Music Features

Alyn Shipton Interview - Harry Nilsson

I'd wager to bet that there aren't too many musicians who had a more unlikely life and career than the bel canto pop singer, Harry Nilsson.  Legends and myths have built up around it; he had a three and a half octave range, he suffered from crippling stage fright and never performed live, John Lennon masochistically made him destroy his voice. Some of it is true, some of it not.  Finally, someone has decided to do the research and tell his story properly.  Alyn Shipton, in his new book Nilsson, traces Harry's life from his troubled childhood to his hard-living adulthood.  Shipton records the sources of possible inspiration and formative influences that eventually shaped him into the Beatles' "favorite group".  

Harry Nilsson did not live to a ripe old age, but reading this book you wonder in amazement at the hearty constitution that let him see past his 30th birthday.  His habits of excess are part of the mythology that Shipton confirms as fact.  But this is no drink and tell tome.  Shipton, a writer who has focused on jazz greats like Dizzy Gilespie and Cab Calloway in the past, is mainly concerned with the Harry's music, taking a close look at each record, pointing out highlights and missteps, and all the while leaving the reader with a single overriding question - how is it that this immensely talented man, with a voice that could do anything he wanted, with the most powerful friends in the industry, and with a lyrical and melodic gift that could compete with the best, lingers in relative obscurity in the public imagination?  I was a Nilsson fan for years, but never developed a full appreciation for him until reading this book.  

This was a story waiting to be told.  Harry went his own way, every step of the way, and the affection he inspired in friends like Eric Idle and Ringo Starr and so many others tells you that despite his personal struggles he must have been doing something right.  For in the end, after we all shuffle it off, what is left but how others remember us?  For Harry there is a healthy pile of wonderful songs, beautiful performances and happy memories for those that knew him.  Avid fan or general enthusiast, Nilsson will inform and leave you with a greater appreciation of the man and his work.

I spoke to Alyn about Harry and despite some technical problems that unfortunately wiped out our discussion of his early career, below we focus on his period of popular decline and withdraw from the music industry.