Harry Nilsson is one of those performers whose name doesn’t bring instant recognition, but whose choir-boy voice readily does — though the irony for this singer-songwriter is that he was destined to be best known for the songs he didn’t write.
“Being relegated to having sung ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ ” and ‘Without You’ ain’t exactly what I set out to do,” he admitted in a 1977 interview.
The former was the poignant theme song of the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy,” and Nilsson’s first major chart success; the latter was Nilsson’s biggest hit, a power ballad that topped the charts in 1971. Nilsson, who died in 1994, didn’t write either song.
A new biography and a 17 CD box set seek to redress that irony and bring about a new appreciation for the eclectic artist the Beatles once described as their “favorite group.”
Alyn Shipton’s “Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter” (Oxford University Press; $27.95) is the first full-length biography of Nilsson, and takes a scrupulously detailed approach to his work. Shipton examines in detail every recording session and plumbs every musician or producer possible for new information.
In describing the recording of “Without You,” for example, Shipton details how Nilsson argued with producer Richard Perry over which version of the song to release, Nilsson’s heartfelt demo or Perry’s more polished production, layered with strings and topped by Nilsson’s passionate delivery of the chorus line “Can’t live, if living is without you.” Perry won the argument, and Nilsson gained a worldwide hit.
Shipton is more restrained in describing Nilsson’s troubled personal life. Born in Brooklyn in 1941, the singer was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. In his mid-20s, he was shocked to learn that his father, whom he’d been told had died in World War II, was in fact alive; missing fathers appear in a number of his songs, like his first hit, “1941.”
As Nilsson’s career took off, so did his indulgence in drugs and alcohol, and he became legendary for carousing around Los Angeles and London with the likes of John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon.
Nilsson’s substance abuse had a decided impact on his career. But Shipton writes that Nilsson “proved that he could live the rock and roll lifestyle and yet remain a private family man,” neatly overlooking the fact that if he’d lived that lifestyle a little less assiduously, he could’ve been a family man a good deal longer.
“Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection” contains all 14 of Nilsson’s albums for the label and a generous three CDs of bonus tracks (including that early “Without You” demo). The eclecticism of the material illustrates why Nilsson never truly found his niche as a recording artist (Nilsson rarely gave live performances).
At one end there’s the sweet soundtrack of “The Point,” the well-known children’s cartoon about discrimination. At the other, the self-indulgence of “Pussy Cats,” his uneven album with John Lennon, recorded when Nilsson’s throat was bleeding due to ill health.
Nilsson’s lifelong insecurities didn’t allow him to build on his success when it finally came, with his best-known album, “Nilsson Schmilsson,” a clever, witty collection of pop songs. But among all his songs you’ll find a number of gems reflecting the bittersweet essence of his life, which makes this box set especially fun to explore.
Other new releases
Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines” (Interscope)
Michael Franti & Spearhead, “All People” (Capitol)
Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, “Dirty Word” (Louisiana Red Hot)