Spotlight on Nilsson

The first in my series of essays on Nilsson’s music, album by album, like I’ve done with other artists

Nilsson’s first released album was not really conceived as an album. Nilsson had released a number of singles in the mid 1960s on different small labels, usually recording other people’s material, while working a night job as the manager of a bank computer centre. None of these singles did anything much, and they were mostly not very good. However, in 1966 he was introduced by the arranger George Tipton (of whom much more later) to Gil Garfield and Perry Botkin Jr., two songwriter/arranger/publishers who ran their own company. They were astonished by Nilsson’s raw talent as a singer and songwriter, and signed him to a $25 contract as a staff songwriter.

Nilsson was not just talented, but driven – he would work from six PM to two AM at the bank, then make his way to Botkin and Garfield’s office, where he would write songs until collapsing to sleep (and would often also act as office cleaner, climbing out of the third-floor windows to clean them). When woken up by Botkin and Garfield arriving at the office, he’d then make his way round record company offices promoting his songs, before heading back to work.

This continued for the best part of two years, during which time Nilsson collaborated with Phil Spector and made some progress in his career as a songwriter, if not as a singer.

Nilsson wanted to make records, not just be a staff songwriter, but there was a problem – Tower, the label which had released three of his poor-selling singles, still had him under contract and wouldn’t give him up without more material, but nor would they actually pay for any further sessions. The problem was eventually solved by Tipton, who spent his life savings on a session to record four more songs, freeing Nilsson from the contract.

The four new songs were added to the A and B sides of the older singles and released as Spotlight on Nilsson – which, as well as being Nilsson’s first album, was also the first recording to be credited as “Nilsson” – all the earlier singles having been released as by “Harry Nilsson”. It’s a short album, only twenty-two minutes in length, with most songs barely hitting two minutes and none hitting three, and it has none of the sophistication of his later efforts. It’s not an album that admits of much analysis compared with those later records, either – it’s a series of pastiches and attempts at recreating the sound of current hits, done competently but with little inspiration. It’s the sound of an immature talent trying to find a style that works for him, but there are occasional moments where one can hear, however distantly, the sound of the man who would later create some of the best music of his generation.

The Path That Leads to Trouble
Songwriter: Johnny Cole

The opening track is possibly the most generically 1965 LA record ever made, one of a number of tracks from that time which try to bridge the gap between Spector-style teen pop and protest folk rock. The track seems to be specifically styled on the Association’s version of Dylan’s “One too Many Mornings”, which came out a couple of weeks before this track did and was a local hit in LA, and one suspects it was rather rushed in order to jump on a bandwagon. There are other influences there, however – the drum pattern from “Be My Baby” is borrowed, and Nilsson’s vocal (which sounds unlike anything else he ever did) seems to split the difference between Sonny Bono and Barry McGuire.

The track was released as by “the New Salvation Singers featuring Harry Nilsson”, and Nilsson later claimed he’d never been paid for the session, which he’d done as a favour for a business associate.

Good Times
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The B-side of the preceding song is much more interesting. It’s a gospel rocker with some Motown influence, driven by a rhythmic piano part, playing a riff that sounds more like a guitar riff than a normal piano part – indeed the riff sounds very like the Monkees’ later “Last Train to Clarksville”. Nilsson later offered the song to the Monkees, in fact, and they recorded a backing track for it in 1968, but their version remained unfinished until 2016, when it was released as the title track for their reunion album, as a posthumous duet between Nilsson and Micky Dolenz.

That version is modelled closely on this one, but misses one of the more interesting features of this track, where the backing (which consists only of block backing vocals, heavily reverbed piano, and percussion) drops out the first time Nilsson sings “starting at the county line” and Nilsson holds a falsetto note on “line” for a bar and a half, providing a strange interruption in the rhythm of what is otherwise a very rhythmic track.

So You Think You’ve Got Troubles
Songwriter: Marvin Rainwater

A cover of a song by rockabilly artist Marvin Rainwater, this is an early example of how Nilsson can totally reinvent a song. Rainwater’s original song is very much in the style of Hank Williams and similar artists, alternating between spoken patter verses humorously listing his troubles (“I strained a muscle in my fishing hand and my income tax is due”, “I have every ailment known to man from the African mumps to the dishpan hand”) and sung choruses in which he sings “so you think you’ve got troubles/Brother you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, and with an instrumental backing of steel guitar, piano, and fiddle, ending with the punchline “so I’m puttin’ me a bar in the back of my car and driving myself to drink”.

Nilsson takes the chorus and the verse lyrics, changes the structure of the song, turning what had been two long spoken verses into four shorter ones, drops the punchline altogether, and reworks it into the style of the Coasters (it resembles several of their singles, most notably “Little Egypt” and “Love Potion Number 9”). The verse melody is all his, and the final result bears only the most distant resemblance to the original, while still keeping its self-pitying humour.

I’m Gonna Lose My Mind
Songwriter: Johnny Cole

A simple twist-beat twelve-bar blues, with call and response backing vocals and Hammond organ, this is generic early-sixties pop filler – there’s a touch of Ray Charles in the backing vocal sound, but it’s closer to “Let’s Dance On” by the Monkees and similar proto-bubblegum. Pleasant enough, but not very interesting.

She’s Yours
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and J.R. Shanklin

This is a track that seems to be a bit of a failed experiment in putting together bits of wildly different songs. Each of the three sections on its own is perfectly fine – there’s a slow, quiet, verse which is all tinkling harpsichords and sustained strings, a much louder, shouty, dance-rhythm chorus with a Spectoresque feel to it, and an extended twenty-bar waltz-time middle section which points forward melodically to things like the middle section of “Without Her”.

The problem is that none of these three sections really go together, and the transitions between them are abrupt and make little musical sense. I see what they were trying to do, and it’s the kind of musical collage that would become immensely popular not long after this, but it’s not quite there.

Sixteen Tons
Songwriter: Merle Travis

Another utterly rearranged country cover. Here Nilsson takes the classic song made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford, gets rid of two of the four verses (including the famous opening verse “some people say a man’s made of muscle and blood”), changes the rhythm utterly (again to one reminiscent of some of the Coasters’ material, although there’s also an element of slick LA recordings like “Secret Agent Man” here), adds call-and-response girl group backing vocals, and rewrites the melody. The result bears almost no resemblance to the original song, to the point where when I first heard this recording I assumed it was a different song of the same name until half-way through the chorus.

It’s an interesting take on the song, but Nilsson’s tenor vocal pyrotechnics seem disconnected from the song – he doesn’t sound “another day older and deeper in debt”, he’s got far too much energy and enthusiasm for that.

Born In Grenada
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and John Marascalco

Can Harry get a witness? This is just a straight soundalike of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Can I Get A Witness?”

Nilsson’s vocals are great, and the performance is slick and tight apart from an inexplicable moment at 1:52 when the horns come in at the wrong point, but this is just an attempt at copying a recent hit.

You Can’t Take Your Love (Away from Me)
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

This track may well be inspired by the breakup of his first marriage, which was happening during the time he was working for Botkin and Garfield – one reason he spent so much time working was that his marriage was collapsing.

The track combines a verse/chorus that sounds very Spectoresque, with a pseudo-Latin rhythm, with a slick Vegas feel for the middle eight, and has a lot more of Nilsson’s fingerprints on it than many of the other originals here, but it’s still fundamentally a piece by someone learning his trade, and the lyrics, while heartfelt, seem to be strung together largely from cliches.

Growin’ Up
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

One of the better originals here, this has some melodic resemblance to “Save The Last Dance For Me”, but Tipton’s arrangement, with its arpeggiated guitars, high strings, and glockenspiel, takes the song in a very different direction, and at times this sounds almost like early Scott Walker.

While the lyrics aren’t great – it’s a simple song about how little children play with toys but when they’re grown up little boys need love from little girls and vice versa – Nilsson’s vocal, for perhaps the only time on the album, connects properly with the sentiment of the song, and he eschews vocal pyrotechnics and just sings it straight. While his vocal embellishments would often be wonderful on later recordings, many of the vocals so far have prized technique over emotion, and this one doesn’t.

Do You Believe
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And the album ends with one of the better tracks, an uptempo R&B track with more than a little Ray Charles influence. There’s no real song here, but the track has a nice groove to it, and here Nilsson’s vocal swoops and melismas are entirely appropriate – a track like this is meant to be all style and no substance. The main criticism here is that the track is rather short and underdeveloped – there are a couple of verses and then it fades quickly.

And that’s much like the whole of Spotlight on Nilsson, really – a short, underdeveloped album which fades from the listener’s mind as soon as it’s finished. An album by a vocalist who’s clearly hugely technically gifted, but hasn’t yet found a style that suits him, or material he can connect with. That would soon change…

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4 Responses to Spotlight on Nilsson

  1. Phil O. says:

    Thanks for this! I finally took a chance on Nilsson after reading your “California Dreaming” book last year. I went from a few select albums to the giant RCA Albums box in short order. Spotlight doesn’t make it to that set, so it’s still on my list (probably once I finish working my way through the later 70s albums…). Your write-up + the clips I can hear on 7digital give me a sense of what the album will be like – and I’m still interested!

  2. Jason Dikes says:

    I am looking forward to this series and eventual book.

  3. davidgerard says:

    > $25 contract as a staff songwriter


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