From John Lennon to Ringo Starr: the five best songs Harry Nilsson gave away

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Harry Nilsson has always been known as one of the biggest singer-songwriters of his time. He may have been taken far too soon, but the records he gave us during his time felt like they were touched by the musical gods whenever they came out. Not every artist can do their works justice all the time, but it was a crime that Nilsson could give these tracks away.

Throughout any artist’s time in the spotlight, it’s easy to see why some songs might not work for your voice. It might not be up to their standards or even have their distinct style, but that doesn’t mean that a track can’t be turned into magic by someone else. When listening back to some of these, they actually end up working in both directions.

Sure, some of them may be a bit more mellow than Nilsson was used to singing, but it’s easy to hear that slight gravel in his voice going through most of these pieces. Even if the gender needed to be flipped, it didn’t matter so long as the track touched your heart the minute that it started.

Given how Nilsson left this world in 1994, his penchant for writing songs for others and himself made him one of the few craftsmen in his field. He wasn’t just looking to serve himself when he was writing. He was just looking for his next muse half the time, and if ended up having another artist hit the home run, then so be it.

The five best songs Harry Nilsson gave away

5. ‘He Needs Me’ – Popeye soundtrack

Most of the 1980 version of Popeye has faded into the background of history. Although the tribute to the abnormally large sailorman was a lighthearted romp for its time, it’s not exactly the kind of cinematic masterpiece that deserves to be passed on the same way Who Framed Roger Rabbit has been. It is strange that a movie with that little staying power has such a showstopping soundtrack.

Nilsson could have turned a song like ‘He Needs Me’ into a great track on his own, but writing it for Shelly DuVall to sing is a work of mad genius. DuVall may not have been the strongest singer in the world, but hearing her sing from the perspective of Olive Oil makes her look like something much more than a damsel in distress. The script didn’t give her much to work with, but ‘He Needs Me’ is enough character development for any female lead.

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4. ‘Easy For Me’ – Ringo Starr

Any artist collaborating with Ringo Starr usually knows what they should be going for. The Beatles had always given Starr the more lighthearted material in their catalogue, and it was always better for him to write with his lower voice in mind. Starr could stretch when he wanted to, and Nilsson ensured he had the right tools to make the former Beatle soar on ‘Easy For Me’.

Although Goodnight Vienna slots somewhere below his 1973 album Ringo, this ballad is a good way to show his versatility. Starr might have spent most of his time playing songs about rock and roll, but hearing him sing so tenderly fits in that same space that ‘Good Night’ does off The White Album, which is a tenderness that Starr was never capable of pulling off that often. When you get these gems out into the wild, you hold them with everything you’ve got.

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3. ‘Here I Sit’ – The Ronnettes

Nilsson’s rap sheet extended far beyond what he had laid down in any of his own records. He was always a songwriter first and a performer second, and if he wasn’t standing in front, he was shopping pieces around to whoever would hear them until he got a bite. Though Phil Spector may have overseen all of The Ronnettes’ productions, ‘Here I Sit’ was one of the few times that Nilsson got one of his songs in the door.

Arriving right as the girl group were gaining traction as one of the hottest commodities in music, ‘Here I Sit’ has all the melodrama that Ronnie Spector needs for an album, especially with that Spector Wall of Sound blaring out of the speakers before she even sings. The notorious producer may have his fingerprints all over the track, but every other lyric is Nilsson to its core.

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2. ‘The Story of Rock and Roll’ – The Turtles

There has never been a better topic for a rock and roll song than rock and roll itself. Even though many artists have looked like absolute fools talking about music in their works, every so often, you get tracks like ‘Johnny B. Goode’ that become anthems of the genre because of how pure they are about what rock was meant to be. The genre had to start somewhere, and Nilsson’s first smash with The Turtles went back to the stone age of rock and roll.

While already riding the wave of ‘Happy Together’, Nilsson’s first major part with the band included penning the piece about a man working his way across the US and finding the origins of rock in every major city, from the bluesy souls down South to travelling to New York in the Tin Pan Alley scene before watching rock and roll explode across radio stations around the world. Rock and roll was barely a decade old yet, but as far as songs go, this is the best history lesson people could have asked for at the time.

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1. ‘Old Dirt Road’ – John Lennon

The idea of collaborating with someone like John Lennon was impossible in the 1970s. He had his artistic ventures with Yoko Ono and may have even had Phil Spector on hand to produce, but nothing came out that wasn’t exactly what Lennon wanted to say. A lot can change in just a few years, and suddenly Nilsson was able to help his friend during his ‘lost weekend’ on ‘Old Dirt Road’.

Being known as a drinking buddy, Nilsson would add a few lines and help with the structure of this ballad. Compared to other Lennon ballads, it’s clear that there’s something different with a few of the vocal effects, but every now and then, a chord change will jump out as quintessentially Beatle-esque. It takes more than a confident songwriter to go toe-to-toe with a Beatle, but Nilsson was able to hold his own and come away with one of the better ballads of Lennon’s solo career.

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