were quick to recognize his talent and Nilsson songs wound up in the hands of The Monkees, Glenn Campbell and the Shangri-Las, and eventually he had the money and confidence to quit his job at the bank. When he wasn’t writing his own songs, though, he would occasionally cover another’s. Several rank among his best-known performances. Today we take a look at some of the rest.

Harry Nilsson – She’s Leaving Home (The Beatles cover)

Nilsson’s first album for RCA, Pandemonium Shadow Show would catch the attention of The Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor who made sure the Fab Four all received copies. At a 1968 press conference John Lennon would remark that Nilsson was his favorite American artist. The endorsement was obviously good for Nilsson’s career but one wonders if another singer could have leveraged more from the rare praise. “She’s Leaving Home” was one of two Beatles covers on Pandemonium Shadow Show, the other being the clever “You Can’t Do That,” which managed to deftly weave lyrics from more than 20 Beatles tunes into the song without sounding like a medley.

Harry Nilsson – Snow (Randy Newman cover)

Every time Nilsson appeared to have career momentum he seemed to sabotage any progress he was making. Since he never toured, Nilsson’s albums took on even more importance in building his image. In 1970 the Lennon compliment was still fairly fresh and the American public had been transfixed by Nilsson’s Grammy-winning recording of “Everybody’s Talkin’” – a Fred Neil cover spotlighted in the movie Midnight Cowboy. Ready to hear more of Nilsson’s incredible voice and original songs, instead the public was treated to a full album of Randy Newman covers. Nilsson loved Newman, who was somewhat obscure at the time, so Nilsson Sings Newman was released to exceptional critical praise and commercial failure. Newman accompanied Nilsson on the piano and Nilsson’s superior voice gave the songs a richness that they didn’t have with Randy’s raspy vocals.

Harry Nilsson – Early In The Morning (Louis Jordan cover)

Nilsson had too much talent to stay down for very long. Producer Richard Perry kept Nilsson focused long enough to record his finest work, Nilsson Schmilsson. The album met with huge success yielding three hit singles and another Grammy (once again the statue would be attached to a cover, Nilsson’s gut-wrenching version of Badfinger’s “Without You.”) Schmilsson also contained covers of early R&B standards “Let The Good Times Roll” and a playful take on Louis Jordan’s “Early In The Morning.”

Harry Nilsson – Makin’ Whoopee! (Eddie Cantor cover)

Harry Nilsson enjoyed the success of Schmilsson on his own terms, taking it as carte blanche to do whatever he pleased on the Son Of Schmilsson follow up. The party was on, the booze and drugs were plentiful, and Nilsson seemed intent on shocking the fine upstanding folks that purchased Schmilsson a year prior. The catchiest tune, “You’re Breaking My Heart,” was peppered with f-bombs. Nilsson went to a nursing home to record a group chorus for “I’d Rather Be Dead.” There’s even film of the bewildered seniors singing “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” Son Of was followed by another tough sell, the standards album A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. Give Nilsson credit, he was years ahead of the standards trend and he was well matched to sing these songs from Irving Berlin, Herman Hupfeld, Gus Kahn and others.

Harry Nilsson – Subterranean Homesick Blues (Bob Dylan cover)

We finish with the disc that pretty much served as the nail in the coffin of Nillson’s career. May Pang might have been the catalyst for John Lennon’s Lost Weekend, but Harry Nilsson rode shotgun for much of those 18 months. The stories of the two pals being (very deservedly) kicked out of nightclubs are legendary. Lennon produced Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album in 1974. Nilsson had ruptured a vocal cord and was too proud or stubborn to admit that to his buddy. By the end of the recording, Nilsson’s voice was shot and would never recover. The result is a bizarre and uneven album, once again conceived in a party atmosphere. Even the cover art is a product of men acting like boys. Two children’s building blocks flank a rug – a “D” on the left and an “S” to the right. Get it? DrugS. Hilarious. Lennon’s influence was obvious on Pussy Cats and the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sounds like it may have fit well on John’s Walls and Bridges. But the most important instrument of any Nilsson recording – his voice – is buried in the rhythm track. It may have worked a few years prior for “Jump Into The Fire,” but by 1974 there was too little left of that voice to fight through the production.

Whether you’re a new convert or a long-time Nilsson fan you can get lost for hours at this great tribute website.

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  One Response to “In the Spotlight: Harry Nilsson”

Comments (1)
  1. Interesting choice of covers. Highly recommend the Nilsson movie that came out a couple of years ago.

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