Our Friendly Beehive State: Nilsson Sings Newman Turns 50

In 1970, Harry and Randy made the perfect pair

Harry Nilsson Nilsson Sings Newman, RCA 1970

It’s rare to find an album that celebrates a peak of perfection for not one, but two, singular artists whose indelible influence will cast a long shadow over others that will follow them in the decades to come.

Released in February 1970, Nilsson Sings Newman was one of those extraordinary efforts, a set of songs that brought attention to the two exceptional individuals name-checked in its title, each of whom had shown early promise, but had yet to spike ongoing interest from the masses overall.

For his part, Nilsson had attracted some initial attention of a knowing few, particularly the Beatles who proclaimed him their favorite American singer. John Lennon and Ringo Starr would later expand that connection as fellow members of the so-called “Hollywood Vampires,” a rowdy rock star bunch known for their alcohol and cocaine-fueled misbehavior along with the occasional recording collaboration. At that point, Newman was also working well below the radar, but his seminal songs would soon form the basis of a singularly vibrant and vital catalog.

That said, Nilsson and Newman’s partnership seemed to serve each of them well. The initial impetus may have been provided by an otherwise obscure Rick Nelson album titled Perspective, a set of covers recorded by the former teen idol in 1968. As an early attempt to expand his artistic palette, it happened to include songs written by both Nilsson and Newman. 

Whether that was the actual inspiration for ‘Nilsson Sings Newman’ is merely the stuff of speculation, given the fact that two of three of those individuals involved are no longer around and therefore unable to testify as to its accuracy. At any rate, the seeds were decidedly sewn with Nilsson’s earlier album Harry, which boasted a now-classic cover of Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

Back cover for Nilsson Sings Newman

In reality, each man’s contributions to the album were divided up as evenly as the title tells it. Nilsson’s resonant multi-tracked vocals found a perfect match with offerings drawn from Newman’s early iconic catalog, a selection that was pure pop in nature. Four albums in, Newman’s idiocentric songs were mostly centered around quirky yet cuddly characters imbued with a certain amount of naiveté. Indeed, they were the type of tunes that were irrepressibly engaging and prime picks for any artist in search of a shortcut to the top of the charts. Nilsson wisely chose to vary very little from Newman’s original arrangements, little surprise given the fact that the bespectacled composer himself supplied the bare-boned piano parts that served as the songs’ accompaniment. 

Interestingly enough, Nilsson’s instructions to the control room can also be heard in the mix. Likewise, it also boasts an inside joke, one contained in the song “Cowboy.” A hint of melody from the theme to the film “Midnight Cowboy” can be briefly be heard, part of a soundtrack that provided Nilsson with a major hit via his rendition of Fred Neil’s enduring anthem,“Everybody’s Talkin’.”

Sadly, Nilsson Sings Newman didn’t fare nearly as well as that earlier outing. Although well received by the critics, it sold poorly and languished in undeserved obscurity until it was subsequently rediscovered by a legion of young singers and songwriters in the years to come. These days it remains an outstanding example of what can transpire when talent is pooled in tandem and a perfect match is found between singer and song.

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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