Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Harry's Roots Music

Harry Nilsson was one of the finest songwriters and singers in American Pop in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Only Lennon and McCartney could match his skill in terms of melody, and his vocals were unsurpassed. The song "Without You" catapulted Nilsson to fame in 1971, and "Coconut", the follow-up single from Nilsson Schmilsson, prolonged his notoriety. Unfortunately, he was never able to match this success again—although not for a failure at trying.

I love Nilsson because his music springs directly from the songcraft of previous generations. Listening to him sing, your ear cannot help but be arrested. His voice soars and swoons, and the listening experience is personal and direct. I'd like to write in some other entry about his songwriting. I'm here to celebrate what some might think was a career killer for him—1973's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.

In terms of being a head-scratcher, this album is akin to Don McLean's Playin' Favorites (released the same year, oddly enough). At the peak of their fame, both artists chose to expose their audiences to the source of their inspiration.

Playin' Favorites was McLean's second release since American Pie made him famous. He is shown playing a banjo on the back cover--in the inner sleeve, the banjo is sitting on a rocker. McLean's album features work by Hank Williams and traditional folk music. Why, he even sings "Happy Trails", the Roy Rogers song, to close the work. I imagine that this release confused and alienated many listeners who, although they adored his acoustic meditations, may not have been "roots music" fans.

You can't deny it, though--it was authentic and straight from the heart.

So was A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night undoubtedly. This was Harry's second (!) release after "Without You" brought him fame. The album's back cover announces its content: it features an array of sheet music-style art, with copious notes on the germination and history of the song. I am certain that I spent much time in my youth poring over this information!

Among the songs are the familiar ("For Me and My Gal"; "It Had to Be You"; "Always"; "You Made Me Love You"), the songs slightly deeper in the recesses of pop music memory ("I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now"; "What'll I Do"; "Nevertheless"; "This Is All I Ask"; and "As Time Goes By"), and the obscure ("Lazy Moon" and "Lullaby in Ragtime").

The music is conducted by Gordon Jenkins—who had worked most of the great singers of the Great American Songbook, most notably Frank Sinatra on The September of My Years. Jenkins leads an orchestra composed of musicians primarily from the London Philharmonic. The sound on this album is akin to his work with Sinatra. The string section makes sweeping jumps with the crescendo liberally employed.

This is a "theme" album like The September of My Years. Nilsson intended the song cycle to reflect the arc of a romantic relationship. It all works beautifully. This is the album that got me interested in my father's music so many years ago. What a magical combination: Jenkins, who deplored the Beatles, was taken by Nilsson's music and agreed immediately to work with him and Nilsson—a songwriter's songwriter and a singer's singer.

It's one for the ages, and the 2006 Sony Legacy Recording is enhanced by terrific liner notes excerpting interviews about the session with Derek Taylor, Gordon Jenkins, and Nilsson. Plus there are 6 bonus tracks from the sessions: even though they had wrapped up early, the orchestra hung around to lay down more tracks. (Evidently enjoying the experience and sensing its historical significance.)

I am greatly moved whenever I think of Harry Nilsson. His music never fails to get me to hum and sing along and feel contented. I am saddened that his talent was not more widely recognized. And, as I watched him on Youtube, I am disheartened at his physical decline and almost complete silence during the last dozen years of his life.

But we have A Touch of Schmilsson to always remind us of when he was at the top of his game. Recorded six years before Carly Simon put out Torch (her first collection of standards) and a good decade before Linda Ronstadt hit the jackpot with her Nelson Riddle albums, this record deserves your attention. I assure you that it will be in constant rotation once you dig into it.

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