This Day in Music – Harry Nilsson

On this day 15th January 1994, American singer songwriter Harry Nilsson died in his sleep of heart failure after spending the previous day in the recording studio.

The Grammy Award winning artist is best known for his hit singles “Everybody’s Talkin‘” (which was featured in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy), and his version of the Pete Ham and Tom Evans song “Without You”.

When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, John was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, “Nilsson”. Paul was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, “Nilsson”.

Born in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, 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).

Nilsson worked from an early age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. He made early attempts at performing; forming a vocal duo with his friend Jerry Smith and singing close harmonies in the style of the Everly Brothers. A friend gave Nilsson a plastic ukulele, which he learned to play, and he later learned to play the guitar and piano.

His initial series of albums in the late ’60s made him a personal favourite of the Beatles, who found a natural affinity with his knack for catchy melodies, and witty lyrics. Nilsson also wrote hits for Three Dog Night, The Monkees, Little Richard, Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, The Shangri-Las, and the Yardbirds.

Nilsson had been struggling to make inroads into the music business for over five years before his critically acclaimed 1967 album, Pandemonium Shadow Show. He made demos, sang jingles, and shopped songs, all the while keeping his job at a Los Angeles-area bank. In the mid-’60s, he wrote a few songs with Phil Spector that were recorded by the Ronettes amongst others.

It was another cover (of a Badfinger album track) that gave him his biggest single, the worldwide No.1 hit “Without You.” Yet Nilsson didn’t cash in on his stardom in a conventional manner; he never performed in concert (he made occasional television appearances), preferring to craft his artistry in the studio. “Without You” appeared on 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, which included a couple of other hits, “Coconut” and “Jump Into the Fire.”

During the 70’s, Nilsson’s bought a two-bedroom apartment in London, at 9 Curzon Street on the edge of Mayfair. During one of his absences, ex-Mamas and Papas singer Cass Elliot stayed at the flat while she performed at the London Palladium, on July 29, 1974, Elliot returned to the flat to relax and sleep and was discovered in one of the bedrooms, dead of heart failure at 32. On September 7, 1978, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon returned to the same room in the flat after a night out, and died at 32 from an overdose of a prescribed anti-alcohol drug. Nilsson, distraught over another friend’s death in his flat, sold it to Moon’s bandmate Pete Townshend and consolidated his life in Los Angeles.

Much of Nilsson’s notoriety stems from a period in the mid-’70s when he was a drinking buddy of John Lennon in Los Angeles (where Lennon was living during a separation from Yoko Ono). The drunken pair were thrown out of L.A.’s Troubadour club in a well-publicized incident, following which Lennon offered to produce Nilsson’s next album.

After a few rather unsuccessful late-’70s album, Nilsson withdrew from the studio into family life and other business ventures, spending much of his energies campaigning for gun control after Lennon was shot in 1980. In failing health in the 1990s, diagnosed with diabetes and suffering a massive heart attack, he died in early 1994, just after finishing the vocal tracks for a new album.

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