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Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter Hardcover – July 18, 2013

4.3 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Award-winning British jazz critic Shipton calls Harry Nilsson “a songwriter’s songwriter.” Unlike most musicians, Nilsson never regularly toured and rarely performed in concert. Many of his songs were autobiographical, his way of exorcising perhaps the most painful episodes from his life, including his father’s abandoning the family when Nilsson was a boy and the gruesome death of his beloved cat. Shipton’s lovingly detailed biography of an often enigmatic figure chronicles the poverty of Nilsson’s childhood, his fledgling career as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, his bouts with fame, and his self-destructive behavior. His celebrity friendships are also explored, none more so than his complicated relationship with John Lennon. Shipton describes in detail the notorious incident that took place at the famous West Hollywood club, the Troubadour, in 1974, in which both men caused a drunken commotion. The murder of Lennon in 1980 had a profound impact on Nilsson; the notoriously private singer even campaigned for gun-control legislation. Nilsson fans will appreciate this long-awaited biography of an often neglected and underrated musician. --June Sawyers


"Shipton... balances Nilsson's tragic story with exacting analysis of his talents and similarly detailed accounts of bacchanalian exploits with ex-Beatles and other bons vivants." --Rolling Stone

"An amazing tale." --Boston Globe

"Nilsson fans will appreciate this long awaited biography of an often neglected and underrated musician." --lBooklist

"An in-depth and informative book."

-Below the Fold

"Readers of this engrossing new biography will come away with a tremendous knowledge of and respect for the man and his music. And a great sense of loss, as this delightful fellow departed far too soon. " --Pop-Culture Classics

"The definitive work on the man who put the lime in the coconut."

-Houston Press

"Nilsson: The life of a singer-songwriter, is a fitting epitaph that keeps an unmatched legacy alive. Nilsson's eclectic, eccentric, funny-as-hell, wistful, whimsical, childlike brilliance will be listened to by people 100 years from now. And Shipton's biography does its best to explain it all."

-Goldmine Magazine

"Shipton, well noted as a researcher in jazz, has produced a very well-researched biography. Certainly more historical than analytical, the book is a fine read and an important addition to the literature because as emerging songwriters begin to explore songs written during a key period of songwriting, they will have no choice but to gravitate toward Nilsson." -T.R. Harrison, Jacksonville University, CHOICE

"Alyn Shipton's biography of singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson is a thorough, loving depiction of one of the era's most endearing and enigmatic characters."--Pacific Rim Review of Books


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 18, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199756570
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199756575
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.3 x 6.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #398,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Nilsson: The Life Of A Singer-Songwriter" by Alyn Shipton will take you on a wild ride that you won't soon forget. It will charm you and at the same time will rip your heart to shreads with sadness. This in depth book about the late great Harry Nilsson covers Harry's life from sad beginning to tragic end. Harry was a complete party animal who knew no boundries when it came to drink and drugs and it slowly ate away at his health until there was nothing left of him. He lived his life the way he wanted and nobody could stand in his way except himself. He lived hard and had many wonderful friends like John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Micky Dolenz, Jimmy Webb, Keith Moon, Eric Idle and many others who loved to hang out with him at many a wild party which sometimes lasted for several days. They all idolized Harry and said that there was never a more caring and giving friend. Some of them even contributed to his downfall when they knew it was the wrong thing to do but they would do anything he wanted. He had that kind of power over them. Despite his wild lifestyle Harry was a wonderful father and husband who always put his family before all else. The only downside to the book is the skimpy discography and there are a handful of typos and the misspelling of "Klaatu" several times and the information regarding Tiny Tim's early years which was mainly in New York not in Cambridge Massachusetts. Harry was a big fan of Tiny's and first met the great producer Richard Perry at Tiny's concert at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. From there they became close friends with Richard going on to produce Harry's two finest albums "Nilsson Schmilsson" and "Son Of Schmilsson". The author worked closely with Harry's family since 2004 so there is plenty of new information that nobody has ever known before. There are also some wonderful photos of Harry and friends and early photos from his childhood. If you love Nilsson don't miss this book on a fantastic singer-songwriter and musical genius.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book had me riveted from cover to cover.
A great story, expertly told with extensive supporting notes and bibliography.

For me, what takes this book strongly into the 5 star realm is the detailed accounts revealing how the music was made.
Best case, you own the 17 CD RCA Albums collections (I don't) , worst case you hear the music on youtube & your personal collection (I did)
As I read the stories describing how the various albums came together, and a detail was mentioned about a specific track, vocal, technique, or instrument. I put the book down, and listened to the track on my phone via youtube or itunes. Songs that I have heard many times before surprised me with new life as I listened with new intent.

Most notably, this technique of keeping the music at my fingertips paid off when the book lays praise on Nilsson's voice. Cue up the song in question and realize, wow, he really was as good as all the recent press keeps saying he is/was. ( Examples "Perfect Day" or "All I think About Is You" )

An emotional read, recommended for anyone with the slightest interest in music, or biographies. Essential read for even the most casual fan of Harry Nilsson.
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Format: Hardcover
Harry's voice was considered by many (including the author) to be the greatest male tenor in the the 70s. This biography starts off very strong, and that's not often the case with biographies, even the good ones. It really surprised me that Harry Nilsson's life actually began in Bushwick, Brooklyn. There, it was tough going for Harry and family. The father basically abandoned them, and one day Harry and his mother got attacked by a gang of girls near their home. After that, the mother picked up and split, but Harry decided to stick it out a bit in Brooklyn, and then eventually traveled to California to meet up with mum and siblings. Having no money, he hitchhiked cross country. It's during those hard scrabble early years that the book really takes flight. Living a hand to mouth existence for quite a while, the reader experiences the full arc of a life truly ranging from rags to riches (and rags again.) No joke, Harry Nilsson was one self made man. For sure, no silver spoon or even the most basic support was ever provided to him. He did have an uncle in California that gave him a job however.

Nilsson was blessed with a keen mind, and there he was at the forefront of the computer revolution. He worked his way to the top at a bank where he specialized in computer systems, even though he didn't even have a high school diploma. Was even known to wash the windows at his job. And for quite a while, Harry hung onto this very position even though his songwriting career was taking off. His character's kind of nebulous and hard to pin down though, making it rather difficult for any biographer. Harry Nilsson lived below the radar, and the author emphasizes that he never played before a live audience.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Nilsson- the guy with one name who never did live gigs. The Beatles favorite singer and group. The guy who hung with John Lennon during his Lost Weekend from Yoko. Although this sometimes gets into the nuts and bolts of record production a little too deeply (my opinion only), this was a really good read I'd been waiting for since its publication was announced. If you are a Nilsson fan you should get this and read it.
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