Graded on a Curve: Harry Nilsson,
Nilsson Sings Newman

Remembering Harry Nilsson, born on this day in 1941.Ed.

In the first month of 1970, RCA Records released Nilsson Sings Newman, a collaborative album between one of the period’s strongest and most unique pop vocalists and a truly gifted if somewhat obscure songwriter known primarily for providing other artists with prime material. A theoretical perfect match; it’s therefore unsurprising that hardly anybody bought the thing when it first came out.

On a purely commercial level, Harry Nilsson is vindicated by his very fine version of superb singer-songwriter Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” initially an album track given second life by its use in the epoch-defining New Hollywood film Midnight Cowboy, and by the smash success of his 1971 LP Nilsson Schmilsson, which rose to #3 on the Album Chart and wielded three Top 40 singles including a #1 in “Without You,” another cover via UK group Badfinger.

Considering Randy Newman through this same specifically commercial prism finds him justified not only through the sizable hits his songs provided for other artists, but also via his late-career transformation into a film-scoring juggernaut, though it bears mentioning that he had an unlikely and somewhat unrepresentative #2 hit with “Short People” in 1977. However, many also know him through the smaller, though much longer-lingering success of his biting tribute to Los Angeles, “I Love L.A.”

But if there is one thing that the careers of Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman share, it’s in the way they exploit the futility of judging an artist purely in terms of record sales. To do so with Nilsson is to depict an artist of fitful slow-growth potential finally scoring a breakout success with his seventh album (or ninth if you count his soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s eternally divisive hunk of weird-meat cinema Skidoo, where Nilsson actually sang the film’s end credits, and his early ’71 “remix” LP Aerial Pandemonium Ballet) and then going through a long, slow decline.

And the cruel lens of units-shifted completely misses the enduring brilliance of Newman’s still rather startling four album run; 1970’s 12 Songs (his second LP), 1971’s club-date bums-rush Randy Newman Live, 1972’s great studio leap forward Sail Away, and the often caustic commentary of 1974’s Good Old Boys. If there is a qualitatively stronger string of four records produced by one singer-songwriter in the years 1970-1990, then I must be victim to a severe blind-spot.

But the so-called wisdom of many that persisted well into the ‘80s held that Newman’s talent as a vocalist was at best a merely adequate indulgence and that he needed more traditional, more polished throats to bring his skill as a writer across to a mass audience. Frankly, this is a ridiculous claim, and the fact that Nilsson Sings Newman didn’t sell squat upon its release trounces its validity with gusto, for there are few singers better equipped for the task than the silver-toned Nilsson.

No, the winds of commercial favor are often shallow and nearly always unpredictable; Newman certainly deserved better, but prior to the artistically fruitful collab that is Nilsson Sings Newman, where the album finds him at the piano chair accompanying Nilsson’s deft and subtle multi-tracked vocals, the man’s only work as a credited performer (outside of an obscure single in ’62) was his self-titled ’68 debut for Warner/Reprise. That record, while actually quite interesting, proved to be a false first-step creatively, promoting Newman in broad orchestral terms instead of presenting the gist of his talent at the keyboard in the service of his own songs.

In contrast, Harry Nilsson was quite prolific prior to the explosive success of Nilsson Schmilsson. After some formative early singles for the Tower label (collected with added stuff via the ’66 LP Spotlight on Nilsson, a record that’s quite okay in its no-big-dealness), he stepped out via a contract with RCA and what many consider to be his real debut, 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, gaining further stride with the following year’s Aerial Ballet.

Alongside the release of Nilsson Sings Newman, another substantive connection between the two performers would be that both had their songs ruined by Three Dog Night. Aerial Ballet includes Nilsson’s far superior original recording “One,” now something of a pop standard, and the record also tidily summarizes the dual strengths exhibited by the artist on his early albums, for it’s here that “Everybody’s Talkin’” found a home prior to its inclusion on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack.

While Nilsson is often retrospectively thought of as a singer-songwriter, his initial string of releases all included at least one interpretation of another artist’s tune; he tackled everything from Merle Travis’s chestnut “Sixteen Tons” to the Spector/Berry/Greenwich monster “River Deep Mountain High” to most significantly a handful of Beatles covers, in fact two on Pandemonium Shadow Show, “You Can’t Do That” and “She’s Leaving Home.”

Harry, his ’69 album (and his first to crack the Billboard Albums Chart, rising to #120), finds his take on Lennon/McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son,” but it also holds a swell version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and concludes with an excellent cover of Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.” And If Nilsson had stopped there in investigating Newman’s stuff he’d just be one of hundreds of singers to have plumbed the fathoms of the guy’s invaluable songbook.

But he didn’t, and by electing to devote an entire LP to a tunesmith that few music fans knew by name at the time, he not only deepened his stature as an idiosyncratic figure who was far more interested in following disparate creative avenues than in adhering to a strict formula in the pursuit of commercial success. Indeed, time spent with his pre-Nilsson Schmilsson records paint a portrait of a man whose pop-chart victories were a fortunate accident, and this perspective helps to make his subsequent artistic difficulties far more comprehensible, if not any easier to swallow.

Perhaps Nilsson’s smartest move was in enlisting Newman to play the keyboard on these ten superb interpretations, for as adventurous as they can become, they also remain grounded in the essence of their author’s personality. The record opens with “Vine St.” and those new to this album who are conversant with the masterful take of that tune as it opens Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle will likely be very surprised, pleasantly so, by this incarnation’s cumulative difference.

What’s immediately apparent is the rich suitability of Nilsson’s voice for the task at hand; as much as I love hearing Parks do “Vine St.,” the treatment found here feels like the best, topping even Newman’s own demo recording that turned up on a retrospective box set a few years back. And half of the songs on Nilsson Sings Newman are from the songwriter’s aforementioned debut LP, which means that these versions feel far more worthwhile than the well-intentioned but off-the-mark presentations given by Randy Newman.

But this record also includes selections that appear in fine form on Newman’s defining works, particularly “Yellow Man” from 12 Songs and “Dayton Ohio 1903” from Sail Away. And the sweet kicker is how these Nilsson-sung adaptations hold their own with absolute ease. I also like how this take of “Living Without You” redirects the rather intense emotionalism that Newman often brings to the tune, making it far less of a fragile, wounded testament and more a statement of bittersweet resignation.

“I’ll Be Home”, which turned up the following year on Randy Newman Live and again via ’77’s Eagles-tainted Little Criminals (though ‘tis true the problem of Eagles-damage essentially began on Good Old Boys), is given its fullest, most successful reading here, and tracks like “Beehive State” and “Caroline” (written specifically for the album) really solidify the case in favor of Nilsson’s skills at multi-tracking (so it’s really no surprise Stereo Review gave this record Album of the Year honors in 1970). Closer “So Long, Dad” starts out spare and direct before going slowly and subtly weird (a tendency smartly resisted for the majority of the LP) for the finale and fade out.

All in all, it’s a quick listen, but a revelatory one in its inspired equality; it adds to the stature and artistry of the singer, the adaptability of the songwriter’s talent, the enduring qualities of the producer’s vision, the depth of emotion in the pianist’s playing. And it occurs to me that while I wouldn’t rate it as the best Nilsson album (that would probably be either Nilsson Schmilsson or the underrated Harry, the least dated of his ‘60s discs) in the end it is my hands-down favorite.

Much of this is due to my unabashed fandom of Randy Newman. But without the inspiration, dedication, and sheer talent of Harry Nilsson it would’ve all been for naught.


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