Lost Harry Nilsson music comes to light

Omnivore has released a new album by Harry Nilsson, "Losst And Founnd" — the first album of his music in 40 years.
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Harry Nilsson. Photo by George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harry Nilsson. Photo by George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By Bill Kopp

Featuring an idiosyncratically spelled title that evokes memories of his 1977 LP Knnillssonn, singer and songwriter Harry Nilsson has returned with Losst and Founnd, his first album of new music in 40 years. That’s an amazing feat for a man who passed away in 1994, but it’s in keeping with his unpredictable nature.

Harry Nilsson had a curious career. He got his start as a songwriter, and went on to write songs that would become hits for The Monkees (“Cuddly Toy”) and Three Dog Night (“One”). Other Nilsson songs were recorded by a diverse list of artists that includes Glen Campbell, Blood Sweat & Tears, Ella Fitzgerald, Aimee Mann, The Walkmen, Jellyfish and many others.

But he’s perhaps best known as a singer: a tenor with a three-and-a-half octave range, Nilsson applied his considerable talents to songs written by others. His cover of Badfinger’s “Without You” was a worldwide smash, and his reading of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” was immortalized in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. A generation grew up hearing him sing “Best Friend,” the theme song from the TV series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

The restlessly creative Nilsson also had a modest acting career, and his children’s fable The Point! was a highly successful animated feature. He had a starring role in 1974’s Son of Dracula (a film produced by costar and close friend Ringo Starr); the movie may have been a commercial and critical disaster, but by all accounts everyone involved had great fun. Unfortunately, the making of Son of Dracula fit in with Nilsson’s growing reputation for overindulgence. His vocal cords hemorrhaged during the making of his 1974 LP Pussy Cats (produced by his pal John Lennon); it would take years for Nilsson’s voice to recover fully. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 52, many of Harry Nilsson’s achievements had faded from the public’s consciousness; too often he would be recalled chiefly not as a composer, singer and musician but merely as one of the “Hollywood Vampires,” as a carousing comrade of John Lennon during the former Beatle’s infamous “lost weekend” in L.A.

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It’s often forgotten now, but Nilsson did have significant hits with his own compositions. “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” “Me and My Arrow,” “Coconut,” “Jump Into the Fire,” “Spaceman” and “Daybreak” all made it to the Top 40 in the U.S., and Nilsson earned chart success in Canada, the U.K. and Australia as well. But he would perform live only on rare occasions, and after a 1980 release (Flash Harry), Nilsson was without a recording contract and stopped making albums. Save for work on the soundtrack of Robert Altman’s 1980 film Popeye and some compilation and reissue projects, it appeared that Flash Harry would be the final musical word from Nilsson.

Or so the wider public might have thought. As early as 1986, Nilsson was working with producer Mark Hudson on demos for a planned “comeback.” With virtually no funds and no record deal, the two began work on a collection of new songs. “When we started doing it, it was in so many different forms,” Hudson recalls. “There was some stuff caught on my Tascam four-track.” As work progressed, they took a catch-as-catch-can approach to recording, working at whatever studios they could afford.

Hudson recalls traveling with Nilsson in the late ’80s to see Warner Brothers executives. They brought along a tape of three or four demo recordings in hope of getting a deal. “We took a meeting with Lenny Waronker (and other execs), and they ended up looking at us like the RCA dog with their heads tilted,” he says with a rueful laugh. “Well, Harry,” Hudson recalls Waronker saying, “you know, music is changing.” He says that Nilsson got up from his chair. “With a few F-words, he walked out. And I thought, ‘Oh, God, there goes that.’ We were trying to get a record deal, but we couldn’t. And we didn’t.”

But work on the recordings continued. “We just kept working,” Hudson says. “Because after the Warner Brothers meeting, it became a fire under Harry’s ass: ‘I’ll show those bastards!’” Recorded in Chicago and elsewhere, those sessions would continue right until days before Nilsson’s death on January 15, 1994. Bootlegged tapes of nine songs from the sessions (dubbed Papa’s Got a Brown New Robe) eventually found their way into the hands of hardcore Nilsson fans.

But the recordings Nilsson and Hudson made weren’t meant for release in their original form. Owing to lack of funds, the two often used a drum machine instead of real percussion, and keyboard synthesizers stood in for Nilsson’s grand arrangement ideas. “I don’t like synthesizers,” says Hudson. But they had no choice. The multi-instrumentalist producer also played bass guitar on several of the tracks. The sessions did yield all of Nilsson’s lead vocal parts and some of the harmony vocals. Harry’s voice was still a bit wobbly and rough in places, but his songwriting muse remained intact.

Though a number of posthumous releases followed Nilsson’s death (including several CDs’ worth of previously unreleased session material), Harry’s final project remained unfinished and largely unheard. Nearly a quarter century would pass before Hudson – with the support and cooperation of Nilsson’s estate, Hudson and Grammy-winning label Omnivore Recordings – dug out the old tapes and began work to bring the album to completion. “I know that Brad Rosenberger at Omnivore had been interested in releasing it for some years now,” says Kiefo Nilsson, the fifth of Harry and Una’s six children and a musician himself. He says that he and his family “always wanted it to happen, but sometimes you just have to wait for the right opportunity.”

The source tapes were something of a mishmash, Hudson explains. The original pre-demo recordings came from as many as 100 cassette tapes. “I must have 48 of them laying around somewhere,” he says. Sessions in Chicago took place in a studio typically used for television and radio commercials. Taking advantage of donated studio time, Hudson and Nilsson were grateful for what they had: three studio musicians whose identities are now lost to time. “I didn’t know any of them,” Hudson says. “We weren’t paying them.”

And he didn’t know anything about the studio owners, either. “Being a man who doesn’t trust the industry, I always, always get mixes of everything,” he says. And it’s a good thing that Hudson had his own copy of the session tapes. “Thank God I did that,” he says. “Because for some reason, the masters went missing. And the guy who lost the masters went AWOL.” So Hudson’s “Marky Tapes” (as he calls them) would eventually serve as the basis for what would become Losst and Founnd.

As Hudson writes in the liner notes for the new album released in November 2019 by Omnivore Recordings, “as soon as the project was a ‘go,’ most of (Nilsson’s) pals came and helped.” That list of musicians would include Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann, Van Dyke Parks and Jimmy Webb.

For his part, Keltner played real drums to replace the drum machine tracks. Throughout the modern-day session, renowned session musician Jim Cox replaced the dated Yamaha DX-7 keyboard parts with proper brass and string arrangements. And at the suggestion of one of Nilsson’s old friends, Hudson brought in a bassist to replace the producer’s own bass playing on the original tapes. He recalls Jim Keltner asking, “Why don’t we try to get Kiefo Nilsson?”

Berklee-trained Kiefo had already established himself as a formidable musician. He recalls how he first connected with Keltner, a longtime musical associate of Harry Nilsson. “I had met Jim a year or two prior, at my brother’s wedding. We talked about music; he heard a bit of my story, how I had played bass with Glen Campbell.” Impressed, Keltner said he would try to get Kiefo on a session. The way things worked out, that session would be for work on recordings the bassist’s father had begun decades earlier. “He was really a champion for me,” Kiefo says.

And Hudson found Kiefo to be the perfect addition to the project. “He came down to the studio looking exactly like Harry. He put on the bass and he started playing. I looked over at Jim Keltner and said, ‘We’ve got him!’ He was great.” The young Nilsson was well-versed in his late father’s music, so he had a sense of what was needed on the tracks. “He knew what to play and when not to play,” Hudson says.

Kiefo was only eight when his dad passed away, but even at that young age he had a sense of Harry Nilsson’s celebrity status. “We had memorabilia around the house, and occasionally stuff like, ‘Oh, we’re going to a party at Ringo Starr’s house’ would happen,” he says. But he notes that among his childhood peers, his father was an unknown. “And that was true even after he passed,” Kiefo says. “He wasn’t someone who people of my generation necessarily knew about.”

Harry Nilsson with John Lennon, getting thrown out of the Troubadour club in West Hollywood, California, for heckling, during Lennon’s much publicized ‘lost weekend.’ Photo by Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images.

Harry Nilsson with John Lennon, getting thrown out of the Troubadour club in West Hollywood, California, for heckling, during Lennon’s much publicized ‘lost weekend.’ Photo by Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images.

The bassist believes his dad would have been happy with the finished Losst and Founnd project, and pleased at his involvement. “I think he would definitely enjoy (the album). It’s big and loud and exciting, and it’s got a lot of energy behind it. And I think he would have been happy that I got to play on it. I would like to think that if he was around, he would have proposed something like that himself.”

And Kiefo Nilsson believes that the current-day additions to the basic recordings strengthen the end product, bringing it closer to his father’s original vision. “At the end of the day, if you remove all the (new) elements, that core of it is still carrying all of the material,” he says. “I’d like to think that he would be happy with that because it translates his songs in an appealing way.”

Harry Nilsson always had definite ideas about how his songs should sound. Even a listen to the piano-and-vocal demo recording of “Without You” from 1971 shows that from the start, he knew where he wanted to take the song’s arrangement. And for the posthumous Losst and Founnd project, efforts were taken to remain true to Harry Nilsson’s original vision. “I planned on making this record as if Harry were still here,” Hudson says. “He would say, ‘We’ve got to get Van Dyke to come down and play accordion on this song,’” Hudson recalls. That didn’t happen while Harry was alive, but once the project was revived, Parks eagerly showed up. Along with sympathetic playing by Keltner, Cox, Kiefo Nilsson and others, Parks’ sprightly accordion on Nilsson’s “Woman Oh Woman” would allow Hudson to place the original tape’s somewhat monotonous string-synth part deeper in the mix.

“I want a Dixieland band on ‘Animal Farm,’” Hudson recalls Nilsson telling him. So working with a Mark Hudson horn arrangement, a group of John Williams’ horn players added their parts. And on “U.C.L.A.,” an original Nilsson composition featuring lyrics stuffed full with Beatles references, guitarist Randy (Z) Zahariades effectively channels another Nilsson friend and admirer, George Harrison.

Making good use of oft-maligned (and oft-abused) AutoTune technology, Hudson “corrected” some of Nilsson’s shakier vocal parts. Though he came up with it in reference to Three Dog Night’s version of his “One,” Nilsson coined a neologism for out-of-tune vocals. “Flarp,” explains Hudson. “In between sharp and flat. Because that’s how Harry’s mind worked!”

While making it clear that he had no part in production decisions, in a November post on Facebook, Kiefo Nilsson made a case for using the controversial AutoTune on his father’s final recordings. “I don’t think it was wrong, really,” he wrote. “I know my dad loved technology and likely would have been entirely okay with tuning for the sheer technical wizardry of it.” He also made the point that the use of AutoTune ultimately “does help the finished product be more cohesive.”

In 2013 when Breaking Bad featured Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” in its final scene, it led to a resurgence in the popularity of that long-defunct group. Coupled with the use of “Gotta Get Up” (from 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson) on Russian Doll, it’s possible that the release of Losst and Founnd will help spark renewed interest in Harry Nilsson’s body of work as well.

An upcoming digital release of Nilsson’s animated film The Point may help in that regard as well. Featuring narration by Ringo Starr and songs by Nilsson, the popular cartoon fable is set for its first high-definition release in February 2020. An interview with Kiefo Nilsson is one of several bonus features to be included on the Blu-ray release.

For the last few years, Kiefo has been leading a collective of musicians in live performances of the music from his father’s The Point. With dates on the west coast, Kiefo leads a complete reading of the 1970 album, with excerpts of the animated story including narration. Transcribing the material and putting the concerts together has given Kiefo a better understanding of some of the qualities that make his father’s music special and timeless. “The harmonic content of The Point is very minimal,” he observes. “It’s simple harmony. The melodies carry over because they’re all very strong and memorable.” He says that his father’s “ear was so keen on melody.” And that quality carries through all of Harry Nilsson’s work, from his earliest recordings through to the ones he was working on at the very end.

Mark Hudson is clearly pleased to bring the long-shelved Losst and Founnd project to completion. The low-budget circumstances that characterized the original sessions continued right through to present day, but they didn’t keep the results from being of considerable quality. “I couldn’t pay (the musicians) the money that they’re used to getting,” Hudson admits. “And they didn’t care. That’s what they wanted to do. Harry was a man who they loved, a man that they respected. And I think this was sort of their goodbye to him as well.”

Hudson says that “Harry’s music is still played everywhere, because it’s romantic, it’s theatrical, it’s melodic … and most of all, it’s the truth.” And Hudson has fond memories of his friend. “That’s the true legacy. Forgetting all of the antics – which we were all guilty of, from the drinking and the drugs and the attitude – when he said, ‘I love you,’ you felt it. When he hugged you, he would hug you forever. And I knew him like that: a great dad, a loving husband, a good friend. You can’t ask for more.”

Listening to Losst and Founnd today, it doesn’t sound like an addendum. Instead it feels – and sounds – very much a part of Harry Nilsson’s body of work. And the album’s title feels appropriate to producer Mark Hudson. “It’s sort of autobiographic,” Hudson says. “Harry was lost. And now he’s found, and he’s making a record.”