I sang Best Friend -- the theme song to the television show The Courtship Of Eddie's Father -- to myself maybe every day for five years, as a child. The memory of Nilsson's harmonies inhabited the electrical impulses of my brain at an early age, and I'm grateful.
I also remember his version of the Badfinger song, Without You, being somewhat inescapable in the 1970s. When that song came on the radio, and even when it was just "sampled" in tv commercials selling 1970s pop hit compilations on vinyl (and 8-track tape!), that velvety voice stopped you where you stood. It was that powerful.
I didn't have access to Nilsson's musical oeuvre though until I was an adult, when I purchased an RCA cd compilation in 1988. I was so taken by Nilsson's whiskey-soaked, wry version of Song Of The South's Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah on Hal Wilner's Disney project from 1988, Stay Awake, that I needed to dig deeper.
I'm glad I did. I felt that an entire generation (my generation) had been deprived of the incredible work Harry Nilsson had accomplished in a 13 to 15-year period. Until the 1990s, much of it was unavailable on cd.
The density and quality of Nilsson's work can not be understated. As much as he was famous for two interpretations of other composer's songs (Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin' and Badfinger's Without You, covered as well with much success by Mariah Carey, but following Harry and Richard Perry's arrangement blueprint), Harry was considered to be a songwriter's songwriter. Meaning, the cat could write a tune.
So many of his songs could be considered standards: This Could Be The Night (the infamous song he co-wrote with Phil Spector), Cuddly Toy (given to the Monkees), One (given to Three Dog Night, although interpreted very well by Aimee Mann), Without Her (not the same song as Without You!), Gotta Get Up, Coconut, Jump Into The Fire, 1941, The Moonbeam Song, Remember (Christmas), Think About Your Troubles, Me And My Arrow, Don't Forget Me (interpreted most effectively by Marianne Faithfull)... I could go on and on. And on. Really.
So many filmmakers and music supervisors for film and television are re-discovering Nilsson as well. P.T. Anderson reminded us of the greatness of Harry's song He Needs Me, written for the ill-fated Robert Altman film from 1980, Popeye, when he used it as a centrepiece in his film Punch Drunk Love (2002). Intelligent cinematic pop band Clare And The Reasons have been touring internationally with the legendary Van Dyke Parks, covering this song, exposing its greatness to a whole new audience.
Much has been written about Nilsson's excesses, and it is unfortunate that the man died at such an early age (at 52 in 1994), but I choose to celebrate the work he left behind for us to enjoy.
The one song I've always thought was an undiscovered treat, is the 1976 chestnut, written with his old friend, arranger/composer Perry Botkin Jr., called Something True. Given the fact that the song was released after the much-purported "blowing out" of his vocal chords in 1974, I actually think in the original recording the listener can find one of Harry Nilsson's best vocal performances. In my deconstruction of the song, bringing it down to just voice and keyboard (orchestras are expensive, and can't fit into my living room), I hope I reveal the level of craft -- both lyrically and melodically -- that Nilsson brought to even his most straight-forward chord progressions.
Harry Nilsson belongs to a small stable of songwriters whose work rarely fatigues my ears. His best songs (and there are a lot of great ones) remain eternally fresh. Nilsson had an almost cinematic approach to composing, and I think that is why I respond so strongly to his material.
Please do yourself a favour and track down his music, if you are not familiar with it.
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