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One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 4) (Bio) at the Harry N... 
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Harry Nilsson Biography
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One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 4)

Continued From: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 3)

Not long before or after the Apple press conference, Nilsson got an unexpected phone call on Monday morning at seven. As he later told Rolling Stone, the call began like this:

"Is this Harry? This is John."
"John who?"
"John Lennon."
"Huh?"
"This record [Pandemonium Shadow Show] is fuckin' fantastic, man. I just wanted to say you're great."

After exchanging a few more pleasantries, the two said goodbye. The next Monday morning at seven, Paul McCartney called, also to rave about the album. Nilsson later claimed that he got all dressed up the following Monday morning and waited by the phone, expecting, in vain, that Ringo would call.

A few months later, Derek Taylor invited Nilsson to fly over to London to attend some of the Beatles's recording sessions. Nilsson sat in on what became known as the White Album sessions and spent some quality time with John Lennon. He played Lennon his just-released second album, Aerial Ballet, from which Lennon especially liked "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song"" (named after record promoter Tony Richland). Recalling those times with Lennon, Nilsson told Rolling Stone, "I really fell in love with him. I knew he was all those things you wanted somebody to be."

At the time that Nilsson visited the Beatles, he was working on the soundtrack to the Otto Preminger movie Skidoo. Released at the end of 1968, the film was a bizarre attempt at psychedelic extravagance, with an all-star cast that was mostly well-over 30: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx (in his last screen appearance), Burgess Meredith and Peter Lawford, among others. Nilsson wrote the entire score, including background music and pop numbers. Most unusually, in a cinematic first, he sang the entire closing credits. Although the film was recently revived to an enthusiastic audience at New York's prestigious Film Forum, it has never attained more than a small cult following. As critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed wrote in their book, Rock on Film, "They weren't ready for it in 1968, and they still aren't."

Nilsson himself made a cameo appearance in Skidoo as a prison "Tower Guard" on LSD. Since he had never taken acid, he played the role as though he were drunk. An astute viewer will catch him doing a quick Stan Laurel shrug.

Nilsson began recording Aerial Ballet (named after his grandparents' turn-of-the-century trapeze act) before Pandemonium Shadow Show even came out. One of the songs he chose for the album was the Fred Neil tune "Everybody's Talkin'" which he recorded in November, 1967. Nearly one year later, when Aerial Ballet came out, RCA released "Everybody's Talkin'" as a single. While it made plenty of noise on regional charts, even reaching #51 in Record World, the single's time had not yet come. It slipped by Billboard's Hot 100, despite five weeks of "bubbling under."

Aerial Ballet began with "Good Old Desk"," a song which, like "Cuddly Toy", was much misinterpreted. Once again, the source for the misinterpretation was Nilsson himself. "After I wrote the song," he told Goldmine, "somebody asked me what it was about and I said, 'I don't know.' Then I realized what the initials were." Viewers of the television show "Playboy After Dark" witnessed Nilsson tell Hugh Hefner, with a straight face, that the song's meaning was in its initials ... "God." Nilsson admitted to Goldmine, "I bullshitted him. I thought it was funny. Nobody else thought it was funny!" Meanwhile, the catchy melody of "Good Old Desk" was not lost on English popsters the Move, whose songwriter Roy Wood lifted its bridge for his song, "Blackberry Way", which became the group's only U.K. #1 hit.

Nilsson was very embarrassed at the mention of his 1960s television appearances, which included spots on German television and on the U.S. sitcom "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir". Referring to the latter show, Nilsson later explained to the British press, "I was advised to have a manager, so that year (1968) I had one. He suggested I accept the part. So I just went on and did what they told me. It was awful!"

Nilsson's best contribution to '60s television was "Best Friend", the theme he wrote and sang for "The Courtship of Eddie's Father". Considering that it was one of his best-known songs, it is surprising that Nilsson never put it on record. The reasons for its non-release are probably due, at least in part, to legal and technical considerations. The recording of "Best Friend" used on the TV show was owned by the show's producers and not by Nilsson or RCA. Since the song was written as a theme and not as a commercial tune, it is short; its only verses are the ones heard on the show. In Nilsson's later years, he was impressed by the song's lasting popularity, and he attempted to re-record it for his final, unreleased album. (At the time of his last interview, he had not yet re-recorded it to his satisfaction.)

Midnight Cowboy (Two Disc Collector's Edition)
Midnight Cowboy (Two Disc Collector's Edition)
According to legend, it was Nilsson's inexhaustible booster Derek Taylor who helped him get this next break by playing Aerial Ballet for director John Schlesinger, who as auditioning music for the film Midnight Cowboy. When the word was out that Schlesinger needed songs, responses came from everyone from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan ("Lay Lady Lay"), to Randy Newman (reportedly, "Cowboy"). Nilsson himself hoped for his own composition "I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City", but Schlesinger's final choice was Nilsson's version of "Everybody's Talkin'".

When it came out as a single off of the soundtrack in August, 1969, one year after it had "bubbled under" and nearly two years after it was recorded, the world finally heard L.A.'s best-kept secret. An international smash, "Everybody's Talkin'" reached #6 on Billboard's Hot 100. The Midnight Cowboy soundtrack spurred by the single's success, sold over one million copies and stayed on the Top 200 for 57 weeks. The following March, "Everybody's Talkin'" won Nilsson his first Grammy, for "Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male."

Even before "Everybody's Talkin'" hit, 1969 was a banner year for Nilsson. That March, Three Dog Night hit #5 with the Aerial Ballet song, "One". A million-seller, "One" was a breakthrough for both the group and the songwriter.

Nilsson's third album, Harry, followed close on the heels of Midnight Cowboy. It spawned a Top 40 single, "I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City", proving that the song originally written as a movie theme could succeed on its own. Although Harry did not include "Everybody's Talkin'" (fans would have to buy Midnight Cowboy or Aerial Ballet for that), it became Nilsson's first hit album, reaching #120 during its 15 weeks on the charts. It came at an important time for Nilsson, for it showed "Everybody's Talkin'" listeners, who had been attracted by his singing voice, that he had a unique songwriting voice as well.

Continued: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 5)

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