The past few years have been very good to fans of the late singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson.
We got to see an excellent feature-length documentary on Nilsson’s life and work, the remastering of his entire discography with several discs of bonus material, along with the release of what will surely go down as the definitive Nilsson biography by Alyn Shipton. What’s more, several high-profile online publications have published long overdue retrospectives celebrating his all-too-brief career.
For longtime fans of an artist who spent most of the past few decades toiling in obscurity, these are all welcome developments. I feel gratified that more and more music fans appear to be giving Harry his due, and recognizing his contribution to the development of American popular music.
However, many still fail to appreciate what I consider Nilsson’s finest hour.
In 2013, Grantland’s Sean Fennessey wrote a thoughtful and engaging article on Nilsson that serves as an effective “Nilsson primer” for new fans. As Fennessey surveyed the artist’s achievements—from “Everybody’s Talkin’,” to his Grammy-award winning opus Nilsson Schmilsson—I held my breath as he began to critique A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, Harry’s 1973 album comprising standards from the Great American Songbook.
I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised when Fennessey summed up A Little Touch of Schmilsson as “immaculately sung,” but ultimately a “dull and staid listen.”
I violently disagree—disagree seems too meek a word—with this last point. And I intend to prove Sean Fennessey wrong with this audio essay.
Hardly “dull and staid,” A Little Touch of Schmilsson In The Night is instead one of the most beautifully sung and arranged collections of pop music you’ve (probably) never heard; it’s an important and exciting listen, especially when you consider the pop landscape into which it emerged back in 1973. What’s more, decades after its release A Little Touch holds up; from the 1970’s to the present, there has not been a more impressive, and well-performed testament to the enduring appeal of the classic period of American popular song.
I hope you enjoy today’s episode of Travels in Music in defense of A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.
Mentioned in this episode:
- A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night by Harry Nilsson (Amazon / iTunes)
- Sean Fennessey’s feature on Nilsson (Grantland)
- Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton (Amazon)
- Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everyone Talking About Him?) documentary (Amazon)
- Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson (Amazon / iTunes)
- Son of Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson (Amazon / iTunes)
- “You’re Breaking My Heart” by Harry Nilsson (Amazon / iTunes)
- Pussy Cats by Harry Nilsson (Amazon / iTunes)
- “What’ll I Do?” by Frank Sinatra (Amazon / iTunes)
- Harry Nilsson in Concert on the BBC, 1973 (YouTube)