The year was 1979 and I had just finished a recording session
with my friend John Douglas, a Canadian singer-songwriter,
at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. John and I went out
in the hallway and, lo and behold, there was Harry Nilsson
on a break from his session in another studio across the hall.
I recognized him and we struck up a conversation. He
was down to earth and very friendly. So much so, that
he invited John and I into his session to hear what he was
recording. It was a song called “Sweethaven,”
something he’d written for the “Popeye”
soundtrack. It sounded great and what made it unique
was an unusual keyboard instrument. The man who had
invented it was there and had apparently rented it to Harry.
I don’t remember the name of the instrument, but it
was the one used on the theme song for the “Rhoda”
TV series. If you remember that song, you’ll know
what the keyboard sounds like. As each note was struck,
it sounded like mallets doing trills on metallic plates.
Musically, the song was mid-tempo and to my ear had a style
that was Beatlesque. I loved it. My friend John soon
left and I stayed and watched Nilsson overdub a tympani drum
part on the song. I was impressed with the freedom and
ease of his creativity. He did it in one take and added
a new dimension to the recording. I then watched Harry
do a great lead vocal while smoking a cigarette between phrases,
which amazed me. When the official “Popeye”
soundtrack album was released, I remember being disappointed
with the new version of “Sweethaven.” The
demo had a looseness and a magic that was lost in the remake.
The musicians present at the session
were Van Dyke Parks, best known for his work with Brian Wilson
and The Beach Boys, and Klaus Voorman, best known for his
association with The Beatles. I was particularly excited
about Klaus because of his history with The Beatles, who were
and are my all-time favorite recording artists. Klaus
Voorman became friends with The Beatles in their early days
in Hamburg, Germany, designed the legendary cover of their
“Revolver” album, and later played bass on John
Lennon solo albums, including “Plastic Ono Band”
and “Imagine.” My impression of Van Dyke
was that he was a very funny man with endless energy and creativity.
Klaus, on the other hand, was very serious and low key.
When Harry Nilsson got to laying down vocals on a song about
Bluto entitled “I’m Mean,” he asked me if
I wanted to sing background vocals. Next thing I knew,
I was singing with Klaus Voorman and a couple of other people.
It came out well and Harry seemed to be pleased, shaking my
hand when I returned to the control room. I first went
into the session in the late afternoon and wound up staying
until about six in the morning. At one point, Harry
needed a guitar on a track and asked me if I played.
I said yes, but that my guitar was at my house about a half
an hour away. He wanted me to go get it, but at 4:00
o’clock in the morning I was too tired by then and declined.
It was a wild and crazy session, but it was memorable to say
the least. Here it is over two decades later and I remember
it vividly. As I recall, Klaus Voorman and I were among
the few who remained sober all night. Harry Nilsson
was a great singer/songwriter, but very self-destructive.
Both traits were abundantly apparent that night. In
the first few hours of the session I felt privileged to witness
a musical genius at work, but by the end of the night he was
actually a detriment to the creative process. As it
turned out, Harry’s excesses put an early end to his
life, but his music will live on.