Nilsson & Jimmy Webb: Let Me Tell You About My Best Friend
Ringo Starr called him "his best friend." John Lennon said he was "my favorite group." He was Harry Nilsson and although he was one of the greatest singers and songwriters of the '60s and '70s, he's all but unknown to the general public in 2013 — so much so that director John Scheinfeld titled his 2010 documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?
RCA/Legacy is working to rectify this oversight with the July 30 release of The RCA Albums Collection, a 17-CD boxed set that collects all 14 of the albums he recorded from the label from 1967 through 1977 along with three discs titled Nilsson Sessions, which feature previously unreleased tracks from 1967-1968, 1968-1971, and 1971-1974.
The release of the box comes on the heels of the publication of Alyn Shipton's exhaustive bio Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Oxford University Press.
For legendary songwriter and Nilsson pal Jimmy Webb, the focus on his old friend is long overdue. "Harry was a singer from another parallel universe where they grow singers," he says. "There was no one like him. I may be a little biased, but the only two people I can think of right off-hand, who were around when he was singing, who could touch him, were Paul McCartney and Glen [Campbell] — and Glen was a much more orderly, traditional kind of a singer. Both Paul and Harry had these kind of athletic, gymnastic-like voices, elastic voices, and could do all kinds [of things] with their voices that ordinary people can't."
Nilsson was an accomplished songwriter in his own right, penning hits for Three Dog Night ("One"), the Monkees ("Cuddly Toy") and the Yardbirds ("Ten Little Indians"). In a strange twist of fate, he didn't write his two biggest hits, 1969's "Everybody's Talkin'," famously heard in the film Midnight Cowboy; and his 1972 chart-topping cover of Badfinger's "Without You," also a hit for Mariah Carey more than two decades later.
It was a misunderstanding about the former song that led Nilsson's friendship with Webb to a rocky start, as recounted in Shipton's book. At David Geffen's insistence, Webb was encouraged to join in a game of hoops at the music mogul's home in order to meet Nilsson. Unknown to Webb, he had already gotten under Nilsson's skin. In 1968, he wrote and produced Richard Harris' album The Yard Went on Forever. In the liner notes for a song titled "Gayla," Webb put the letters "BN" with an asterisk. At the bottom of the album's sleeve, there was another asterisk noting "Before Nilsson." It was Webb's attempt to point out that he wrote the line "skipping like a stone through the garden" before the similar line "skipping over the ocean like a stone" appeared in Nilsson's version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin.'"