In their final American press conference as Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were asked who their favorite group was. Lennon answered, “Harry Nilsson.”
Harry Nilsson's rise from poverty in Brooklyn to the computer department at a bank in Van Nuys, to stardom as a pop/rock singer-songwriter is the stuff of fairy tales.
That Nilsson created his impressive catalog of memorable songs while marinating himself in an ocean of alcohol and narcotics renders Alyn Shipton's “Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter” something of a show business cliche. We've heard this song before.
What saves the book from page after page of “and then he wrote” followed by “and then he drank” is Nilsson's infectious happy-go-lucky personality and the remarkable diversity of his talent.
Nilsson was a gifted writer, an intuitive musician, sometime actor and stunning vocalist, considered by many the best singer of his generation. No wonder Lennon and McCartney considered him a “group.”
A musical magician, Nilsson had a lifelong aversion to performing in public and rarely did so. His recordings employed every trick in the studio engineers' book to create unique multitrack records not easily replicated on the concert stage.
But Nilsson's recordings are not simply the result of technological advances in recording techniques. Nilsson was fascinated by the potential of his uniquely pristine voice and was master of the overdub. If one Harry Nilsson was good, four Harry Nilssons were fantastic.
He was a writer of unusual depth in a time and genre not known for either. Ironically his two biggest and most enduring hits, “Everybody's Talkin' ” and “Without You,” were written by others.
Nilsson's story is told through extensive interviews with friends, family, critics, producers, arrangers and fellow musicians. Biographer Shipton interprets Nilsson's life through the prism of an early Nilsson song, “1941,” the year of his birth, the year America went to war, and the year Nilsson's father vanished from his life.
Raised, if that word applies here, by an alcoholic and often absent mother, Nilsson was told Harry Nilsson Sr. had died a war hero somewhere in the South Pacific. Only after achieving fame and fortune did he discover the truth.
Was Harry Nilsson Sr.'s abandonment of his infant son Harry Nilsson Jr.'s “Rosebud”? Shipton makes the case. You decide.
Nilsson rose to the top of the pop charts with “Nilsson Schmilsson,” produced by Richard Perry in 1971. This album was the high-water mark of his career. His 1973 collection of Great American Songbook standards, “A Little Schmilsson in the Night,” with arrangements by Crosby/Sinatra/Fitzgerald collaborator Gordon Jenkins, paved the way for many of today's pop singers to record and perform more adult material and remains perhaps his best work.
“Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter” is essentially a print version of the highly regarded documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?” often using verbatim quotes from the film. Shipton's book does include some new material, including the grim coincidence that both Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas and Keith Moon of the Who died in Nilsson's London apartment four years apart.
All the highlights and lowlights of Nilsson's life are duly noted, including his charming animated film “The Point,” his wild recording and carousing sessions with Lennon in Los Angeles, including drunkenly disrupting the Smothers Brothers act at the Troubadour. Married and divorced twice, Nilsson essentially abandoned his firstborn son, Zack, as he had once been abandoned. Finally, Nilsson achieved something approaching familial stability after marrying a young Irish beauty with whom he fathered five children.
But inevitably addiction demands its pound of flesh and Nilsson's joie de vivre dissolved into a thin patina barely masking his ultimate self-destruction.
What Nilsson wanted most out of life was to be a Beatle, and he came about as close as anyone not named John, Paul, George or Ringo could.
Sadly, he failed to appreciate the magnitude of his own talents, telling a BBC interviewer shortly before his death at age 52, “Being relegated to having sung ‘Everybody's Talkin' ' and ‘Without You' ain't exactly what I set out to do ... (but) that's where it's gonna end up.”
Doug McIntyre is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. He can be heard 5-9 a.m. weekdays on KABC 790 AM.
Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter
By Alyn Shipton
Oxford University Press, $28