Known simply as "Nilsson" on all but his earliest recordings, he won Grammys for two of his recordings; best male contemporary vocal in 1969 for "Everybody's Talkin'," the theme song to the Academy Award-winning movie Midnight Cowboy, and best male pop vocal in 1972 for "Without You."
He died on January 15, 1994.
Nilsson was born in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York. Nilsson had to work at an early age. With an aptitude for computers (despite only completing ninth grade), he worked on bank computers at night, and in the daytime pursued his songwriting and singing career.
In the late 1950s, Nilsson was drawn to pop music. A friend gave Nilsson a plastic ukulele, which he learned to play, and later learned to play the guitar and piano. In the 2010 documentary Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him), Nilsson recalled that when he could not remember lyrics or parts of the melodies to popular songs, he created his own, which led to writing original songs.
He landed a job singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner in 1960, earning $5 per track. In 1963, John Marascalco financed some independent singles by Nilsson. One, "Baa Baa Blacksheep," was released under the pseudonym "Bo Pete" to some small local airplay. Another recording, "Donna, I Understand," convinced Mercury Records to offer Nilsson a contract, and release recordings by him under the name "Johnny Niles."
Nilsson's recording contract was picked up by Tower Records, which in 1966 released the first singles actually credited to him by name, as well as the debut album Spotlight on Nilsson. None of Nilsson's Tower releases drew much attention, but his songs were being recorded by Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, The Shangri-Las, The Yardbirds, and others.
Nilsson signed with RCA Victor in 1966 and released an album the following year, Pandemonium Shadow Show, which received positive reviews. Critics were impressed with his songwriting and multi-octave vocals.
Beatles press officer Derek Taylor bought an entire box of copies of the album, which eventually ended up with the Beatles themselves, who quickly became Nilsson fans. This may have been helped by the track "You Can't Do That," in which Nilsson covered one Beatles song but added 22 others in the multi-tracked background vocals.
When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, John was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, "Nilsson." Paul was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, "Nilsson."
Pandemonium Shadow Show was followed in 1968 by Aerial Ballet, an album that included "Everybody's Talkin'." A minor U.S. hit at the time of release, the song would become extremely popular a year later when it was featured in the film Midnight Cowboy, and it would earn Nilsson his first Grammy Award. The song would also become Nilsson's first U.S. top 10 hit, reaching #6, and his first Canadian #1.
Aerial Ballet also contained Nilsson's version of his own composition, "One," which was later made it to the top 5 of the U.S. charts by Three Dog Night. Nilsson was also commissioned at this time to write and perform the theme song for the ABC television series The Courtship of Eddie's Father. The song, "Best Friend," was very popular, but Nilsson never released the song on record; an alternative version, "Girlfriend," did appear on the 1995 Personal Best anthology.
Nilsson's 1969 album, Harry, was his first to hit the charts, and also provided a Top 40 single with "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City." The album also included, this time, a song by a then-little-known composer named Randy Newman, "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear."
Nilsson was so impressed with Newman's talent that he devoted his entire next album to Newman compositions, with Newman himself playing piano behind Nilsson's multi-tracked vocals. The result, Nilsson Sings Newman was commercially disappointing but was named Record of the Year by Stereo Review magazine and provided momentum to Newman's career.
Later that year, Nilsson went to England with producer Richard Perry to record what became the most successful album of his career. Nilsson Schmilsson yielded three very stylistically different hit singles. The first was a cover of Badfinger's song "Without You," featuring a highly emotional arrangement and soaring vocals to match, a performance that was rewarded with Nilsson's second Grammy Award.
The second single was "Coconut," a novelty calypso number featuring three characters (the narrator, the sister, and the doctor) all sung in different voices by Nilsson. The song is best remembered for its chorus lyric, "Put de lime in de coconut, and drink 'em both up."
The third single, "Jump into the Fire," a drum solo by Derek and the Dominos' Jim Gordon and a "bass detuning" by Herbie Flowers. The song was famously used during the "Sunday, May 11, 1980," sequence in the 1990 film Goodfellas.
When John Lennon moved to California, Nielson and he planned to co-produce Nilsson's next album. However, their time together in California became known much more for heavy drinking and drug use than music. In a widely publicized incident, they were ejected from the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood for drunken heckling of the Smothers Brothers.
In 1995, the 2-CD anthology he worked on with RCA, Personal Best, was released.