My roomie Christopher drew my attention to an article in The New Yorker written by Ben Greenman titled, “Harry’s Styles: The Ten Best Lesser-Known Nilsson Songs”.
Needless to say, I am a big Nilsson fan. Indeed, last year I submitted a book proposal to the 33 1/3 Series for Nilsson’s 1973 album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. This album was the first notable collection of standards recorded by a rock star. He enlisted the help Gordon Jenkins, who arranged some of Frank Sinatra’s finest work and the resulted in the last great album of Nilsson’s career. Alas, the book did not come to pass. But I digress.
The article coincides with yesterday’s release of the 17-disc The RCA Albums Collection which includes all 14 albums Nilsson recorded for RCA plus three discs worth of previously unreleased material. That could end up being a very good birthday gift. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.
My main quibble with Greenman’s article is that outside of “Everybody’s Talkin”, “Without You” & “Coconut” (and perhaps “One” which was a monster hit for Three Dog Night) all of Nilsson’s songs are lesser known. Although Nilsson was critically acclaimed for his songwriting, “Everybody’s Talkin'” was written by Fred Neil while “Without You” was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger. For most Americans under the age of 50, Nilsson is an unknown quantity.
While I like some of Greenman’s selections (“Vine Street” from Nilsson Sings Newman and “All I Think About is You” from Knnillssonn), I would like to draw your attention to ten other worthy Nilsson songs.
1. “Ten Little Indians” – From his 1967 debut album Pandemonium Shadow Show, it is Nilsson’s take on the Ten Commandments. This song could never be recorded today.
2. “Good Old Desk” – This appeared on his second album Aerial Ballet. Take a listen Harry singing this on Playboy After Dark. Don’t worry, it’s safe for work. After Nilsson’s death in 1994, Ron Sexsmith recorded a cover version on a Nilsson tribute album titled Everybody Sings Nilsson. When I saw Sexsmith in concert in Ottawa in 1999, I asked him to play the song. He did so reluctantly and it quickly became apparent why – he forgot the lyrics. Fortunately, I was there to cue him. For several years after, I would ask him to play this song at his concerts until he said no mas.
3. “Don’t Leave Me” – This also appeared on Aerial Ballet. I can’t listen to “Good Old Desk” without also listening to this song. I’ve always seen these songs as a pair.
4. “Miss Butter’s Lament” – This was recorded during the Pandemonium Shadow Show sessions, but remain unreleased until after his death when it was posthumously released on Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology. Think of it as Nilsson’s take on The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. Sean Nelson also does a nice version of this song on hisNelson Sings Nilsson album. What other “Miss Butter’s Laments” could be on those three CDs of unreleased material?
5. “Sister Marie” – This was a B-side for “One”. Yet another response to “Eleanor Rigby”.
6. “Remember Christmas” – From his 1972 album Son of Schmilsson, singing of holidays that never were.
7. “Joy” – Nilsson had a wicked sense of humor. Also on Son of Schmilsson, this was his send up of country and western ballads.
8. “I’d Rather Be Dead” – OK, this is also from Son of Schmilsson and it’s more of his humor albeit some very black humor. I’d rather be dead than wet my bed. Nilsson recorded this song in London with some residents of a retirement home for performers. He and producer Richard Perry supplied them with sherry and the proceedings went splendidly.
9. “Maybe” – From his third album Harry (1969), this song has a Tin Pin Alley feel to it.
10. “Me & My Arrow” – In 1971, Nilsson released an album titled The Point! which was a concept album revolving around a children’s story. The me in question is Oblio, the only round headed person in the land of Point! where everyone and everything has a point. Arrow is Oblio’s dog. The Point! was later made for TV with Ringo Starr, Dustin Hoffman and Alan Thicke narrating for the U.K., U.S. and Canadian versions, respectively. On a personal note, my brother’s old band The Golden Dogs (knowing my fondness for Nilsson) would perform this song whenever they came to Boston.
The above list was confined to songs Nilsson wrote. I’ll end with a couple of songs that Nilsson didn’t write. First, there’s Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” from the otherwise disappointing Pussy Cats, his 1974 collaboration with John Lennon. I would be remiss if I didn’t include a track from A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. The hour is late so I leave you with the song Sylvia Fine penned for her husband Danny Kaye, “Lullabye in Ragtime”.