Take Five: Early Gems from Harry Nilsson

Though he was a songwriter of the highest caliber, singer-musician Harry Nilsson is often remembered for his sterling interpretations of the music of others. Nilsson’s covers of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Badfinger’s “Without You” are classic pop. But Nilsson got his start as a songwriter, often working behind the scenes. Here are five early gems from Harry Nilsson.

The Foto-Fi Four — “Stand Up and Holler” (1964)
Famously, sometime around 1967 The Beatles were asked to name their favorite group. “Harry Nilsson” was their answer. The American singer-songwriter was something of an underground sensation at the time; then as later, he avoided public performance, preferring the studio. This song – drawing more than a bit of its musical inspiration from Johnny Otis’ classic “Willie and the Hand Jive” and the collected works of Bo Diddley – was an ode to Nilsson’s favorite group.

The Citations — “Chicago” (1964)
The retro slice of swinging blues-pop marks one of Harry Nilsson’s earliest released recording sessions. The Citations were a Los Angeles-based vocal group that also included John Marascalo, a songwriter most noted for the hits he wrote for Little Richard. That list includes “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Ready Teddy,” “Send Me Some Lovin'” and “Rip It Up.” This recording eventually appeared — after Nilsson gained some success — on the compilation album Nilsson ’62: The Debut Sessions.

The Modern Folk Quartet — “This Could Be the Night” (1965)
Produced by the notorious “wall of sound” master Phil Spector, this song features a sound halfway between Spector’s girl-group classics and the Beach Boys’ mid-sixties masterworks. This tune has all the hallmarks of composer Nilsson’s best work: a catchy melody and upbeat feel. The MFQ featured four musicians – Cyrus Faryar, Henry Diltz, Chip Douglas and Jerry Yester – all of whom would go on to greater fame.

Slim Whitman — “A Travelin’ Man” (1966)
Speaking of The Beatles, television viewers of a certain age may recall the ads for a collection of songs by country star Slim Whitman; the tag line for the pitch was that Whitman “sold more records than The Beatles.” Whether that claim was true or not, one of those records was this 1966 weeper co-written by Nilsson; it was also released as the title track of Whitman’s 1966 long-player.

The Yardbirds – “Ten Little Indians” (1967)
By 1967, British band The Yardbirds had begun to move beyond their blues roots, crafting music that was at once pop-leaning and experimental. At the time of recording Little Games, the band was led on guitar by guitarist Jimmy Page, succeeding Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in that role. Written by Nilsson, “Ten Little Indians” was the third of four singles released from the band’s fourth album released in the U.S. Unfortunately, like the other three, it failed to break the U.S. Top 40.