Harry Nilsson: A Touch Of Genius And An Extraordinary Voice

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Harry Nilsson, on the poster for the documentary 'Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?'

In the early 1970s, Harry Nilsson was one of the most famous musicians on the planet -- due in part to songs like "Coconut" and Everybody's Talkin'". Yet by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 52, most people had forgotten the reclusive singer's name -- even if they never forgot his timeless songs.

Writer and radio host Alyn Shipton chronicled his enigmatic story in a new book, Nilsson: The Life Of A Singer-Songwriter.

This segment originally aired on July 22, 2013.

Interview Highlights

Alyn Shipton, on Nilsson’s choice to shun the spotlight and write big hits for others:

Harry had managed to live the life of a full-on rock and roller without ever appearing live on stage throughout the main part of his career. And that’s an extraordinary achievement. But of course what it meant was he didn’t sing his own songs to a public, and the bands that did — Three Dog Night was doing a stadium tour at the time that Harry was simply resolutely refusing to appear. So of course everybody reckoned that the song [“One”] was theirs.

On Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin,’” which became one of his biggest hits:

If you go and hear Fred Neil’s version of it, which is from an album which he did just about that time on the Capitol label, it’s not very good. It’s quite extraordinary that Nilsson and his producer Rick Jarrad heard it and they thought, “We can do something with this.” And the two biggest hits that Nilsson had were both cases of taking a song that somebody else had done alright with but not really made work properly. And with a little touch of genius, Harry’s extraordinary voice, and an absolutely brilliant arrangement by a man called George Tipton, “Everybody’s Talkin’” was transformed from an everyday kind of Greenwich Village sing-alongy folk song into a masterpiece.

On the difficulties of Nilsson’s upbringing influencing his lyrics:

That shaped the man who he was as a lyricist: A very tough childhood. Very ironic sense of humor. He could turn the most tragic consequence into something funny and throwaway. So when at age seven his beloved pet cat was frozen stiff in a blizzard, and when the snow melted they found this thing scatching at the door trying to come back into the house, frozen stiff, he said, “Oh, he looks like The Road Runner!” It was throwing off something that really meant a lot to him with a joke. And he would do this right the way through his life.