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Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter Hardcover – 8 Aug 2013
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Despite the sadness at the heart of Shipton's biography, it rarely feels like a lament... Impressive and meticulously researched. (The Lady)
Bravo to Shipton for not only giving us the first Nilsson biography but, really, the only one we ever may need. (PopMatters)
Shipton, a U.K. academic, 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. (Barry Walters, Rolling Stone)
[This] detailed biography doesn't miss a single fact from the birth of Harry Nilsson in 1941 to his death, aged 52 ... Shipton chronicles the fascinating and equally heart-breaking life of this maverick musician. It's all here, warts and all ... [It] catches the very essence of Nilsson (Jon 'Mojo' Mills, Shindig)
[Shipton] gives us the definitive take on an American original (Jeremy Shatan, An Earful)
He was once described by his producer Richard Perry as the finest white male singer on the planet. Drawing on exclusive access to Nilsson's papers, Alyn Shipton's biography offers readers an intimate portrait of a man who has seemed both famous and unknowable―until now. (Goodreads)
From the Inside Flap
aul McCartney and John Lennon described him as the Beatles' "favorite group," and yet no figure in popular music is as much of a paradox as Harry Nilsson. A major celebrity at a time when stadium rock was in its infancy and huge concerts and festivals were becoming the norm, Nilsson's instrument was the studio, his stage the dubbing booth, his greatest technical triumphs were masterful examples of studio craft, and he studiously avoided live performance. He was a gifted composer of songs for a wide variety of performers, having created vivid flights of imagination for the Ronettes, the Yardbirds and the Monkees, yet Nilsson's own biggest hits were almost all written, ironically, by other composers and lyricists. He won two Grammies, had two top ten singles, and numerous album successes. Once described by his producer Richard Perry as "the finest white male singer on the planet," near the end of his life, his career was marked by voice-damaging substance abuse and the infamous deaths of both Keith Moon and Mama Cass in his London flat. His music remains prevalent today, through the 1995 tribute album For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson (featuring performances of Nilsson's hits by Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks, Fred Schneider and others) and recent covers, such as Aimee Mann's recording of "One" (popularized as the main track on the Magnolia soundtrack) and Neko Case's arrangement of "Don't Forget Me" on her album, Middle Cyclone.
In this first ever full-length biography of Nilsson, author Alyn Shipton traces Nilsson's life from his Brooklyn childhood to his Los Angeles adolescence, and charts his gradual move into the spotlight as a talented songwriter. With interviews from Nilsson's friends, family and associates, and material drawn from an unfinished draft autobiography Nilsson was writing prior to his death, Shipton probes beneath the enigma and the paradox to discover the real Harry Nilsson, and thereby reveals one of the most creative talents in 20th century popular music.
Top customer reviews
Mr. Shipton's book has a couple of really strong points:
First, he had access to the Nilsson family and the Nilsson Estate, and in particular to the unfinished autobiography Nilsson was composing, both in form of recorded tapes (the "oral" autobiography) and written drafts (the "draft" autobiography)
So there's quite a deal of fresh input. By the way, the quoted parts of Nilsson's draft autobiography are extremely well written and full of humour... too bad he didn't have the chance to complete it...
Second, Mr. Shipton is a musician himself - unlike so many "music critics" who couldn't tell a major chord from a minor one if their lives depended on it - and therefore his primary focus is always the music (the songwriting and recording process, the production choices) rather than the personal/sordid/gossipy bits. Which are there, of course, it's "hell raiser" Nilsson we're talking about after all. But the spotlight is always on the artist and on his music first.
To be perfectly fair, it must also be said that Shipton draws, I mean, A LOT, from director John Scheinfeld & LSL Productions' documentary film "Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)". This film is truly a must-see for any Nilsson fan, a 5-star treasure trove of interviews and archive material, currently available as a Region-free DVD which adds about 90' of bonus material, making it about 3 hours of material. I really advice any Nilsson fan to give it a look.
Shipton's book is also (very slightly) marred by a few minor omissions (Nilsson's 1968 BBC session for "Saturday Club with Brian Matthew" goes totally indiscussed, only passingly mentioned in a quote from Nilsson's then wife: and yet it's the rarest of the events, being one of the the very few occasions Nilsson performed [and recorded] live in public); and there is the odd disputable assertion ("In 1967 the Monkees were the closest thing America had to the Beatles" - well I don't know really... what about the Beach Boys?) and a bit of shaky judgement here and there (I honestly don't believe 1976's "...That's the Way It Is" to be better than the previous two records... and when discussing "Duit on Mon Dei", the author completely forgets "Puget Sound", the little gem of the album and the closest things to Nilsson's early stuff; and utterly fails to aknowledge the incredible duet with Gloria Jones on "What's Your Sign").
But all considered, a very fine book.
The only thing that really puzzles me is the cover picture. I've seen dozens of portraits of Nilsson, some of them funny, others witty, or moving, or all these things combined and then some... but the publishers decided to go with the most dull, insignificant, nondescript picture of Nilsson I've ever seen... Do these people know anything about marketing and advertising?
Don't they know that a good cover alone could consistently improve sales figures?...
This book traces some of the major events of his life, including:
* the early albums he released in the mid-to-late 60s, together with his songwriting stint for a certain manufactured TV group named The Monkees;
* the release of two singles - ironically both written by other songwriters - that brought him to worldwide attention; namely: 'Without You' (written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger) and 'Everybody's Talkin'' (Fred Neil);
* his relationship with super-talented producer Richard Perry who came to define his sound for a while;
* his involvement with soundtracks and musicals, including 'Skidoo' and the charming animated tale 'The Point'
* the major endorsement by the Beatles as Harry being their favourite American songwriter. He came to know John and Ringo from both a personal and
professional viewpoint: writing a song with John, 'Old Dirt Road', which later appeared on solo albums by both artists, while both he and Ringo regularly guested on each other's albums.
* regular nights out with his numerous celebrity drinking buddies including (during his time in London) Keith Moon, a couple of Pythons and various other luminaries both here and in the U.S. His alcoholism sadly contributed to his decline as a musician, and added to his health worries.
Inevitably, he failed to live up to the huge promise he demonstrated on his early albums, and he died aged only 53 in 1994.
The above are selected snapshots delineated in this fine biography. It's delivered in a refreshingly factual style that eschews any sensationalism.
A fine read.
Alyn Shipton's book is probably going to be read mainly by the already converted, which would be a shame as leaning more about this rather paradoxical character would stimulate interest in the man's music itself. The book is very well researched and provides what must surely be the definitive work on Nilsson the man and his music. Even without the music Nilsson's life makes a tragic yet funny and unforgettable story – to say nothing of his friends!
I'm not usually a great reader of biography but I found Alyn Shipton's life of Nilsson hard to put down and I had to delve into my CD collection to find some old Nilsson favourites to play along with reading it. Although I have seen a couple of TV documentaries about Nilsson in the past they really only scratched the surface of the man's life and here Alyn Shipton lifts the lid on the whole thing. A great book for Nilsson's fans and a riveting human interest story for anyone seeking a good read – perhaps also a guide book on how not to live your life!
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Most recent customer reviews
Mr.Shipton gave very detailed information about the man and his music
Recommended it very much
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