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Harry Nilsson Biography
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One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 2)

Continued From: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 1)

In 1963, Nilsson's songwriting and recording career gained steam, thanks largely to his creative partnership with songwriter John Marascalco ("Good Golly Miss Molly"). "John Marascalco deserves a lot of credit," Nilsson observed. "He was the first guy to loan me 300 bucks, and he also took me into the fold to write songs with him."

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Together they wrote "Groovy Little Suzie"," which, Nilsson admitted, "sounded exactly like 'Good Golly Miss Molly.'" The similarity must have appealed to Little Richard, for he wound up recording the song. Nilsson recalled that when he sang the song for Richard, the flamboyant star told him, "My, you sing good for a white boy!"

Marascalco, besides being the first major business person to recognize Nilsson's songwriting talent, also financed Nilsson's first professional recording efforts, a pair of singles released on independent labels. Neither disc made waves, but Nilsson was glad to get the experience. The first one, "Baa Baa Blacksheep", came out on Crusader Records. Since Nilsson did not care to use his real name, he used a joke name based on the "sheep" concept, "Bo Pete."

The record itself came about from a chance meeting between Nilsson and a girl group. "I was in a little studio one day," he said, "hanging around, doing demos, and I heard these teenage girls walk by singing four-part harmony. They called themselves the Beach Girls. They had this quality to them that was so raw and natural, and I thought, 'Ooh, that's cool!' So I was working on '"Baa Baa Blacksheep",' and I said to the girls, 'Here, come here a sec,' and I started to play the song. I said, 'You do the backgrounds, like the Raeletts or something.'" The song garnered a smattering of local airplay, enough to merit a Bo Pete follow-up: Nilsson's own version of "Groovy Little Suzie" coupled with "Do You Wanna (Have Some Fun)", on the Crusader offshoot Try.

One day, Nilsson was hanging around Ziger's office, shooting the breeze with a promoter's secretary, a woman named Sonny, when a breathless music publisher rushed in. As Nilsson later told the story, "He said 'Sonny! Quick! Do you know where I can get a singer? Just someone who could sing this song I'm doing? And I gotta get it over to (Mercury executive) Jack Tracy today.' She said, 'Him.'

"He said, 'Can you sing?' I said, "Well, what have you got?' He played this song called '"Wig Job",' because wigs were getting popular again, flips and all that, you know? 'So there goes my baby with a new lo-ok/Got all the fellows in the neighborhood ho-oked/Wig Job.'

"I said, 'What are you gonna use for the other side?' He said, 'Anything you want.' I said, 'Well, I have this little song I was writing ...' This was before I started writing good songs. It was "Donna I Understand". Recalling it, Nilsson laughed at the silliness of the title. "And the guy at Mercury said, 'I like the singer and I like the song "Donna," but the other side I don't like!'

"So, as a result of that, I got signed by Mercury, and I said (to the song publisher), 'Bye!' They kept me on the label for a year and they didn't put anything out, and finally they put that one single out." Since they thought that "Harry Nilsson" sounded too much like a middle-aged Swedish businessman, the single came out under the name "Johnny Niles."

Throughout Nilsson's early recording career, he kept his night job at the bank. "I worked there every night, from five o'clock 'til about one o'clock. I'd get off around quarter-to-one if I was lucky. I'd race to a bar and fortify myself, and then race back to this office which I was allowed to use because I cleaned the windows for them when they weren't working one night. I washed all the windows and they couldn't believe it. I made the place spic and span. They said, 'Boy! No one's ever done anything like that for us. Here, here's a key.' That was Perry Botkin's office." Perry Botkin was a successful songwriter, arranger and music publisher.

In late 1964, Nilsson hooked up with Phil Spector. It was an interesting meeting of minds; Nilsson, who was just beginning to blossom, and Spector, who was at his artistic and commercial peak. Nilsson was recording a demo at Gold Star, which was also Spector's studio of choice. "Phil was walking down the hallway and he heard my demo and he said, 'Who's that?' Turns out that Perry Botkin used to publish Phil when Phil was a teenager, and he said, 'That's Harry Nilsson.' Phil said, 'That's a good song. Did he write it?' Perry said, 'Yeah, well, he and I wrote it,'" Nilsson said.

The next thing Nilsson knew, the First Tycoon of Teen phoned him to suggest that they meet, and the two started to write together. The pairing resulted in three songs: "This Could Be the Night", recorded by the Modern Folk Quartet, and the Ronettes numbers "Paradise" and "Here I Sit"." As Nilsson recalled, the latter tune's lyrics presaged Nilsson's later toilet-humor songs such as Son of Schmilsson's "I'd Rather Be Dead"; "It was taken from a men's room wall: 'Here I sit, broken hearted/Fell in love, but now we parted' instead of 'farted.' 'Couldn't see the writing on the wall' If that isn't enough of a hint! I did a record with Cher and Phil, "A Love Like Yours". I called us Nilssonny and Cher!"

Spector, for reasons best know to him, chose not to release the MFQ's "This Could Be the Night" at the time. (It can now be heard on the Spector boxed set, Back to Mono.) The classic pop song became legendary in L.A. pop circles and a particular favorite of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, who has reportedly made attempts at recording it over the years. ("This Could Be the Night" has the rare distinction of being in Wilson's permanent memory. In March of this year, during his appearance at New York's Algonquin Hotel, he was unable to recall some of his own songs, but acceded enthusiastically to a request for that Nilsson tune.)

Near the end of 1964, Nilsson's Mercury contract ran out, and he was picked up by Tower, a new arm of Capitol Records. "I had T-1; the first contract every signed on Tower," Nilsson claimed. Unfortunately, Tower, like Mercury, quickly forgot about its new signee. "The kept me under wraps for a year and didn't do anything, so I said, 'Please let me get out of this contract. You're not recording me. Get me out.' So, finally, we had one session. The reason we got that was, George Tipton put up his life's savings, 2,500 bucks, and we recorded four tracks and we sold them to Tower." Tipton, who went on to become a highly-rated arranger, was then a music copyist in Perry Botkin's office. Reflecting upon Tipton's investment in his career, Nilsson said, "That's what I call belief. He took that money and he paid for the session, which he arranged, his first arrangement."

Tower also bought some other demos by the New Salvation Singers, which was the group that another guy in Botkin's office had, and I sang along with the group for free." Nilsson noted that Tower later reissued those recordings to capitalize upon the fame that he had acquired as a hit songwriter. "Suddenly, because I had a hit song as Harry Nilsson, the group became credited as 'Harry Nilsson and the New Salvation Singers!'"

During this period, Nilsson supplanted his bank income by recording commercial jingles. His voice was heard on commercials for Ban Deodorant ("Ban won't wear off as the day wears on") and Red Roof Inns; (an Elvis-style "Look for the Red Roof"), among others. He also recorded a song that was used in an episode of the popular TV show I Spy.

Like most other songwriters of the mid '60s, Nilsson changed his writing style in the wake of the Beatles's success. However, with Nilsson it was not just a case of emulating the Fab Four purposefully. In fact, when he first heard them, he was filled with jealousy. Fortunately, by the time The Beatles released Rubber Soul, Nilsson had learned to stop worrying and love the Fabs. Something about the group struck a very special chord within him, as though they were his kindred spirits. Their sheer creativity inspired him to stretch his own artistic boundaries.

Nilsson continued to spend his after-work hours in Perry Botkin's office, writing songs. "I remember one magical day," he recalled with a hint of wonder, "I wrote three songs in one night: "Without Her", "1941" and "Don't Leave Me". In one night. And I realized then that I would never write another bad song.

"The next day, they came into the office and I said, 'Listen to what I did last night.' I had put the songs on tape. They said, 'You wrote those last night?' They guy from across the hall had a publishing company, and he said, 'I'd like to buy that one, "Without Her", for $10,000.' They sold it to him, thinking they had made a big bundle, and then they had all these other songs of mine, so it was great. Then Glen Campbell recorded "Without Her" and they heard about it first, so they said to the guy across the hall, 'We'll give you your 10 grand back.' They gave it back, plus five. They put the song back in their catalog and then sold the catalog for $150,000!

"The guy across the hall had insisted that I do a demo on "Without Her" an octave down and never go for the high notes because, he said, no one could sing those. I said, 'You're crazy. I just sang it.' He said, 'You can, but you can't show that to an artist who can't hit those notes.' As a result, Glen Campbell heard the version with the lower notes and he sang it down there."

Nilsson soon became a "happening" songwriter, and his tunes were picked up by everyone from Jack Jones to Billy J. Kramer, Sandie Shaw to Fred Astaire, and Herb Alpert to George Burns. Artists began to chart with his songs, including the Yardbirds with "Ten Little Indians" and Canadian folk-punk singer Tom Northcott with the excellent Leon Russell-produced "1941".

Continued: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 3)

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