It wouldn’t be right to say that Harry Nilsson was accidentally famous. He wasn’t just standing around, doing nothing, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney singled him out as their favorite American artist. There’s a reason a pair of Beatles knew who Nilsson was. Still, if ever a guy was accidentally famous in the days before social media and viral videos made accidental fame a common if toxic prospect, then Harry Nilsson was that guy.
Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Nilsson’s father abandons the family while the war’s still on. By the time he’s fifteen, Nilsson is out in Los Angeles, working at the Paramount Theater and rubbing shoulders with musical types. Following the theater’s closure in 1960, he finds work at a bank, where he lies about his non-existent high school diploma. Armed with his work ethic and his ninth-grade education, Nilsson’s day job is programming computers for the bank, which ought to give you some idea of how bright Harry Nilsson was. (The bank let Nilsson stay on in his job even after they discovered his deception.)
Harry keeps the bank job for most of the 60’s, and sings demos and sells songs on the side. He signs with RCA as a recording artist in 1966, and in 1967 releases an album, Pandemonium Shadow Show. One of the songs on that album was a funky-assed cover of the Beatles’ ‘You Can’t Do That’. The Beatles’ press officer winds up buying an entire box of copies of the album, and at least one of those copies falls into the hands of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who name-drop Nilsson during a 1968 press conference. Before Nilsson knows it, the phone is ringing off the hook at his RCA office (he doesn’t have a manager, so he winds up answering the phone himself) and he’s hobnobbing with the Beatles in London.
Between the bank job and the release of ‘Without You’ (written by Badfinger members Pete Ham and Tom Evans) on his most successful album, Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson had a song featured in 1969’s Best Picture winner, Midnight Cowboy; released an album of Randy Newman covers years before most people had ever heard of Randy Newman; and released an album of music he’d written and performed for an animated TV show.
Weird signposts on a weird road.
Harry Nilsson was often cerebral and could be somewhat gimmicky, but that’s not the case here. What puts ‘Without You’ on the map — what makes it worthy of inclusion on a list like this — is that there’s no distance between singer and song. Nilsson sings the absolute shit out of it, like his life depends on getting the point across. He soars and pleads, nothing held back. He’s not above or too cool for the material, nor does he make any attempt to disguise or diminish its overt sentimentality. Instead, Harry Nilsson channels his inner Roy Orbison and just fucking goes for it, pressing the pedal all the way to the floor and keeping it there.
And that’s how you land a song on the Rolling Stone Top 500.
Michael Strum: “I don’t know why this song is here. It’s…fine. I don’t detect greatness here; this sounds to me like hundreds of other heartbroken love songs. While not my particular cup of tea — too low energy, though I like the piano — this Nilsson character seems like a cool dude. Having the Beatles name you as their favorite American act in a 1968 interview is a considerable feather in the cap. I’m warming to his inclusion here the more I learn of him, in a Lifetime Achievement manner. Let’s check the calendar: 1971 for Mr. Nilsson. I have a theory that 1968 – 1872 is the greatest five-year period in modern music, with 1972 the absolute acme. With a peek ahead, half of the songs so far are from 1971 or 1972. I expect this vein of phonographic gold to continue producing.”
Rolling Stone: “We did it because my career was on the wane and we wanted something to make a hit,” Harry Nilsson bluntly told an interviewer when asked why he covered Badfinger’s near-despondent ballad: “I heard it and searched through every Beatles album for two and a half weeks, trying to find out which one of their tunes it was.” Producer Richard Perry agreed, piling on the strings to showcase Nilsson’s desperate lunge of a vocal. Both were right — the song went to Number One and earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.