17 Nilsson Facts to Celebrate Giant New Box Set
It’s Christmas in July for Nilsson fanatics. First came Alyn Shipton’s Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter an extensively detailed biography according to Paste and also curiously dry for a life as lush as Harry Nilsson’s according to Slate. Nevertheless, it’s the first big bio to tackle one of America’s greatest, and most mystifying, pop talents. Even better, just today RCA dropped its massive 17-album box set representing the kit and kaboodle of Nilsson’s time at the label. No, you will not get Nilsson’s contributions to the very bad yet somehow awesome film he made with Ringo Starr, Son of Dracula, and neither will you get Nilsson’s rumored last, unreleased album, titled Papa’s Got a Brand New Robe. But you will get all 14 of his albums for RCA, including bonus tracks, and three rarities sessions recorded at his peak between 1967-74.
On the very probable chance that you’ve never heard of Harry Nilsson, the man with the golden voice, witty lyrics AND insatiable party appetite, scroll on for a little introduction. Once you’re hooked, paying $100 for 17 albums of varying quality doesn’t seem so crazy…
1. Nilsson was the original hipster, born in Bushwick to a protohipster family that including his Swedish circus performing grandparents. He would later grow up to get thrown out of an LA club with John Lennon for drunkenly heckling the Smothers Brothers. While there’s a continual debate about who’s hipster and who’s not and whether the word even means anything anymore, if there’s one thing all sides can agree on, it’s that heckling the Smothers Brothers while looped on brandy with John Lennon during his Yoko break-up phase is the most hipster thing ever.
2. Of course, Nilsson wasn’t some hanger-on. His songwriting and vocal ability led to early praise. “My! You sing good for a white boy!” Little Richard exclaimed to a then up-and-coming Nilsson. His real career boost came when John Lennon and Paul McCartney famously called Nilsson their favorite American act during a press conference in 1968. Lennon reportedly told Nilsson he listened to Nilsson’s debut album Pandemonium Shadow Show in a 36-hour marathon.
3. People who recorded Nilsson songs before he got famous, and was simply penning songs on contract while holding down a bank job: Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds, Little Richard, the Monkees, the Ronnettes
4. While he broke into the industry as a songwriter, his first big hit,”Everybody’s Talkin’” which anchored the film Midnight Cowboy, was written by Fred Neill.
5. He also recorded an entire album of Randy Newman songs in 1969 called Nilsson Sings Newman, which gave a boost to the latter’s early career
6. But let’s get back to Nilsson’s own songs. People who recorded Nilsson songs after he was famous: Three Dog Night “One” (then covered marvelously by Aimee Mann, and bizarrely by Filter, for an X-Files soundtrack no less); Neko Case and Joe Cocker “Don’y Forget Me” and many, many more. In 2006, the Walkmen covered the entire Pussy Cats album track for track.
7. He wrote or performed some of the best break-up songs ever, such as “You’re Breaking My Heart,” “I’ll Never Leave You” and Badfinger’s “Without You.”
8. Charming grandmas everywhere (but not so much record-buying teens or music critics) he stopped his groovy pop career in its tracks to record an entire album of standards titled A Little Touch of Schmillson in the Night. This version of “It Had to Be You” also displays Nilsson’s incredible strengths as singer. Plus the world’s most bad-ass violinist, chomping a stogey.
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