A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night

A long, long time ago, there was a singer named Harry. He was never very popular; even though he recorded over two dozen albums, almost entirely his own compositions, and although his few hits are ubiquitous in modern music, his name still draws blank stares.In an interview in the late sixties, John Lennon and Paul McCartney named Harry Nilsson as their favorite American singer. With a nearly four-octave range, an obvious passion for music (his own or someone else’s) and a natural wit, Harry was a marvelous performer. Even those who don’t know his name recognize songs like “Everybody’s Talkin'”, “Without You”, “Me and My Arrow” from his wonderful children’s story “The Point”, and “Coconut.”

A long, long time ago, there was a singer named Harry. He was never very popular; even though he recorded over two dozen albums, almost entirely his own compositions, and although his few hits are ubiquitous in modern music, his name still draws blank stares.

SchmilssonIn an interview in the late sixties, John Lennon and Paul McCartney named Harry Nilsson as their favorite American singer. With a nearly four-octave range, an obvious passion for music (his own or someone else’s) and a natural wit, Harry was a marvelous performer. Even those who don’t know his name recognize songs like “Everybody’s Talkin’“, “Without You“, “The PointMe and My Arrow” from his wonderful children’s story “The Point”, and “Coconut.”

What Harry is not famous for is my favorite album, bar none. Never one to pander to anyone else’s taste, in 1973 Harry teamed up with the great Gordon Jenkins, composer and arranger for Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and others. Harry chose Jenkins to arrange and conduct an album of standards (and not-so-standards) and in the process, made them his own.

Harry often joked with his last name in his album titles: “Schmilsson”, “Son of Schmilsson”, and finally, “SchmilssonA Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night“, today’s feature.

I’ve owned this album since shortly after it was released, and I’m quite certain a week has not gone by when I haven’t listened to it. After more than a thousand auditions, certain passages still make me catch my breath; certain segues still make me stop what I’m doing to absorb the subtlety; certain lyrical phrasings still make me marvel at Harry’s intuitive grasp of how language and music can be one. We occasionally give it as a special gift. It’s just part of our lives and I can’t imagine anything less.

Jenkins shows why he was sought after from the thirties to the sixties with his arrangements. No tune stands on its own; instead, the orchestration of each piece flows into the next. The album opens with the first three lines of the closing tune, then sweeps into an orchestral section before settling into the first tune.

As Time Goes ByThese orchestral connections make frequent reference to “Over the Rainbow” which doesn’t appear on the album. I wondered about that for years, until I recently discovered the 1996 album “As Time Goes By: The Complete Schmilsson in the Night.” I completely missed 1988’s “A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night”, but I’m glad to see the lost tunes from those sessions come to light. I’ll definitely have something to say about the other tunes once I’ve had a chance to fully absorb them.

  • Lazy Moon – After the nod to “As Time Goes By” and a sweeping orchestral bit, Harry sings accompanied only by the slow strumming of a quiet guitar, and a few strings. The only other known recording of this tune was by Oliver Hardy, possibly in the movie “Pardon Us.” Composed in 1901 by the innovative team of Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, Harry turns this vaudeville tune into a gentle but humorous love song. Witty lyrics and a simple melody make it easy to picture Ollie singing it, too.
  • For Me And My Gal – Written for the 1942 movie of the same name, it’s been covered by nearly everyone at one time or another. A memory of simpler times.
  • It Had To Be You – Lyrics composed in 1924 by the great Gus Kahn to an Isham Jones melody, this one receives special treatment by Harry and Gordon – slightly adjusted lyrics for the last two lines:

     But with all your faults, it's you I adore, When you stand up, your hands touch the floor, It had to be me, unlucky me, it had to be me!

    Okay, it’s not that funny, but coming unannounced this far into an album of serious and romantic tunes, it sure caught me off guard the first time I heard it.

  • Always – The shortest track on the album; composed by the amazing Irving Berlin. A short sweet statement of love.
  • Makin’ Whoopee! – No, this was written for a 1928 musical,so perhaps it’s not exactly what you think. It is a humorous Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson collaboration about the, um, joys of hasty marriage. Gordon Jenkins puts more than the usual effort into the score. Later assassinated by Dr. John and Ricky Lee Jones on the “Sleepless in Seattle” soundtrack. All the more reason to listen to Harry’s version.
  • You Made Me Love You – Jolson, Crosby, Armstrong, Garland, Cole, all had a crack at it. It remains intact. Harry’s is subtler, more sensitive.
  • Lullaby In Ragtime – My favorite. Written by the phenomenal Silvia Fine for her husband Danny Kaye, Harry and Gordon slow it down and really make a lullaby out of it. Fine’s lyrics are always spectacular. Harry does them justice. Again accompanied primarily by guitar, but a quiet acoustic guitar reminiscent of the twenties, not the sixties.
  • I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now – Once again, recorded by everybody and his brother (and a few cousins) – Como, Crosby, Charles, Kaye, Martin; Harry makes it bittersweet. The emotional power of his voice is most evident here.
  • What’ll I Do? – Another tune by Irving Berlin, one of only two composers featured twice. Written in 1924, a smoky melody noir which Harry makes no attempt to cheer up. Subtle and beautiful.
  • Nevertheless – The songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby was the subject of the 1950 movie “Three Little Words”, named for one of their most popular tunes. Starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton, the film has the distinction of being choreographed by Astaire and Hermes Pan, with musical direction by Andre Previn. “Nevertheless” is typical Tin Pan Alley schmaltz, but as usual, in Harry’s hands (or throat) it transcends its origins and becomes a lovely tune.
  • This Is All I Ask – Written by Harry’s arranger and conductor on the album, Gordon Jenkins, this is one of the most complex tunes present. Only ten years old at the time Harry recorded it, it sounds much, much older. John Gary did it nicely when it was newer, but as usual, Harry finds a few notes that no one else seemed to notice. Slow and subtle, it is the perfect lead into the final piece.
  • As Time Goes By – What CasablancaBogart really said was “Play it Sam, If she can take it, so can I.” So Sam plays it – “As Time Goes By.” Written by the otherwise anonymous Herman Hupfield, it is the lyrical epitome of the timelessness of true love. It’s just a bit odd that it plays such a pivotal role in a movie whose theme is that some things are more important than love. Harry and Gordon arrange it perfectly; the phrasing, the dynamics, the well-placed silences; it really is one of the finest recordings I’ve ever heard.

Harry died in at the age of 53 in 1994. In my opinion, that was a hundred years too soon.

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