Harry Nilsson ended my singing career. No, he didn’t do it on purpose. Let me explain. I was working as a recording engineer for Jesse Hodges when he first bought Hollywood Sound Recorders. The studio became one of the most prolific hit making studios in Hollywood. For me it was a step in what I thought would establish me as a successful singer/songwriter. In other words, it was my “day job” and it allowed me to write, record, experiment and work with other artists at night.
One of the first clients I had was legendary writer/producer/record executive, John Marascalco. John had written early Little Richard hits: “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up” as well as classics like “Good Night, My Love” and “Send Me Some Lovin”. His songs had already been recorded by Elvis, The Crickets, Fats Domino, Jesse Belvin and Paul Anka. Later his songs would be recorded by The Beatles. Funny thing is that every time John came in to record a “demo” of a new song he would say: “Don, if this tune doesn’t make it…it’s back to Leeds Shoes for me”. It was somehow reassuring that even a legend in the business at one time had a day job until he made it…and then along came Harry.
John was working with a young writer that we all just knew as Harry. Harry would do the vocals in the style of the singer that they were pitching for that particular song. He was working at a bank at night from 6 to midnight as a very early computer programmer so he could leave his days free to pursue his music career. It would be eight years before he could leave that job. I was blown away by his talent. I would run into him at Revell’s, a restaurant in the middle of the Hollywood studios and we would talk about how tough it was to get a break. I started to realize that if he was having trouble with his talent… what were my odds? I wasn’t even in the same neighborhood when it came to talent. If I didn’t make a pivot to the production side of the business, I would truly be back to my original day job…delivering bumpers to body shops in Sacramento.
In late ‘66 or early ‘67, I went out on my own and one of the first records I produced was a Nilsson/Marascalco song, “So Proud Of You”. Harry called to thank me and tell me I did a great job. By that time he had recorded his first album with RCA but it hadn’t taken off. I couldn’t understand it. I wasn’t the only one who was amazed by his ability. As far back as 1963 on hearing a demo for him, Little Richard reportedly remarked,” My! You sing good for a white boy!” In 1968 at a press conference, John Lennon was asked who his favorite American artist was. Nilsson was his answer. Paul was then asked who his favorite group was. Nilsson was his answer.
In 1968 Harry had a minor hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, from his album “Aerial Ballet”. It exploded a year later when it was used in the movie “Midnight Cowboy” and earned him his first Grammy Award. He won his second with the single “Without You”. Nilsson died in 1994 at the way too young age of 52.
It’s an interesting relationship I had with Harry. I didn’t work with him or produce him. I only recorded a few demos and had a few lunches with him…struggling artist to struggling artist, but he made a profound impression on me. His struggles convinced me to take another path. He also showed me that talent will eventually win out if you believe in yourself and keep fighting. He was the first artist that I met in the beginning who made it and I celebrated that success with him. His success validated my belief that the dream could indeed become a reality. Thank you, Harry for providing me some magic moments. RIP