Harry Nilsson moved to Los Angeles while in his early teens. The family wasn’t well-off, and to make ends meet, Harry worked during High School at the Paramount Theater on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. A natural musician and songwriter, he eventually became known around L.A. as a pure talent, working with Phil Spector in 1964 while in his early twenties. Shortly thereafter he became world-famous and was nicknamed the “American Beatle” for his close relationship with the Fab Four. Later, he and John Lennon would indulge in what was known as the “lost weekend,” an 18-month period when Lennon got freaky in L.A.
His songs, compositions, and soundtrack contributions established him as one of his era’s best songwriters, but his lack of touring combined with poor career management meant he never ascended the heights that many in the business felt he deserved. He died in 1994, and while his talents have been recognized, they haven’t been celebrated at the level they deserve.
Harry loved Los Angeles, and even wrote his own theme song for the Dodgers. We love Harry and his music, so when we heard there was a campaign to get him into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, we reached out to the campaign organizer, musician Todd Lawrence, to find out more.
Why should Harry Nilsson be in the Rock in Roll Hall of Fame?
A lot of people are cynical about the Hall of Fame, and I get their reasons for that. But the thing the Hall does really well is shine a light on undervalued artists who were crucial to the development of pop music (last year’s induction of The Five Royales being a case in point).
Nilsson was a pretty crucial figure. He was essentially the missing link between early-60s Brill Building songwriters like Goffin/King and Neil Sedaka and the more acerbic end of the 70s singer-songwriter thing (think Randy Newman and Warren Zevon).
In his time, he pretty much set the bar for both singing and songwriting excellence. Everyone was in awe of him – even The Beatles (who named him in interviews as their “favorite group”).
And his influence has lasted. A lot of the modern indie aesthetic can be traced directly back to his 70s albums (especially the habit of multi-tracking a single voice to form a chorus effect).
I could go on…or you can read more about it here.
What’s your personal connection to Harry and his music?
My very first memory of pop music centered around a trip to the beach at age 5 or 6.
We were laying out and Coconut came on the radio. It completely entranced me (“you put the lime in the coconut and drink em both up”). It was so odd.
Later that night on the way home, I was half asleep and the car radio played Without You (“can’t live…if living is without you”) …and it filled me with this beautiful sense of melancholy.
It was decades later that I realized that both songs were by the same guy. Meanwhile by then I’d already fallen in love with the theme song to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father on tv, and this amazing cartoon movie about a round headed kid named Oblio who lived in a land where everyone else’s head had a point (The Point). There was also an old radio station in LA called KNX that used to play a song about a moonbeam (The Moonbeam Song) and another called “Turn on Your Radio” – both of which completely entranced me.
So one day in my early 20s I bought a Nilsson comp because of his Beatle connections…and it was jam packed with all of these songs. Songs that went back to my initial discovery of music itself.
Later when I became a musician myself, I got a record deal and had a chance to hire a producer. So I had my manager contact Harry. He was apparently very kind and even offered to connect us with someone he thought would be good, but he was too ill to do it himself and he died just weeks later.
In the time since, his music has been like a lifeline to me whenever life was hard. I never knew the man, but as you can tell – he’s certainly made an impact on my life.
How did you get interested in the cause to get Harry in the Hall?
I’d been watching the recent resurgence in interest in him with the documentary and book and box set all released a few years back. All of that was great, and it definitely seemed to have impact – but other than musicians and music obsessives (who largely revere the guy) – there was still this sense that he might easily be forgotten again once a few more years passed.
I have no idea why this bothered me so much, but I just couldn’t shake the idea that I ought to do something about it. And because I had a lot of established musicians as friends – I felt like I was in a good position to make something cool happen. So I connected with some other fans and we got to work.
What are you top 5 Nilsson songs?
Changes every day. Tonight I’ll go with:
1. The Moonbeam Song
3. Don’t Forget Me
4. Jump Into The Fire
5. Think About Your Troubles
What are the main obstacles in his way for Hall induction?
Because he never played live or toured, fans didn’t really know him. They know his music, but they don’t know him. That makes it hard.
I don’t think there has ever been any active sentiment to exclude him. I just think he lacked anyone really advocating for him. But I actually think the Hall voters will respond to the idea. People who know music well tend to love Nilsson.
Do you think Harry doesn’t get enough credit for his influence on music in general?
No question about it. There is still this sentiment out there that he was just John Lennon’s mascot or something. A lot of folks see him as a one-hit wonder (even though he actually had several hits). But when you take in the totality of his work, you realize that he cut an incredible swath through our culture.
Who are the people involved in the Harry in the Hall movement?
It’s a pretty varied network. Gabe Szoke runs the Nilsson Facebook group. He started this with me. Another fan named Lyn Leister has been the other main organizer. There is a lovely guy in the UK named Darren Dutton who has compiled most of our videos. Also Harry’s eldest son Zak has been instrumental.
Then there are all the musicians, Willie Aron and Rob Laufer were the key players. They brought in folks like Evie Sands, Syd Straw, Steve Barton (Translator) and Probyn Gregory (Brian Wilson’s band). Bob Forrest was a fan, so he joined in and poet/songwriter Steve Kalinich (wrote the lyrics to several Beach Boys songs). Lots more.
Here’s the video we all got together to make:
In recent days we’ve gotten word from celebrities like Paul Williams, Adam Goldberg, Neil Innes and Ron Sexsmith supporting our efforts.
I know I left someone important out. Sigh…
If someone is just starting to learn about Nilsson, what should they check out?
Most folks start with “Nilsson Schmilsson” – and you certainly can’t go wrong doing so. But I’d suggest the 2 disc compilation called Personal Best. It’s a great career overview. If you are like most people you’ll be shocked at how many songs you already love are on it.