This article originally appeared in Everybody's Talkin' (Number 15) published in 1998.
by Chris Hahn
Bring up the subject of Harry Nilsson's singing and you'll get little argument. In his early years, Nilsson had one of the sweetest, purest voices ever to engage a microphone. When the subject of Harry's songwriting rolls around, however, there will likely be considerably more debate. Perhaps the negative viewpoint is still perpetuated by the sad fact that hung over Harry's head throughout most of his recording career. Nilsson's two major hits were written by others, and other than the novelty number, "Coconut", none of Harry's self-penned recordings ever reached the Billboard top twenty.
Certainly, one measure of a songwriter's legitimacy is the number and caliber of other artists who choose to record his songs. On that front, Harry had mixed success. For a short while, it appeared that Nilsson's name might eventually attain the same lofty status as names like Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, but Harry's success was rather short-lived compared to those songwriting giants. In fact, the number of artists recording Harry's songs had already begun to wane even as his recording career was on a meteoric rise in the early 1970s. Still, many of Nilsson's songs have withstood the test of time and continue to be recorded today. That alone solidifies Harry's status as a songwriter to be remembered.
While it may have appeared to many in 1967 that Harry Nilsson the songwriter had burst onto the scene overnight, Nilsson had been honing his songwriting skills for years under the tutelage of experienced veterans including Scott Turner, John Marascalco, Phil Spector and Perry Botkin, Jr., all of whose connections in the music industry led to the recording of many of Harry's early songs. The musical landscape of the mid-'60s is littered with Harry's early collaborations with these men and others, plus a handful of songs he wrote on his own. Mostly forgotten recordings by little-known artists, they run the absolute gamut of pop, rock and soul styles. The best-known of these songs are from the Spector period in 1965, although there is some question about how involved Spector was in the songwriting process. "Paradise", originally recorded by the Ronettes, became a favorite for female acts in the '60s and '70s. Another classic from the Spector period was "This Could Be the Night". Originally recorded by the Modern Folk Quartet, the song has been revived by numerous artists since the mid-'80s, including a 1987 re-recording by former MFQ lead singer Henry Diltz. Aside from these songs and a few others, however, there was little in Harry's early body of work to suggest the consistent quality that he would soon demonstrate.
The story of Nilsson's many sleepless nights composing songs in Perry Botkin's office is well-known, and Harry's hard work and diligence eventually began to pay dividends. As Nilsson's songwriting began to improve, so did his growing reputation as a songsmith to the point where Harry's publisher, Rock Music Co., titled its 1967 promotional demo album New Nilsson Songs, even though some of the songs weren't Nilsson's (and some weren't even new). The stature of the acts that chose to record Harry's songs also grew, and by the end of 1967, one of the songs from that record, "Without Her", had been recorded by Glen Campbell, a rising young star with a recent hit under his belt. Two other new Nilsson songs, not on the demo album, were also on their way toward reaching a wider audience. Veteran British rockers the Yardbirds had taken "Ten Little Indians" into the lower reaches of Billboard's Hot 100 and, most importantly, teen sensation the Monkees had settled on "Cuddly Toy" as their first Nilsson song, presenting it in their highly-popular television series.
While Nilsson's first two albums for RCA, Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet, were ignored by the record-buying public, other recording artists in need of songs took note. In 1968 and 1969, there was an explosion of Harry's material on others artist's records. Leading the way was the classic "Without Her". Easily Harry's most-recorded song ever, the number and diversity of artists to record the song is astounding. "Without Her" was embraced not only by soft rockers, but a slew of easy-listening, jazz and folk artists as well. Given all of the attention surrounding the song, it's surprising that no one managed to score a major hit with it, although Herb Alpert did eventually take the song into the pop charts. A number of female singers solved the gender problem by recording the song as "Without Him", but RCA stablemate Lana Cantrell took a more unique approach, recording the song as "Without You", ironically foreshadowing the title of the entirely different Badfinger song that Harry himself would cover and ride to stardom in a few short years.
As much attention as "Without Her" received, it was still only the tip of the iceberg. Those first two albums were packed with songs every bit as versatile as "Without Her", and it showed in the diversity of artists to record them. The song "1941" proved popular with both American and British singers, but it was Canadian Tom Northcott who took the song into the charts. "Don't Leave Me" was covered by a wide array of rockers and easy-listening artists. Likewise for "One", which became the biggest hit Harry was ever to write after being recorded by fledgling rock group Three Dog Night. Both "The Wailing of the Willow" (co-written by Ian Smith) and "Together" received considerable attention as well.
Nilsson's Harry album continued the trend of inspiring numerous covers with two more of his most popular songs ever. "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" was recorded by the usual mix of rockers and easy-listeners, and appeared in a handful of instrumental versions as well. Meanwhile, numerous pop-rockers and more country-oriented artists were reworking Harry's collaboration with Bill Martin, "Rainmaker." The popularity of Harry's songs was at an all-time high, and by the end of 1969, an impressive list of well-established stars had turned in their interpretations of Nilsson tunes, including Billy J. Kramer, Harry Belafonte, the Turtles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jack Jones, Rick Nelson, George Burns, Liza Minnelli, Johnny Mathis, Wayne Newton, Ella Fitzgerald, Jose Feliciano, Percy Faith, and Billy Vaughn. It's interesting to note that just as Nilsson's popularity as a songwriter had reached its peak, he humbly eschewed his own songs in favor of Randy Newman's for his next album, Nilsson Sings Newman. In 1970, Harry's friend and arranger, George Tipton, paid him the ultimate compliment by recording an entire album of Nilsson songs. Comprised primarily of instrumentals, Nilsson by Tipton focused mainly on Harry's more recent material including a generous supply of songs from Harry and the soon-to-be-released soundtrack to "The Point!."
Numerous other artists from virtually all styles of popular music continued to record Nilsson's songs into the early '70s, and over the next few years, Perry Como, Barbra Streisand, the 5th Dimension, Lena Horne, the Lettermen, the Supremes, David Cassidy, and Peter Nero would add their names to the list of artists who had covered Harry.
By 1971, though, it was clear that the number of covers being recorded was beginning to ebb. The problem was partly due to a decline in Nilsson's once-prolific output. The Nilsson Sings Newman project had left an unprecedented void of new material for other artists to choose from, and when The Point! finally arrived in early 1971, it contained only seven new songs. Moreover, even the best songs from The Point! were recorded by few artists relative to Nilsson's earlier material. Harry's own albums were now beginning to sell, and it seemed other artists preferred to find new material with less exposure. The huge success of Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson did nothing to change that trend, and Harry's venture into a harder style of rock further narrowed the field of potential candidates for the easy-listening performers who had recorded his songs in the past. The lone exception was the lovely "Remember (Christmas)" from Son of Schmilsson which proved irresistible to crooners like Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis.
By the middle of the decade, the attraction of Nilsson's early songs had finally diminished with age, and the stream of covers slowed to a trickle. At this point, few people other than Harry's circle of friends, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and former members of the Monkees, continued to record his songs. The songs from Harry's remaining albums for RCA drew little interest from anyone. Another entire album of Nilsson songs, the Original Cast Recording of "The Point!" starring Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, was released in the UK in 1977, but other than that, it seemed that Harry's music was now all but forgotten. Sadly, there continued to be a dearth of Nilsson covers throughout most of the '80s.
Fortunately, Harry's music wasn't dead, it was only lying in wait. As the 1980s drew to a close, there was a resurgence of interest in covering Nilsson's songs which has continued to this day. A few of these recordings were made by veteran rockers who knew and loved Harry, but most were by another generation who presumably grew up listening to Harry's records and were now returning to their roots. Many songs from throughout Harry's career were revived during this period, but particularly popular were songs from The Point! and Nilsson Schmilsson which had been left relatively untouched in the past. "Jump Into the Fire" was recorded by a number of alternative bands and hard-rocking solo artists, while artists on the lighter end of the pop spectrum made "Coconut" their song of choice. A handful of new recordings of "Me and My Arrow" and "Think About Your Troubles" also cropped up during the '90s. Finally, songs from Harry's most popular period as a performer were being reinterpreted for exposure to an entirely new audience.
Ten of the Best Nilsson Covers You'll Ever Hear
The resurgence of Nilsson covers in the '90s was, of course, punctuated by the 1995 release of For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson , the tribute album of mostly competent, but sometimes uninspired, covers of songs from throughout Harry's career. The producers' intentions were commendable. All artists royalties and sales profits went to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Harry's memory. Listening to the album, however, only whets the appetite for the kind of masterwork collection that could be compiled from the finest existing Nilsson covers recorded over the years. The logistics of such a proposition would no doubt be nightmarish, but the end result would be a collection truly worthy of Harry's finest works.
Naturally, track selection for such a project would be a matter of subjective taste, but some favorites are presented below, in no particular order, as a starting point.
Open Your Window - Ella Fitzgerald (from the Pablo CD Ella Fitzgerald in Budapest) - Ella Fitzgerald recorded a pleasant, but undistinguished version of "Open Your Window" for her Ella album in 1969. The following year, she included the song as part of her live performance in Budapest, Hungary, which was recorded, but remained unavailable until the 1999 CD release of Ella Fitzgerald in Budapest. The sound quality is only passable, but the performance is sparkling. A much sparser arrangement allows Ella's powerful voice to shine through undisturbed, and the cut is climaxed by nearly a minute of scatting that only leaves you wanting more.
Sleep Late, My Lady Friend - Jose Feliciano (from the RCA LP Souled) - In this gorgeous rendition, Jose Feliciano shows himself capable of the same type of vocal acrobatics that long-time listeners of Nilsson's records take for granted. A Rick Jarrard production, Harry once referred to this in an interview as one of the few covers of his songs that he genuinely liked.
Daybreak - Micky Dolenz (from the Romar single) - Disregarding George Tipton's entire album of Nilsson compositions, Micky Dolenz has recorded more of Harry's songs than anybody. With Nilsson's help (as producer), he hit the bull's-eye on this one, his first. With a lively chorus in the background, Dolenz manages to evoke a true party atmosphere, something that was missing from Harry's somewhat strained version.
Think About Your Troubles - Lena Horne (from the Buddah single and LP Nature's Baby) - Lena Horne was one of the few not to overlook Harry's charming life-cycle tale at the time of its release. In this 1971 recording, Horne goes all-out to transform Harry's innocent sounding original into an R&B classic. The arrangement is superb, with sparkling blues guitar work and a strong gospel chorus in the background. Combined with Horne's wonderful vocal performance, it makes this one of the most impressive Nilsson covers ever recorded.
Turn on Your Radio - Marc Cohn (from the MusicMasters CD For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson) - Easily the highlight of the recent tribute album, Cohn treats this jewel with the utmost respect, right down to the chilling samples from Harry's original. Cohn's added lyrics fit in so perfectly, it's easy to believe that they could have been Harry's own.
Wailing of the Willow - Judith Durham (from the A&M LP Gift of Song) - The former lead singer of the Australian hitmaking group, the Seekers, Judith Durham drifted into obscurity following the breakup of the group in 1969, but not for lack of talent. Durham possesses an absolutely lovely voice. In this 1970 recording, she glides effortlessly through Harry's bittersweet ballad transforming it into a dreamy lullaby.
Don't Forget Me - Joe Cocker (from the A&M LP I Can Stand a Little Rain) - Joe Cocker's recording stands out as a gem in the rather barren landscape of Nilsson covers from the mid-'70s. Cocker speeds up the tempo on this classic and creates a rich, full sounding arrangement, complete with strong female backing vocals and excellent guitar work. A totally different take on Harry's somewhat sparse sounding original.
Baby, it's Over - Debbie Burton (from the Capitol single) - Technically, it may not be considered a cover since Harry never released his own version, but it's worth mentioning here as a great non-Nilsson recording of a Nilsson song. It's one of the many songs Harry wrote (or co-wrote) for other acts in the mid-'60s while waiting for his own recording career to blossom. This one, from 1966, is credited to Harry alone, and gives an early glimpse into his natural gift for meshing lyrics with melody. Debbie Burton's seductive delivery, though, is what makes this track truly engaging. The record was arranged by Perry Botkin, Jr. and is, in fact, backed with a Botkin-Nilsson collaboration titled "The Next Day."
One - Filter (from the Elektra/Asylum CD The X-Files: The Album) - Harry's "One" has received a number of great readings over the years. Three Dog Night's hit version and Aimee Mann's contribution to the tribute album are well known. Al Kooper also recorded an excellent version for his 1969 debut album, and attesting to the song's great melody are fine instrumental versions by the Plastic Cow (Moog) and Tony Windle (piano). Filter's '90s grunge version, however, is the most inventive of all, and is the most exciting thing to happen to any of Nilsson's music in years. The band dispenses with Harry's melodic refrain in favor of driving home the point with sheer volume, and it works so well you'd swear it was an original.
1941 - George Burns (from the Buddah LP George Burns Sings) - The toughest choice of the lot. John Randolph Marr recorded a marvelous bluesy version of "1941" complete with George Tipton arrangement and numerous other Nilsson connections, but George Burns' version is so full of joy and energy that it can't be overlooked. Burns cranks up the tempo to a near-frantic pace, while filling the voids with totally original scatting completely worthy of Harry's original.
Ten of the Worst Nilsson Covers You'll Ever Hear
Unfortunately, for all of the outstanding Nilsson covers recorded over the years, there are just as many more that are better left unheard. Most of these can be attributed to artists who had excellent taste in songs, but just didn't have the talent to create a recording even remotely rivaling one of Harry's originals, which always set an exceedingly high standard. Some of the worst offenders tended to be film and television personalities pushed into the studio to cash in on their success as actors. These folks would have been well-advised to avoid Harry's songs altogether. Covering Nilsson was a tough enough challenge for even the finest of vocalists. Some of the other less pleasant covers recorded over the years may simply be considered ambitious experiments gone awry. Regardless of the reasons, none of the artists below were doing Harry any favors by recording these tracks.
Without Her - Telly Savalas (from the MCA LP Telly) - In addition to being Harry's most-recorded song, "Without Her" is clearly his most-abused as well. Many of the recordings released during the song's initial surge of popularity tended to be rather lackluster, and some downright comical. But Telly Savalas' version, recorded a few years later, is in a class by itself. It's bad enough that Savalas can't sing, but to make matters worse, his voice just oozes with arrogance. It's hardly a good match for Harry's poignant ballad of lost love. Had Harry heard this, he would surely never have written "Kojak Columbo."
Coconut - Fred Schneider (from the MusicMasters CD For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson) - What seemed a perfect marriage of song and performer for the tribute album proved a tremendous disappointment. Schneider completely misses the beauty of Harry's original, with its soft opening and steady buildup to a fulfilling climax. Instead, Schneider opts to go full throttle from the opening notes, and his histrionics grow tiresome less than halfway into its five-minute-plus length. Fortunately, the single version was trimmed by more than a minute, but that's still not enough to save it.
I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City - David Canary (from the Beverly Hills LP So Many People) - Younger folks may know David Canary from his role in "All My Children" and older folks might remember him from "Bonanza." It's a safe bet that no one remembers him from his ill-fated role as a pop singer. This excruciating track is among the ten good reasons for that on his 1971 album. Ironically enough, "Candy the ranch hand" distances himself from the song's original cowboy image by turning it into a bouncy pop number, but the near-bubblegum arrangement and chorus of munchkins singing in the background just doesn't work.
Together - Keith Moon (from the MCA LP Two Sides of the Moon) - Harry must have truly loved Moonie to allow him to desecrate one of his early classics this way, much less participate in it himself. Perhaps he was just so disenchanted with his early material at this point that he didn't care anymore. Regardless, it just goes to show that getting your album released has more to do with name recognition than with merit, and the recent CD reissue of the album with "Together Rap" as a bonus track shows that things haven't changed.
Ten Little Indians - The Electric Junkyard (from the RCA LP The Electric Junkyard) - Many strange sounds came out of the late '60s, but none stranger than this. It's from a collection of recordings comprised primarily of electrified horns producing such a cacophony that even the most familiar of songs becomes nearly unrecognizable. Most of this aptly-named band's cuts are strictly instrumental, but for this one they inserted a female voice robotically chanting "Ten--lit--tleindians, nine--lit--tleindians, etc.", while disposing of the accompanying story altogether. Utterly bizarre.
Me and My Arrow - Sentridoh (from the Shrimper 7" compilation Ghost of a Rollercoaster) - Speaking of bizarre, Harry's charming little ditty about a boy and his pointed pooch will never seem the same after hearing this. Some refer to this noisy sort of underground music as "lo-fi". Most Nilsson fans would probably call it "low-brow" after hearing altered lyrics like "takin' the high road, wherever we go, we try to get stoned". The sheer absurdity of this recording may manage to evoke a grin on the first listen, but the joke (if it is a joke) wears thin in a hurry. Not fit for man or beast.
Daddy's Song - The Monkees (from the Colgems LP Head) - Though the Monkees' recording of "Cuddly Toy" was an important milestone in Harry's career, they couldn't have chosen a second Nilsson song to more clearly highlight Davy Jones' limitations as a vocalist. The real tragedy, though, was that this led to the deletion of Harry's original from the Aerial Ballet album, making the track a true rarity for more than 25 years until it was finally restored on the 1995 CD reissue.
Don't Forget Me - Marianne Faithfull (from the RCA CD 20th Century Blues) - Included here, naturally, because of the ridiculous stories about Harry she's been prefacing the song with in her performances, although those stories do tend to be much more memorable than her singing. Maybe someone should explain to Ms. Faithfull that the song stands on its own, and doesn't need to be embellished with her outlandish tales to be of interest.
1941 - Joel Grey (from the Columbia LP Black Sheep Boy) - From one of the classic "golden throat" albums comes the standard against which all bad Nilsson covers can be measured. Grey shows no signs of remorse as he audaciously compresses Harry's melody to fit his three-and-a-half note range, while interjecting a groan between one set of stanzas that is positively embarrassing. Small comfort can be taken in the fact that Grey savaged not only the work of Nilsson on this record, but many other fine songwriters as well. Actually, things could have been worse. On the back of the album jacket, Grey writes that he would have loved to have done half a dozen of Nilsson's songs. He only did one. We are truly blessed.