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Harry Nilsson — lobby hard to get him in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

by Anny Celsi | The Frame

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Harry Nilsson (1941 - 1994) at the piano, 1972. (Photo by Stan Meagher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Stan Meagher/Getty Images

In a few weeks, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will announce their nominees for the class of 2016. Those names will be voted on by the 700 or so Hall of Fame members — artists, producers, music critics, executives and others involved in the industry — and inducted into the Hall next April.  

The nomination process — headed up by Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and producer Jon Landau — is famously opaque.  The only firm criterion is that the artist’s first record must have been released at least 25 years ago. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. And every year when the nominees are announced, rock fans are up in arms about who didn’t get picked.

So what does it take to get an artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? The powers that be aren’t saying.

Is there any way to reach these guys? Could music do the job?

A passionate group of musicians, writers and producers recently gathered in a Pasadena recording studio to make a pitch for an artist they believe in: singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. And Frame contributor Anny Celsi was there.

Producer Rob Laufer with Nilsson albums (Credit: Gabriel Szoke)

Nilsson died in 1994, and although he won two Grammys, wrote hits for Three Dog Night and The Monkees and was cited by The Beatles as their “favorite group,” he’s not exactly a household name today. But as music producer Alan Boyd relates, people often don’t realize how well they know his music.

“All you gotta do is start singing some of his songs,” Boyd says, demonstrating. 'Everybody's talking at me...’ Oh yeah, I know that one.” ‘I can't live if living is without you...’  “Yeah?” ‘You put the lime in the coconut...’  Invariably somebody will go, “That's all the same guy?”

“He was innovative, creative, his music is incredible,” says 60’s pop chanteuse Evie Sands. “People love it to this day, even those who may not be aware that it's Harry Nilsson's music.”

“He set the bar for artists of his time,” says songwriter Todd Lawrence. “He was an influence on everybody in his time, and he's really been virtually forgotten in the time since, and written out of the narrative. And I think he needs to be written back into the rock and roll narrative.”

Producer Rob Laufer and singer Evie Sands (Credit: Gabriel Szoke).  

Lawrence, known professionally as Milo Binder, wrote the song “Let’s Put Harry in the Hall,” which is being recorded today.  The crew is hoping the tune will inspire other Nilsson fans to help storm the walls of the rock and roll castle.  And that, somehow, it will reach the ears of whoever holds the keys.

While producers Willie Aron and Rob Laufer put the finishing touches on the track, musicians, friends and family of Nilsson mill around the green room, noshing on hummus and swapping Harry stories.

Nilsson is perhaps known best for partying hard with his drinking buddy John Lennon. But “he was a sweet guy, very intelligent,” remembers songwriter Stephen Kalinich, who met him through Brian Wilson. “He was one of those larger than life characters, but I think in his crazy humanity he touched a chord that we all have within us.”

Alt-country crooner Syd Straw calls Nilsson’s voice “soulful, heartbreaking. I like to hear that level of emotional intensity, even naiveté.”  She remembers meeting Nilsson at a recording session. “I took Harry’s paw in my paw,” Straw recalls, “And we just held hands the rest of my session. He liked that approach somehow.”

With the instrumental track completed, it’s time to bring in the choir. Aron passes out lyric sheets, then moves to the piano and begins banging out the tune. The singers gather around to learn their solo parts, which echo familiar lines from Harry Nilsson songs.

“Me and my arrow…”

“I can’t live, if living is without you…..”

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do….”

Past fan efforts aimed at getting the Hall’s attention -- including letter-writing campaigns and online petitions – haven’t made much of a dent, according to Los Angeles Times pop music writer Randy Lewis. “Because the nominating committee, they feel like, we know what's important and that's what we're going to act on,” says Lewis. “And a lot of times that leaves fans unhappy.”

But Todd Lawrence and his band of Harry-philes think it’s worth a shot.

“Here's the deal,” says Lawrence. “Every musician I know -- and I know a lot of musicians -- all love Harry Nilsson. So to have him be relatively unknown out there in the world - boy, when you get musicians together, he's not unknown! And I think that's the disconnect, and we're trying to say to the Hall of Fame, whatever it is you think is important or you think is worthy, this is our guy. We think he's worthy.”

Willie Aron leads Harry Nilsson chorus (Credit: Gabriel Szoke). 

As the group of 20-plus singers moves to the microphone, Aron reminds them, “Okay, let’s just bring our spirits, and our love of Harry, to the music!” And as the music kicks in, everyone raises their voices together:

“Put Harry in the haaa—aaaall!”

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