Credit: Alamy

How Harry Nilsson lost his voice

American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson was one of the very few pop-rock recording artists who achieved significant success without ever having played major public concerts or undertaking usual touring schedules. Instead, he relied on his voice, recordings, and personality, which shined throughout the industry. Growing up, Nilsson grew interested in musical composition and close-harmony singing.

A tenor with a 3 ½ octave range capable of scaling angelic heights, Nilsson at the very beginning of his career was successful in having some of his songs recorded by various artists, such as The Monkees, Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, The Yardbirds and so on. He quickly rose to prominence releasing albums like Pandemonium Shadow Show (1966), Harry (1969), Nilsson Schmilsson (1971) etc. all of which, once again, relied on his voice. But, following a rather heated exchange of spittle with John Lennon, that voice would start to downturn rather rapidly.

Nilsson’s accomplishments made him quite well known in the music industry. The Beatles were one of the many artists in the industry who became Nilsson fans. In an interview in 1968, when John Lennon was asked to name his favourite American artist, “Nilsson”. Paul McCartney, on being asked to name his favourite American group, also replied, “Nilsson”. It’s clear that the singer was beloved by his contemporaries if not necessarily a commercial guarantee.

Nilsson and Lennon formed a friendship following the exchange and subsequent drunken ramblings, while both were living in California in 1973. Lennon offered and was very keen on producing Nilsson’s next album. However, their time together in California became more well known for all the alcohol-fuelled antics rather than the musical collaboration. In March, 1974, the duo made the headline for being ejected from L.A’s Troubadour nightclub for heckling the Smothers Brothers. For Lennon, the time period was known as ‘The Lost Weekend’ whereas, for Nilsson, it felt like just another workday.

Things would change for Nilsson after one night with Lennon. A late-night party and jam session saw Nilsson and Lennon engage in a screaming match to see whose wail would be more rugged. In the process, Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord, but chose to keep that information from Lennon in fear that the Liverpudlian would put a stop to the production.

Nilsson eventually did seek medical attention but did not do as the medical professionals had prescribed to keep his voice in good nick. He quickly realised that living in L.A. was doing more harm than good to him and decided to move to New York and rerecord the album he and Lennon were working on. The resulting album was Pussy Cats.

The album was discordant, to say the least, and it was clear why. Nilsson’s voice was seriously damaged, and the album as a whole sounded like something that was put together haphazardly with no concrete structure. From securing the third position on the charts which Nilsson Schmilsson, there was a massive drop with Pussy Cats, which ranked #60.

Nilsson had never cared too much for commercialism, but this was definitely one of the lowest points in his career. He had managed to get one of the most famous men on the planet to produce his album, but still, it struggled to reach the heights of his more accessible commercial output.

Nilsson’s voice had obviously lost its old charm. But he was experimenting with his newly developed voice following the vocal cord mishap and he managed to create some notable works, some of which can be heard in his album Losst and Founnd, which was posthumously released by Nilsson’s long-time friend, producer Mark Hudson. Losst and Founnd was a mixture of wry ballads, tributes to The Beatles and Nirvana, and an anthem for the L.A. Dodgers.

Evidently, it is a lot to take for one album. But, it is an honest representation of Nilsson’s life and works and while it is not perfect, it certainly is something to remember him by.

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