Grammy Award-winner Harry Nilsson, hailed as a genius and recognized by his peers as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the twentieth century, began life humbly in Brooklyn, New York, June 15 1941. Abandoned by his father (his mother said he had been killed in the war – a story Harry found out many years later was untrue), Harry, along with his mother and half-sister, moved to Southern California. The ensuing years found him uprooted again, bouncing from relative to relative and place to place, finally returning to Los Angeles – this time to stay.
Back in L.A. and having grown tired of school, Nilsson dropped out and took a job at the Paramount Theater, where he eventually worked his way up to assistant manager. Until it closed in 1960, the Paramount was reputed to be the fourth largest theater in the world and featured live rock and roll shows. During his Paramount years, Nilsson was able to learn piano chords from the musicians who performed there, and soon became a skilled pianist himself. After the Paramount closed, Nilsson started writing songs and singing demos while working in the computer department of a bank. His hard work over the next several years finally paid off when, in 1967, he landed a recording contract with RCA Victor. Soon after, they released Pandemonium Shadow Show, the first of more than a dozen albums he would record for that label.
Early in his recording career, Harry’s music was discovered by the Beatles, who were then at their peak, and became his biggest fans. It has since become etched in rock and roll history how – at a huge press conference in New York City to announce the launch of Apple Records – John Lennon announced to the world that Nilsson was his favorite “group!” Later during that same New York visit, he also enthusiastically declared “Nilsson for President!” Ringo Starr, who later became best friends with Harry, at one time proclaimed Nilsson had “the greatest voice on planet Earth!” Paul McCartney and George Harrison were fans and good pals as well.
The mutual admiration between Harry and the Fab Four quickly evolved into what would become close and long-lasting personal friendships with each of them. After the Beatles broke up, his escapades with John Lennon during the mid ’70s became the stuff of legend. And it was Ringo Starr who served as best man at his marriage to Una, the mother of Beau, Ben, Annie, Olivia, Kief and Oscar, six of his seven children (Zak, the eldest, was born of a previous marriage).
As album after album was released, Nilsson was praised by the critics, not only for his own songs but also for his remarkable performances of those written by others. Two of his biggest hits (“Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You”) fall into the latter category, and he won Grammys for both of them. Other artists also recognized Nilsson’s songwriting talents, and his songs were (and still are) recorded by many top performers, from Joe Cocker and Neil Diamond to Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Mathis to Glen Campbell and Brian Wilson, as well as many others. Three Dog Night’s recording of Nilsson’s “One” became their breakthrough hit and first Gold Record, and Harry’s “Cuddly Toy” was a hit for the Monkees.
Nilsson’s voice and songs have also been featured in countless films and television shows. The Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan hit, You’ve Got Mail, featured five of Nilsson’s songs and performances (one of them, “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” was performed twice: first by Harry during the film and then by Sinead O’Connor in the closing credits!). And there are films like Midnight Cowboy, Forrest Gump, Practical Magic, Casino, All That Jazz, Contact, The Ice Storm, GoodFellas, Skidoo, The Craft, Reservoir Dogs, A Good Year, Crank, Bottle Shock, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Popeye and many more. Nilsson also wrote the story and songs and did all the singing in the unforgettable animated ABC television movie The Point, which was narrated by Dustin Hoffman, and then by Ringo Starr in the video release. The television shows and TV movies that have utilized Harry’s songs and performances are far too numerous to even begin to describe.
As both a songwriter and singer, Nilsson was somewhat of an enigma. His songs embraced such a wide variety of themes and musical styles that there is no way to easily categorize them. And though his voice is known worldwide, he never toured and rarely performed in public, having preferred to work almost exclusively in the studio.
Nilsson’s genius and creativity were cut short January 15, 1994, when at the age of 52, he died quietly in his sleep at his home in Agoura Hills, California. Although Harry Nilsson is gone, he is anything but forgotten, with his phenomenal musical legacy continuing to delight, move and entertain millions of people around the world every day.