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Five quirky facts about Harry Nilsson

By Alyn Shipton


(1) Harry nearly had no career at all after he accepted a dare as a teenager to slide down a fast running flume at Wofford Heights in California. After sliding down the waterway for several miles at high speed he narrowly escaped with his life by grabbing a metal bar above his head and hauling himself out of the rapid current.

(2) Harry’s career as a songwriter started when he was working night shifts at a bank in Van Nuys. He would finish work at 1 a.m., then go to a nearby office and write songs all night, passing out in a chair as the sun came up. After no more than a couple of hours’ sleep, he’d spend the day seeing music publishers, selling the songs he had written. Some of his greatest hits, including “1941” and “Without Her” were written during this nightly regime.

(3) Harry had a fascination with numbers, and his mental acuity was so great that if you told him your date of birth, he could instantly tell you which day of the week you were born.



(4) Harry’s London flat in Curzon Place was redecorated before he moved in. On the bathroom mirror was a hangman’s noose. Although Harry swiftly changed the mirror, both Mama Cass and Keith Moon were to die in that apartment.

(5) Harry never appeared live during his career as a professional singer. His London TV specials were done without an audience, and he lip-synched to his records on early TV appearances. He only started doing live concerts after his recording contract ended and he began to appear at Beatlefest events to campaign for gun control after the murder of his great friend John Lennon. As he was never paid for these, he maintained he retained his “amateur” status as a performer until the end of his life.

Alyn Shipton is the award-winning author of many books on music including Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, A New History of Jazz, Groovin’ High: the Life of Dizzy Gillespie, and Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway. He is jazz critic for The Times in London and has presented jazz programs on BBC radio since 1989. He is also an accomplished double bassist and has played with many traditional and mainstream jazz bands.

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