Harry Nilsson was born Harry E Nilsson III in Brooklyn on 15 June 1941 and spent his early childhood in the tough neighbourhood of Bushwick. By 1952, his parents had separated, and Harry travelled with his mother and sister to the greener pastures of the West Coast.
In Los Angeles, he attended St. John Blannev’s Parochial School, where he won letters in basketball and baseball, and ‘moonlighted’ as a theatre usher.
He was a computer supervisor at the Security First National Bank Computer Center in Van Nuys, California, after beginning at the bottom and moving through several promotions in four years. By the time he left to begin making records of his own songs, he had 32 people working under him.
His first break came in 1964 when he became part of Phil Spector‘s California songwriting stable.
After signing with RCA he made a number of highly praised albums. Pandemonium Shadow Show was his first (1968) and others included Aerial Ballet (1968), Harry (1969) and Nilsson Sings Newman (a selection of material by Randy Newman, released in 1970).
After this he wrote the story and music for an animated made-for-TV children’s film called The Point, which was narrated by Dustin Hoffman – for whose film Midnight Cowboy (1969), Nilsson sang Everybody’s Talkin’.
More than anything though, his voice had an emotive, haunting quality as highlighted by his great covers of Everybody’s Talkin’ (Fred Neil) and Without You (Badfinger).
The seventies brought Nilsson Schmilsson (1971), Son Of Schmilsson (1972) and A Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night (1973), and Nilsson seemed destined for great things.
Unfortunately, he was a shy, private man who struggled in the limelight, and after rupturing a vocal cord making the booze-and-cocaine fuelled Pussy Cats album with John Lennon in 1974, his voice sadly never recovered.
Nilsson and Lennon were firm friends – it was Nilsson that Lennon turned to when seeking a partner in crime during his mid-70’s estrangement from Yoko Ono – and after Lennon’s death in 1980, Nilsson turned his energies to gun control with the Washington-based ‘Coalition to Stop Gun Violence’.
Nilsson suffered a massive heart attack in 1993 but survived to try and complete one final album. He finished the vocal tracks for the album on 15 January 1994. He died the same night of heart failure at his California home. He was 52.
Nilsson’s grandparents, at the turn of the century, toured the circus circuit on the Continent as Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet.