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#askNat – concerning Harry Nilsson and The Beatles

Hello to everyone and though I’m not sure when you’ll be reading this, I welcome you anyway to the first #askNat for 2014 and hope you’ve had a Happy New Year! The question I’m addressing this week comes from Curtis Honeycutt of Indianapolis. Back in 2012, Curtis had sent in a previous question concerning a short session for Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album in 1974, when John Lennon, who was producing the album, was paid a short visit by Paul McCartney (see that entry here). This time Curtis is back with a follow up question specifically about Harry, that reads as follows:

I just watched Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?. It seems like Harry was buddies with all four Beatles in the seventies, including Paul McCartney dropping in on a Nilsson recording session for his album, Pussy Cats, and recording the lackluster A Toot and a Snore in ’74 with John, Harry, Stevie Wonder and others. How important was Harry Nilsson in the lives of each of the Beatles?

Thanks for writing in Curtis. First off I want to clear up for those that don’t know – A Toot and a Snore in ’74 is the title of a bootleg release that contains a recording from Harry’s Pussy Cats session which is the only known recording (mentioned above) in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney played together after the break-up of The Beatles. It was recorded at Burbank Studios in Los Angeles, CA and also includes Linda McCartney, Jesse Ed Davis, Stevie Wonder on keyboards and others. John was producing the Pussy Cats LP at the time and Paul and Linda McCartney dropped in on this first night of the session, which was March 28, 1974. Only a few rehearsals were done that included the rock and roll standards “Stand By Me” and “Lucille.”

 

Harry Nilsson and John Lennon

Harry Nilsson and John Lennon

 

During the mid-sixties, Harry Nilsson began working with a few big names in the music industry, mainly as a writer, to include Little Richard and Phil Spector. In 1966 he began a recording contract with Tower Records and made his debut LP Spotlight On Nilsson which failed to chart. He did begin to catch the attention of a few more key people when he signed with RCA in 1967 for his follow up album Pandemonium Shadow Show. This was the album that impressed Beatles press officer Derek Taylor so much that he bought an entire box of the LP to share with others. It was through Derek that The Beatles became aware of Harry and they all quickly became fans. In fact both John Lennon and Paul McCartney made a point to telephone Harry and praise the album. One of the album’s tracks was a Lennon-McCartney cover of “You Can’t Do That,” in which Harry had slowed down the tempo and creatively incorporated references to other Beatles songs in much of the background vocals. In a 1968 interview where John and Paul were announcing the formation of Apple Corps, both Beatles were asked to name their favorite American artist and both responded “Nilsson.”

In 1968 Harry met George Harrison at a rented home George was staying at in Los Angeles at the time on Blue Jay Way. Harry brought along a rough cut of his upcoming third LP Aerial Ballet and they played through it and got acquainted. It wasn’t long after that before Harry met up with the other Beatles.

After some chart success between 1969 and 1970, Harry’s next project was an animated film called The Point where he wrote and self-produced all of the music and worked with animation director Fred Wolf on the story and visuals. It was broadcast on ABC-TV in February 1971 and featured Dustin Hoffman as the narrator. A later released home video version had Hoffman’s narration track replaced with one by Ringo Starr.

During John Lennon’s separation from Yoko Ono he ended up out in California and became intent on producing Harry’s next album Pussy Cats, as mentioned above. Their time together was not always productive however as shown by a widely publicized incident at West Hollywood’s Troubadour club they were shown out the front door after some heavy drinking and harassment of the Smothers Brothers, who also happened to be there. John would later admit to having way too many Brandy Alexanders. While in California, Harry, John and Ringo rented a house together with the idea of getting cleaned up. Later when RCA were considering dropping Harry, John joined Harry in office negotiations with RCA and even hinted that if they keep Harry on the label that he and Ringo might sign a contract with the company after their Apple contract was up the following year. RCA ended up keeping Harry but, John and Ringo never signed with RCA. Around this time John collaborated with Harry on his song “Old Dirt Road” from his 1974 Apple LP, Walls And Bridges. Also in 1974, Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson both starred in the British musical comedy Son Of Dracula.

In 1976, Ringo Starr was best man at Harry Nilsson’s wedding to Una O’Keeffe, with whom he remained married until his death in 1994.

 

Ringo Starr as best man at Harry Nilsson's 1976 wedding to Una O'Keeffe

Ringo Starr as best man at Harry Nilsson’s 1976 wedding to Una O’Keeffe

 

Harry was devastated by the death of John Lennon in December 1980 and immediately joined the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and made several appearances for gun control fundraising events. A few times during the eighties he attended Beatles conventions and got onstage with the Beatles tribute house band Liverpool to sing “Give Peace A Chance” or some of his own material. Harry also performed three tracks on a Yoko Ono tribute album in 1984 called Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him. Other artists on the disc included John Lennon, Sean Ono Lennon, Eddie Money, Rosanne Cash, Roberta Flack and Elvis Costello.

Harry sadly died of heart failure at the young age of 52 on January 15, 1994.

John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr have all worked with Harry on each others music over the years. Here are some examples.

  1. George (credited as George Harrysong) plays slide guitar on the 1972 LP Son Of Schmilsson track “You’re Breakin My Heart”
  2. Ringo plays drums (credited as Richie Snare) on five of the tracks from Son Of Schmilsson.
  3. Ringo plays drums on Harry’s song “Daybreak” from the Son Of Dracula soundtrack. Both were actors in the film.
  4. Ringo plays drums on Harry’s 1974 previously mentioned LP Pussy Cats.
  5. Pussy Cats was produced by John.
  6. Harry co-wrote John’s Walls And Bridges track, “Old Dirt Road.” Harry’s version appears on his 1980 album Flash Harry (not released in the U.S. until 2013). Harry also wrote Ringo’s Goodnight Vienna track “Easy For Me” and co-wrote Ringo’s Stop And Smell The Roses track “Stop And Take The Time To Smell The Roses.”
  7. Ringo sings Harry’s composition “Lay Down Your Arms” with Stevie Nicks on backing vocals on a 1995 Harry Nilsson tribute album called For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson.
  8. Ringo co-wrote and performs a song about Harry called “Harry’s Song” on his 2008 album Liverpool 8.

That’s about all I have for this one Curtis. Harry was a great musician and apparently well respected by The Beatles. While I’ve only touched on a few highlights on what they were involved in together, I can also point out that more information can be found in the film Curtis mentions, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? Thanks also to Wayne Johnson for a final correction about Harry’s Flash Harry album and to all for reading. If you have anything to add please do so in the comments section below.


Thank you to everyone who has sent in their questions! Keep #askNat going by sending your questions to me in any of the following ways:

1) There is a contact form that you fill out right on the website where you can give your name, location, email address and submit your question. The form is right here and is the same form used to submit requests for BROWs (Beatles Rarity Of The Weeks).

2) If you are a Facebook user, you can submit your question right on TheBeatlesRarity FB page at www.facebook.com/beatlesrarity. If you think about it, try to remember to flag your question with “#askNat”.

3) Similarly, if you are a Google+ user, you can submit your question on TheBeatlesRarity Google+ page at www.gplus.to/beatlesrarity. Google+ supports hashtag searchability so it will be helpful if you preface your question with “#askNat” here too.

4) For you Twitter users, www.twitter.com/beatlesrarity gets you to the right place. Post your question and be sure to add “#askNat” somewhere in the tweet.


Here are some Amazon links to read more on, or purchase music related to this post:

1) The RCA Albums Collection – 2013 Box set collection of the works of Harry Nilsson. Includes 14 albums, a rarities disc and 2 discs of unreleased session.

2) Pussy Cats: 25th Anniversary Edition – 1999 25th Anniversary edition of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 LP produced by John Lennon, with drums by Ringo Starr.

3) For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson 1995 Harry Nilsson tribute CD by various artists including Ringo Starr’s cover of Harry’s “Lay Down Your Arms” with Stevie Nicks on backing vocals.

4) Walls And Bridges – 2010 CD (or vinyl) remaster of original 1974 John Lennon LP featuring “Old Dirt Road” written by John and Harry Nilsson.

5) Liverpool 8 – Ringo Starr’s 2008 CD featuring “Harry’s Song” written about Harry Nilsson.

6) Son of Schmilsson – 2006 CD remaster of original 1972 Harry Nilsson LP featuring both Ringo Starr and George Harrison.

7) Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him – 1984 vinyl Yoko Ono tribute LP by various artists including 3 tracks by Harry Nilsson. Other artists on the disc included John Lennon, Sean Ono Lennon, Elvis Costello, Eddie Money, Rosanne Cash, Roberta Flack and Elvis Costello.

8) Pandemonium Shadow Show – Harry Nilsson’s 1967 first LP with RCA. Includes his creative Lennon-McCartney cover of “You Can’t Do That.”

9) Beatles/Beatles-related Music: The Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

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7 Comments

  • Fija van de water says:

    Hi Ned, I want to ask you, if there s a chance that all of these questions come together in a book, because I find it very interessting and would read all of the questions, thank you! Bye, Fija

  • It seems to me that wherever Nilsson was, everyone was having a good time. Even at his funeral. Here’s a story about George Harrison at Nilsson’s funeral by Mark Hudson (songwriter for Aerosmith and Ozzy Osbourne and producer of some of Ringo’s albums):

    “Then there was the time at Harry Nilsson’s funeral. Every songwriter was there – Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Van Dyke Parks, George, the list of people was scary and it was the day after the last big L.A. earthquake. So we are all sad and sullen and standing around the grave and George goes. “[Expletive] You.” And we are all shocked and we thought he was having some kind of angst. And then he says, “That was always my favorite song.” [Hudson sings a la George] “You’re Breaking My Heart, Tearing it Apart, Well [Expletive] you,” so then we all joined in and sang it.”

  • Gary Lee says:

    The Smothers Brothers were actually the headliners at the nightclub that night. A big comeback show with a few celebrities in attendance…

  • Cam says:

    And let’s not forget connecting Klaus Voorman to all of this. He was a key figure on Nilsson’s best early 1970s work.

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