Tuesday, December 20, 2011


At the recommendation of erstwhile Debris Slider Eric, I recently caught up with the 2006 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Did They Give This Movie a Long, Dumb Parenthetical Title?), which was re-released in 2010 with additional found interview footage of Nilsson. I believe it's the latter version that I saw on Netflix. While the film didn't answer my most fundamental question about the man - why did he bill himself as just "Nilsson" rather than "Harry Nilsson"? - it was enlightening nevertheless.

Everyone knows that John Lennon and Ringo Starr spent much of the early 1970s pub-rolling around Los Angeles with Nilsson, but the Beatles actually became big fans after Nilsson's 1966 album Pandemonium Shadow Show. At the press conference introducing Apple, Lennon and Paul McCartney both named Nilsson as their favorite American srtist. Lennon of course later produced Nilsson's 1974 album Pussy Cats, and Ringo was best man at Nilsson's third and final wedding.

One thing I did not know before seeing the movie was that Nilsson did not do live performances - he never toured, and never even performed in concert, near as I could tell. There's a clip in the movie of Nilsson singing on the TV show Playboy After Dark, with luminaries such as Otto Preminger and Norm Crosby gathered round, but that's apparently as close as Harry ever got.

Nilsson was noted as much for his songwriting as for his singing, which made it kind of odd that his first hit single was Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," which Nilsson took to Number Six in 1969, and his biggest hit was his Number One cover of Badfinger's "Without You," in 1972. He also wrote "One," (he based the opening one-note riff on a busy signal) which Three Dog Night took into the Top Ten in 1969, and took his own composition "Coconut" into the Top Ten in the summer of '72. That's how you know he was an exceptional songwriter, that he could come up with something that so effortlessly resembled an old Jamaican folk song, which I had always assumed it was.

So Nilsson had a Top Ten hit with a cover and with his own song, plus wrote a Top Ten hit for another artist, which is quite the trifecta. Bruce Springsteen did that, with several of his own Top Tens, covers by Manfred Mann's Earth Band ("Blinded by the Light") and the Pointer Sisters ("Fire"), and his live cover of Edwin Starr's "War," which went to Number Eight in 1986. Tommy James sorta did it as well, although he only co-wrote "Mony, Mony." Anyone else?


  1. Sorta: John Lennon (#1 hits in collaboration and on his ownsome, #2 singing "Twist and Shout" with the Beatles [solo, his highest cover was the #20 "Stand By Me"], #1 when "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was covered by Elton John).

    Elton John, possibly (hit #1 with "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, as noted above). George Michael took "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" to #1, but Sir Elton appeared on that. Are there any other hit covers of his songs?

    Stevie Wonder (multiple self-penned top-ten hits, took "Blowin' in the Wind" to #9, and Coolio's rewrite of "Pastime Paradise" as "Gangsta's Paradise" hit #1. Surely there must be other hit covers of Wonder's catalog?)

    Smokey Robinson (multiple top-ten hits on his own and with the Miracles, "Shop Around" taken to #4 by the Captain & Tennille, hit #8 with "Mickey's Monkey" [written by Holland-Dozier-Holland]).

    This is a harder accomplishment than I first thought--there's lots of covers of Stones songs, for example, but I can't find one that went top ten.

  2. off the top of my head, both Aretha Franklin and Rufus (featuring Chaka Khan) had top 10 hits in the 1970s with Stevie Wonder songs. "Until You Come Back To Me" and "Tell Me Something Good," which are two of the best songs ever written--I think they both hit #3 but I'm not 100% sure on that.

    Prince might qualify, since Chaka Khan had a top 10 hit with "I Feel For You" and Prince had a #1 hit with "Batdance," which is at least in part a cover of Neil Hefti's "Batman Theme." (The only certifiable hook-as-such in "Batdance" is the Hefti "Batmaaaan!" chant. That one might be debatable though.)

    George Harrison might count as well. He had a #1 hit in 1987 with a cover (I can't even type the title, what an awful song) and Ringo took his "Photograph" to #1.

  3. If you count "Batdance," then Prince hits #1 in each category, because of Sinead's chart-topping "Nothing Compares 2 U."

  4. Prince's cover of "Betcha by Golly Wow" peaked at No. 31, or he'd have a much better entry than the lamentable "Batdance."

  5. Michael Jackson: Wrote his own "Billie Jean," covered "Ben" (which was composed by a guy named Walter Scharf, who was 62 at the time), wrote "Muscles" for Diana Ross.

  6. an asterisk for Don McLean, who hit Number One with his own song ("American Pie"), revisited the top ten with a Roy Orbison song ("Crying") and had another Number One hit written about him, "Killing Me Softly" (at least according to Fred Bronson's book).

  7. Madonna covered "American Pie," but her version peaked at No. 29.

    Jackson Browne almost pulled off the quinella, though: His own "Doctor My Eyes" went to Number Eight, but "Take It Easy" stalled at No. 12 for the Eagles, and his cover of "Stay" peaked at No. 20. His biggest hit in the four categories was the song written about him, "Poetry Man," which Phoebe Snow took to No. 5.

  8. Badfinger was mentioned in the post but I don't see them in the comments.
    They went Top Ten with their own tune ("No Matter What"), wrote Nilsson's big hit; and went Top Ten with the McCartney-penned "Come And Get It."

  9. Oh, and here's another:
    Eric Carmen wrote "All By Myself," which went to No. 2;
    took "Hungry Eyes" (written by John DeNicola and Frankie Previte) to No. 4;
    and wrote several schlocky Top Ten hits for other artists ("Hey Deanie" and "That's Rock n' Roll" for Shaun Cassidy, and "Almost Paradise" for Ann Wilson and Mike Reno.)
    And no, there's not a song on that list I'd particularly want to hear again.

  10. The Paul McCartney of Cleveland can claim another category, as he wrote Top Ten hits both for his group ("Go All the Way") and for himself as a solo artist. Still waiting for the Top Ten hit inspired by Eric Carmen, though.

  11. near misses:

    1. Neil Young had a Number One (“Heart of Gold”), Prelude had a #22 hit with “After the Gold Rush” (which I think charted higher than St. Etienne’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) and of course Lynyrd Skynyrd had a Top Ten hit defending the Southland from him. He also hit #11 as part of a group, covering a Joni Mitchell song. I guess “Horse With No Name” should fit here somewhere.

    2. Carole King had a Number One (“It’s Too Late”), wrote more Top Tens for other artists than any of us have had hot breakfasts, and hit #12 in 1980 with her version of the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day.” (That’s cheating because she wrote it, but it still kinda feels like a cover.) And Neil Sedaka went Top Ten with “Oh! Carol.”

    3. James Taylor had a Top Ten he wrote (“Fire and Rain”), hit the Top Ten with Carole King and Marvin Gaye covers, but I don’t think anyone had a hit covering any JT songs. (Though I’ll defend Stacey Q’s “Shower the People.”) He also had hit covers in partnership with two different artists named “Simon.” You could count “Sweet Baby James” as a song about him, but that seems dubious not so much because he wrote it but because it’s about a cowboy. Can you imagine JT on a horse? One canter and he’d be a flying machine in pieces on the ground.

  12. Nicolette Larson took her cover of "Lotta Love" into the Top Ten in 1978, so Neil gets a checkmark in that category.

    Paul Simon, I think, is a near miss: He wrote oodles of his own solo hits and wrote "Red Rubber Ball" for the Cyrkle, but all his covered hits ("Scarborough Fair," "El Condor Pasa," "Wonderful World") were as part of a group. Too bad his cover of Los Lobos' "The Myth of Fingerprints" wasn't a hit.

  13. "Too bad his cover of Los Lobos' "The Myth of Fingerprints" wasn't a hit."
    I just wanted to acknowledge how ace that comment is.

    Another near-miss (and proof that you don't have to be a Great Artist to be in this discussion) is Peter Frampton.
    Frampton went to No. 2 with "I'm In You," and had Will To Power take "Baby I Love Your Way" somewhere in the Top Ten (maybe even Number One - arsed if I look it up.)
    Unfortunately (for the purposes of this thread, anyway) his cover of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" stalled at No. 18.

  14. another near miss might be Van Halen. They hit #1 with "Jump," an original. They hit #36 with "You Really Got Me," #12 with "Pretty Woman" and #38 with "Dancing in the Street." And Tone Loc took their "Jamie's Crying" to #2 with "Wild Thing."

    needless to say it gets pointlessly complicated once you factor in Sammy (who wrote a Top Ten hit for Rick Springfield before he even joined VH) and Dave (whose solo career began and pretty much ended with Beach Boys and Louis Prima covers) which I guess is why groups don't really fit in this spiffy little exercise, but still, an interesting case.