© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'This Is Our Guy': Musicians Rally For Harry Nilsson, An Icon Who Dodged Fame

Harry Nilsson at the piano in 1972.
Stan Meagher
Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Harry Nilsson at the piano in 1972.

On Thursday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announces its nominees for the class of 2016. Those names will be voted on by the 800 or so Hall of Fame members, and inducted next April. Every year, armies of outraged fans denounce the hall for leaving out their favorite rockers — and this year, one one such group in Los Angeles is mounting a musical campaign aimed directly at the voters' ears, with hopes of inducting one of rock's forgotten heroes: the late Harry Nilsson.

The obvious names — pioneers of rock like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis — were all inducted long ago. Bands that are less consensus picks are much trickier adds. Los Angeles Times pop music writer Randy Lewis says he's no longer surprised to hear immediate and vehement backlash when the nominees are announced.

"Anything we wrote about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I could count on dozens if not hundreds of responses coming in, saying the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a joke until Styx is in," he says. "We hear it about The Moody Blues. We hear it about Yes."

Every year, the pool of eligible artists grows larger — and the outcry grows louder. The only firm criterion for nomination is that the artist's first record must have been released at least 25 years ago. Musical excellence and influence are also important, if less quantifiable, factors.

Harry Nilsson has been eligible almost as long as the Hall has been open, but he's never even been nominated. Singer Syd Straw says Nilsson checks all the necessary boxes for inclusion and has waited long enough: "I think on every level, one of the best singers, one of the best writers, one of the best existers, one of the best dreamers."

Likewise, Lewis thinks the musician brought something special to rock. "Harry Nilsson's voice was just one of the wonders of the pop music world," he says. "He did bring this very charming and childlike quality in his music, but he would insert some very subversive messages in it. Which, to me, is very rock and roll."

Before he died in 1994, Nilsson won two Grammys, wrote hits for Three Dog Night and The Monkees and was name-checked by The Beatles as their "favorite group." David Leaf, who produced the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (...and Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, suggests that people don't know Nilsson because he didn't want them to.

"The general public does not know who Harry Nilsson is, and that was by Harry Nilsson's own design," he says. "I think Harry was quite determined not to be famous in a public way. I think he was a contrarian about everything to do with his career."

Even though Nilsson refused to perform live, he managed to score No. 1 hits without touring to promote his records, which was unheard of in the pre-YouTube era. That may have kept him out of the public eye, but Nilsson is, and always was, a musician's musician.

Songwriter Todd Lawrence and other passionate Nilsson fans are a part of a group that has dubbed itself "Put Harry in the Hall." The campaign has a website and a Facebook page — but these are musicians, so they got together in the studio to record a song for their hero as well. "I think he needs to be written back into the rock and roll narrative," Lawrence says.

In addition to Lawrence and Syd Straw, the chorus of over 20 musicians gathered at the mic includes '60s pop singer Evie Sands, Steve Barton of the band Translator, Beach Boys collaborator Stephen Kalinich — and Harry Nilsson's son Zak.

Grass-roots campaigns for the Hall haven't had a lot of success in the past. But Lawrence and his fellow Nilsson champions think it's worth a shot: "Every musician I know love[s] Harry Nilsson. So to have him be relatively unknown out there in the world — boy, when you get musicians together, he's not unknown! And I think that's the disconnect. We're trying to say to the Hall of Fame, whatever it is you think is important or you think is worthy, this is our guy. We think he's worthy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anny Celsi