In 1968, at a press conference to announce the formation of their Apple Corps Ltd, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were asked, separately, who their favorite American artist was. Both replied “Nilsson.”
Such was the admiration that Harry Nilsson garnered from a number of people who truly knew music. Just months after meeting Nilsson, famed composer and arranger George Tipton invested his life savings to record an EP of Nilsson’s work. Phil Spector, Mickey Dolenz and John Lennon all clamored to produce his work. They all knew Harry Nilsson could be the next big thing. But Nilsson didn’t want to be a star, he only wanted to be a songwriter. When offered a signing bonus by RCA records, Nilsson didn’t ask for the sports car, or the beach house, or the access to the corporate jet. He asked for an office.
When Nilsson’s album Aerial Ballet began to garner commercial success, spurred by the singles “Everybody’s Talkin” (“Everybody’s talkin at me, I don’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind…”) and “One” (“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do…”) he refused to tour. He simply didn’t like performing, preferring his office and the recording studio. While record execs attempted to steer his music in a more commercially viable direction, Harry Nilsson couldn’t care less. Aerial Ballet was followed up by an album of songs written solely by a then relatively unknown Randy Newman, and then The Point, a thirty-five minute long musical fable about Oblio, the only boy with rounded head in a village full of pointed headed people, inspired by an acid trip Nillson had experienced. (The Point would go onto become an ABC Movie of The Week starring the voices of Ringo Starr, Dustin Hoffman, and Alan Thicke, and was the first animated special to ever receive a prime time broadcast.)
He would revive some commercial success with Nilsson Schmilsson, which yielded the singles “Without You” (I can’t live, if living is without you, I can’t give, I can’t give anymore…) and the novelty “Cocount” (“You put the lime in the coconut you drink ‘em both up…”) Nilsson continued to refuse to perform, and released 8 more albums, as well as the soundtrack to the film “Popeye”, which he wrote in its entirety, though none would produce hits, despite being lauded by critics. Nilsson began to split his time between Los Angeles and London, where he (often with John Lennon in tow) became more known for his drink and drug fueled antics than his music.
After Mamma Cass and Keith Moon both died, four years apart, in the same guest bedroom of Nilsson’s London flat he left London and returned to California full time. In 1990, Nilsson would discover that his business partner and financial adviser Cindy Sims had embezzled all of his earnings, leaving him penniless. In 1994, at the age of 52, Harry Nilsson passed away from heart failure in his California home.
Text by John Munson.