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Harry Nilsson Biography
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One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 1)

by Dawn Eden

This biography of Harry Nilsson is from Goldmine Magazine (Vol. 20 No. 9 Issue 359 dated April 29, 1994). Bruce Ansley contacted Krause Publications Group, Inc. and Dawn Eden and they were kind enough to grant him permission to place the article online. Once he had permission, Bruce transcribed the article and converted it to HTML. This excellent article is reproduced below thanks to Bruce's efforts and the kindness of Krause Publications Group, Inc. and Dawn Eden.

Harry Nilsson, as any fan knows, loved the movies. In life, he could do a credible Stan Laurel. In death, he cannot help but be Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. It seems as though everyone who had contact with Nilsson, however fleeting, has a story to tell, and each story only adds to his mystery. Considered one of rock's most literate songwriters, Nilsson had only a ninth-grade education and denied that he was any great reader. A man whose supposed party exploits fed rumor mills for years, he struck close observers as just what both he and his friend John Lennon claimed to be: a pussycat. He alienated some adults with his occasionally foul-mouthed lyrics, yet he won the hearts of kids and kids-at-heart with his sweetly innocent concept album The Point!. Finally, despite the fact that he offered no apologies for his past behavior (including his year long "lost weekend" with Lennon), he was, in his later years, the model of a devoted family man. His life would not be more difficult to analyze if his last word was "Rosebud."

When Goldmine last caught up with Nilsson, on January 7, 1994, the singer was trying as hard as he could to camouflage his flagging health. Although Nilsson's words made it clear that he was, as he put it, "not long for this world," physically and spiritually he projected an image of resolute strength. It was a shock to many, not least of all this writer, when he died only eight days later.

Nilsson's first words into Goldmine's tape recorder were a lengthy quote from his favorite article about himself: Derek Taylor's liner notes to Nilsson's 1968 album Aerial Ballet. Although the notes included the famous statements, "Nilsson is the best contemporary soloist in the world. He is It. He is the something else The Beatles are. He is The One" (words which would be mere hyperbole were they not this side of "true"), Nilsson quoted instead from the opening of the essay:

"Slanted-patterned parking lot and the children in the cars of many colors were whining 'Why' and 'When' and stout and bouncing bobbing frozen-food-faced ladies in wobble-pink capris were roller-curling their basket-way to the fat and hungry Riviera trunks and we, store-sullen men, waited in the scorching smog-stained sun on various vinyl-shining seats when I button-pushed into a 17-bar song-snatch and Timothy, eight and bright, said, 'Oh, you're smiling now, why? Oh why? Why ... the song had said: 'He met a girl the kind of girl he'd wanted all his life. She was soft and kind and good to him and he took her for his wife. They got a house not far from town and in a little while the girl had seen the doctor and she came home with a smile. And in 1961 the happy father had a son ...' Such a fragment of song it was and from whom? It was new and hardly anything is new! And how could something come so strong and sudden so swiftly to snap the sad and slumberous Safeway stupor? Hayes, who rides the discs like Joel McCrea, said, '"1941", folks.' Oh, yes, he said, '"1941", by Nilsson.' Nilsson. 'Nilsson' he said, again, and told us it was good, and that was why we smiled, Timothy, we smiled because it was good ..."
If one looks past the very '60s references to pink capris and Riviera cars, it is obvious why Nilsson felt so complimented by Taylor's words. It is the best description ever of that timeless feeling, the thrill that comes from hearing a pop song so exciting that it leaps out of the radio and into your long-term memory. Nilsson's "1941" came out in 1967, a year when the airwaves were cluttered with groundbreaking music of every sort. Yet, amid a radio landscape of "new" Dylans and "new" Beatles, Nilsson made an immediate impression upon Taylor and others in the know, because, through his creative magic, he was truly new.

He was born Harry Edward Nilsson III (not Nelson, as had been reported) on June 15, 1941, Father's Day, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York. Nilsson's best-known quote about Bushwick, a notoriously tough neighborhood, termed it "a crummy place to grow up if you're blonde and white." His father left his mother in 1944, so Harry spent most of his childhood with his mother and his younger half-sister. The family lived in an upstairs apartment at 762 Jefferson Avenue, along with Harry's maternal grandparents, two uncles, an aunt and a cousin.

One of his earliest musical influences was his own mother, Bette Nilsson, who wrote two songs which Nilsson later recorded. "She wrote '"Marchin' Down Broadway",'" Nilsson said, "which Irving Berlin offered her a thousand bucks for, I found out. She thought he wanted the whole song, so she said no. He may really have wanted it; I've heard stories about him. Then she wrote '"Little Cowboy".' That was about the extent of her songwriting. I think she wrote poetry at night, you know, and things like that. She once wrote something which she sent to a publisher, called 'I Think I'm Going Mad,' and they sent it back and said, 'So do we!'"

In early 1952, Nilsson, his mother and sister took the long bus ride to San Bernardino, California,home of Bette's brother and his wife, Uncle John and Aunt Anna. They stayed there for a month and then moved to the nearby town of Colton, where they lived in a trailer on the parking lot of the railside diner where Nilsson's mother waited tables.

As one might gather by now, Nilsson, despite growing up in the '50s, did not have a Norman Rockwell childhood. He has a total of six stepfathers, and his mother constantly had problems with alcohol and money. In late 1956, Bette moved herself and the children back east, to Long Island, New York, to avoid prosecution for forged and bounced checks. They moved in with Bette's sister and her husband, Aunt Cissy and Uncle Fred, and slept in the family's basement and attic during that cold winter. Nilsson started school there after the new year and became very popular, making the baseball and basketball teams. His teenage life seemed to be achieving some semblance of normalcy.

Nilsson's mother and sister moved out of Fred and Cissy's house in early 1957, but Nilsson stayed there in order to complete the school year. When summer arrived, he was allowed to stay on at the home, provided he use the salary from his job as a caddy to help with household expenses. However, that June, around the time of his 16th birthday, he was fired after getting into a fight while on the job. When his uncle said that he couldn't afford to keep Nilsson on at the house, the dejected teenager decided to hitchhike to Los Angeles, California, and rejoin his mother and sister, who had returned there a month before.

Nilsson returned to L.A. to find that he was on his own. His mother was in jail, presumably having been caught up to her old tricks with bad checks. Nilsson took a job at the Paramount Theater, which he later recalled was the fourth largest theater in the world. "They used to have live stage shows with all the rock 'n' roll bands, and they had a piano in the basement. So these guys passing though, the Sparrows or something, would show me some chords."

Huggy Boy Presents Rare R&B Oldies
Huggy Boy Presents Rare R&B Oldies
During this same period, Nilsson became taken by the explosion of great rock 'n' roll and R&B music on the airwaves. "I had this beat-up little radio that I used to listen to late at night. I listened to a guy named Dick Hugg, 'Huggy Boy.' It was an all-black station. He played the Olympics, the Coasters, Ray Charles. He played Ray Charles's 'I've Got A Woman'! When I used to go to sleep, if that song came on the radio, no matter how low the volume, I would hear it, wake up and listen to it and go, 'Yeah!'"

In the summer of 1958, Nilsson took time off from the Paramount and moved back in with his Uncle John and Aunt Anna, the relatives who housed the Nilssons when they first came west in 1952. He worked pumping gas at the station owned by John, who was a mechanic. John also was a major musical influence on Nilsson, teaching him how to sing harmony. During this period, Nilsson started listening to the Everly Brothers and formed a singing duo with his best friend, Jerry Smith. "We were the poor man's ... we were somewhere between the Everly Brothers and Jan and Dean, actually." Nilsson said.

After spending the summer with his Uncle John, Nilsson resumed working at the Paramount. "The theater promoted me to assistant manager and sent me to San Francisco, California, to work at a theater that they owned up there. I worked there for a year and then I came back down to act as temporary manager, to close down the L.A. Paramount Theater, 'cause they were tearing it down to 'pave paradise and put up a parking lot,'" as Joni Mitchell sang.

"When we closed the Paramount (circa 1960), the cashiers who worked for me were all getting jobs at a bank, and I said, 'Hell, if I'm their boss, I know how to count money, I can reconcile the balance. I'll apply.' So I lied on my application and told them I graduated high school.

"Got a job at the bank. I took some tests, and I came out very high in the computer area. They were just starting computers. They said, 'Do you have any interest in computers?' I said, 'This is a dream come true. You bet!'

"So I got the job, kept the job. They found out I didn't graduate from high school and they called me in to fire me. I said, 'Look, I've done a good job. You know I have. I haven't been late,' and all that stuff. I cried tears and I said, 'Look, I had to do it, otherwise I wouldn't be able to get a job.'

"They really liked me, so they went out on a limb. They said, 'Okay, you're on probation for six months.' So I said, 'All right,' and I worked really hard for the six months, and they just kept me on and eventually I was in charge of the place when I left."

During the early 1960s, Nilsson began to build a career in music. Since he worked the night shift at the bank, his days were free for hanging around music biz offices. With his natural charm, he made many connections just from spending time in waiting rooms and befriending office personnel. The fall of 1960 saw him singing demos for songwriter/producer Scott Turner. According to Nilsson, Turner paid him five dollars for each of the 11 songs (all Turner compositions) that Nilsson recorded. Years later, Turner decided to capitalize on Nilsson's success by releasing the demos (filled out by studio musicians). He telephoned Nilsson to work out payment. Nilsson later claimed to have told Turner, "You already paid me. Five dollars a song. That was our deal." The "album" came out in two different pressings. If this story, as told by Nilsson, is true, then Turner must have made back his 55 dollars many, many times over.

One of the legends surrounding Nilsson is that he never performed any live concerts. He was very proud of the fact that, with all his fame, he remained an amateur (not amateurish) at live performance. While that claim is mostly true (save cameos at Beatlefests and such, plus the specials he did for the BBC), Nilsson, when pressed, admitted having done a show with Jerry Smith. "We did one," he chuckled and corrected himself. "Well, we did half of one. There was an oldies but goodies type show, a road show with all rock 'n' rollers: the Safaris, the Elegants, Don and Dewey. This promoter, Hal Ziger, needed an act to fill in for the Safaris. We said, 'Okay. What do we sing?' He said, 'Whatever the heck you want! It pays 15 dollars. Do you want it?'

"So, came the night, we had to be at (a bar at) 35th and Weston, which is a tough area, South Central L.A. We got there at 11 in the morning for some reason. They were still cleaning out the bar. It stunk of whiskey. It was a black bar, in a black neighborhood. Pretty soon the musicians all started showing up, carrying their guitars and cases and everything, and we were scared to death. We didn't know what the hell we had gotten into. Then they said, 'Okay, bus time!' So we get on the bus and the first thing the driver does, he looks back at everybody, then he looks toward us and says, 'Back of the bus!' We were the only white guys there! And everybody cracked up, saying, 'Hey, that's all right, man, you're all right. You can sit here if you want. He's just being friendly, you know.' It was hysterical. We drove to a place right outside of San Diego, California, called National City, to this big auditorium there. It seated about a couple thousand people, and the audience was all black.

The Kingston Trio (Capitol Collector's Series)
The Kingston Trio (Capitol Collector's Series)
"When it was our turn to go on, we went, 'Holy Jesus what have we gotten ourselves into now?' We had bought some blue corduroys and blue sweaters like the Kingston Trio." Nilsson laughed and added, "Alpaca sweaters! And the gig was paying, don't forget, 15 dollars. So we went our onstage, believe it or not, and we walked out and there were howls of laughter. I mean, that place went nuts! We were scared; we'd never done anything like this before anyway, and this was really scary. And I looked at Jerry and he looked at me and we both looked at each other in fear. We didn't look at the audience, just at each other! We sang, 'If I Had A Hammer.'"

Nilsson laughed at the weirdness of it all. "Now, if they had had hammers, they would have killed us! They started laughing, and at the end of it they roared approval. They were screaming and clapping, all in fun. And I said, 'That's it,' and he said, 'That's it. We're outta here.'

"So we got the first bus back to L.A., where we found our Volkswagen trashed," Nilsson said. "So the whole thing cost me a car, the Alpaca sweater, and then, on top of that, I gave a check to Hal Ziger. I said, Here's 10 dollars back. We only did one song. Since I gave him his money back, my amateur status was still intact," Nilsson concluded, chuckling proudly.

Continued: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 2)

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