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My Chance Recording Session with Harry Nilsson

by Mark Guerrero

     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.
 


Harry Nilsson

 

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