“Nilsson” – John Lennon and Paul McCartney
That was the simple answer the songwriting powerhouse of John Lennon and Paul McCartney gave when asked for their favourite American singer during a press conference announcing the formation of Apple Corps; when asked for their favourite American group, their reply was simple once more: “Nilsson”. Across countless other interviews, the two Beatles continued to effuse about the incredible talent of Harry Nilsson. They shared a touching friendship with him for many years and all because of one magical song.
Harry Nilsson’s classic cover ‘You Can’t Do That’ is about as far away from a typical cover song as you can get while remaining classified as such. Not a straight cover of the tune in the title, the track is actually a composite of 15-20 different Beatles songs, effortlessly sewn together by the rich and warm vocal prowess of the Brooklyn native, Nilsson. Featuring on his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show the track was accompanied by far more traditional Beatles cover ‘She’s Leaving Home’, a song which had only been released on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ten days before he began recording, a bold move for any new kid on the block.
His unusual adaptation of ‘You Can’t Do That’ really caught Lennon and McCartney’s eye. As Nilsson once described the song: “One time I was just toying with my guitar. I struck this chord, and it seemed to lend itself to a million different songs. I noticed how many Beatles songs could be played on this one chord, so I run down to Wallach’s Music City on Sunset, at about midnight, just before it closed, bought the Beatles songbook, and finished the song that night.”
A pure vocalist, what Nilsson did with The Beatles covers was enough to gather up a small but growing population of fans. But, in truth, Nilsson wasn’t really given his chance to shine until he received the band’s backing, and he had the group’s serial tastemaker and publicist Derek Taylor to thank for putting the LP under their noses. Taylor fell for the LP when visiting America and made sure to pick up a few copies to dish out to his hipper mates, including The Beatles.
The story goes that Lennon binged the album for 36 hours straight, eventually calling Nilsson to share his admiration for not only the covers of The Beatles but the record as a whole. The next day, Nilsson would receive another call from a Liverpudlian; this time, Paul McCartney was ready to share his love for the LP. It would begin a friendship that would last for decades.
Nilsson would go on to both work and play with John Lennon. The duo became infamous spectres of Los Angeles haunts during Lennon’s famous ‘Lost Weekend’, sharing Brandy Alexanders and getting up to the kind of rock star revelry they were probably too old to be engaging with. Equally, the two men also shared some fantastic moments in the recording studio too, as Lennon went on to produce Nilsson’s album Pussy Cats.
When Lennon was murdered outside his home in New York, Nilsson was distraught. Unable to work as he once had, the singer became an avid supporter of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and was a fierce supporter of gun reform up until his sad death. Most recently, when Harry’s son Zak was diagnosed with cancer McCartney saw fit to send him a letter of support, writing: “very best of luck with your (chemo) treatment. My wife, Nancy, went through it years ago and stuck with it even though she hated it. She is now better and well, except for the fact she is married to me!!” Sharing another sentiment, “I was very privileged to know your Dad, whom I knew as a lovely guy and a great talent.”
There are countless artists and singers who impressed John Lennon and Paul McCartney over the years, and there is likely a list as long as your arm for their so-called “favourite” musician. But we expect if you pulled together a list of each of their favourite performers, it would have very few crossovers, except, of course, for Harry Nilsson.