Interpretations of two dozen songs written by a man much admired by Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and the Beatles.
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Harry Nilsson is quite a paradox. He was a Brooklynite who suffered an unstable upbringing (later immortalised in his song ‘1941’), yet whose early albums exude charm and winsomeness. He was a naturally gifted performer but rarely sang in front of an audience, and never toured. And – most famously – he was a singer-songwriter whose two biggest hits (‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ and ‘Without You’) were both covers. This new Ace compilation of Nilsson compositions recorded by others should help redress the songwriter-singer balance a little, but even if it doesn’t, it’s an essential gathering of baroque (and more) pop nuggets, collecting hits, misses and obscurities from his songbook.
Nilsson’s early years were plagued by false starts, marked by a run of 45s on Tower and a series of indie labels. While waiting for his recording career to gain traction, he had been shopping his songs around to other artists, placing titles with the Shangri-Las, Pat & André, Debbie Burton and others, and writing an all-time classic for the MFQ with the Phil Spector-produced ‘This Could Be The Night’, one of the greatest singles never released (eventually appearing on a 1976 Spector compilation). All these gems are included here.
Meanwhile, producer Rick Jarrard had been alerted to Nilsson’s own recordings and helped forge a deal with RCA, resulting in the LP “Pandemonium Shadow Show”. This and its follow-up, “Aerial Ballet”, were plundered for material for artists as diverse as the Yardbirds and José Feliciano, although perhaps most fruitfully by the Monkees – both ‘Daddy’s Song’ and ‘Cuddly Toy’ are present here. In total, 10 of the titles on this collection are taken from these two wonderful albums. Arguably as important to Nilsson’s career was a burgeoning friendship with the Beatles, the result of Derek Taylor hearing ‘1941’ on the radio and immediately despatching copies of “Pandemonium Shadow Show” to Lennon and co, who instantly sensed a kindred spirit and a super-talented singer.
It’s debatable if Nilsson’s career lived up to this early promise, but his subsequent long-players include many glorious moments, and his “Nilsson Sings Newman” is one of the most quietly affecting albums in all of pop music. New readings of his own compositions kept coming too – via Harpers Bizarre, Andy Williams, Al Kooper and the 5th Dimension, all included here. The mid-to-late 1970s were tough times for Nilsson, following a decline in commercial success and a troubled private life. Better, then, to remember him with this definitive package from his glory years, expertly compiled and annotated by Mick Patrick, David Young and Ian Johnston.