Whenever the temptation exists to get depressed about the state of the catalogue business, a reissue comes along as a reminder of a couple things. One, that good things, indeed, do come to those who wait. Two, that sooner or later most everything will see the light of day. One such reissue arrived from DRG Records on June 29 to sadly little fanfare. This totally unexpected set joins albums by two disparate artists, yet stands as a cohesive and altogether rewarding listening experience. Harry Nilsson’s never-on-CD, pre-RCA Spotlight on Nilsson has been joined on CD with John (“Daydream Believer”) Stewart’s Willard, both rescued from the Capitol/EMI vaults and combined as DRG CD 8512.
As Will Friedwald’s lengthy and typically-erudite liner notes point out, there are fewer degrees of separation than one might expect between Nilsson and Stewart. Both had songs recorded by The Monkees: in Nilsson’s case, “Cuddly Toy”; in Stewart’s, the evergreen “Daydream Believer.” Stewart’s Willard was produced by Peter Asher, Apple Records’ A&R director and close friend of The Beatles, who often cited Nilsson as their favorite artist. And despite their careers in front of the microphone, both late gentlemen may be best remembered as songwriters. In recent years, Nilsson’s substance-fuelled escapades with John Lennon during Lennon’s “lost weekend” seem to have gained the “Everybody’s Talkin'” singer more notoriety than discussion of his music. But the complicated Nilsson cannot be painted with just one brush; like Stewart, he was an astute, singular and altogether creative tunesmith. Read about these early albums after the jump!
1967’s Spotlight on Nilsson captures the artist after those 1962 demos which have been packaged and repackaged on CD first as Nilsson ’62 (Retro CD 804, 1995), then as Hollywood Dreamer (Fuel CD 302 061 117 2, 2001), but prior to his signing with RCA. As such, his style isn’t fully formed yet, but it’s certainly on its way. The 10 sides on Spotlight were recorded between 1964 and 1966 and draw on all of the influences that would later blossom fully in that wild, unpredictable string of RCA LPs: rock, soul, folk, country, popular song and even gospel; two of the sides here were actually credited to Harry Nilsson/The New Salvation Singers! One such track, “The Path That Leads to Trouble,” was a Johnny Cole song recorded with a full Wall of Sound-style backing and Nilsson singing in an almost unrecognizable folk-rock growl a la Barry McGuire. A country influence is present on a cover of Marvin Rainwater’s “So You Think You’ve Got Troubles” and Nilsson even tackles Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons” in a funky organ-propelled rendition showing his creative penchant for rearranging a familiar tune. Cole is also represented with “I’m Gonna Lose My Mind,” in which Nilsson sounds as if he’s channeling Ray Charles! The remaining six tracks were all penned by the young Nilsson. While the bright, catchy “You Can’t Take Your Love (Away from Me)” is average mid-sixties pop, it shows that the songwriter had already mastered this type of song; better is the reflective “Growin’ Up” which looks forward to more mature work just around the corner. Eight of these varied tracks had appeared as singles for Capitol subsidiary Tower Records (no relation to that much-missed music store and institution!) and two made their debut on the LP, originally issued as Tower ST-5095.
James Taylor and Carole King are currently touring the country on their Troubadour Reunion tour, and among their original sidemen joining them are legendary vets Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and Russ Kunkel. All four of these esteemed musicians make appearances on John Stewart’s 1970 LP Willard (Capitol ST-540). Willard was largely recorded at Los Angeles’ Crystal Sound Studio, and Stewart took full advantage of Asher’s Laurel Canyon crowd in its creation. Like Nilsson, Stewart was no one-trick pony, having risen to fame as a member of The Kingston Trio. Willard is suitably eclectic and touches on the era in which it was recorded, with the Vietnam War still looming. “Julie, Judy, Angel Rain” is a lilting, impressionistic love song, enhanced by King’s gentle piano. “Belly Full of Tennessee” prominently features Doug Kershaw’s fiddle and has a strong bluegrass feel. The emotional title track is a high point, and “Oldest Living Son” manages to refrain from mawkishness despite a spoken-word interlude. It’s strong character writing in the form of a personal recollection, and features some familiar acoustic guitar from James Taylor. Stewart wasn’t as versatile a vocalist as Nilsson was in his early years, but he winningly recalls Johnny Cash at times throughout the album. Especially thanks to Peter Asher’s clean and direct production, one could easily hear his future collaborator Linda Ronstadt performing these songs. Unlike Spotlight on Nilsson, Willard has appeared on CD before; however, DRG has included a previously unreleased session outtake, “Naked Angel,” to truly seal the deal for Stewart fans.
Spotlight on Nilsson/Willard (available here from Amazon.com) is a surprise for many reasons, foremost among them that DRG is primarily known for its cast album, soundtrack and vocalist releases. Based on the loving treatment producer Hugh Fordin has afforded these two albums, one can only hope that more rare pop/rock releases are in the label’s busy pipeline. And to further bridge that gap between the musical/soundtrack world and the pop/rock one, may I suggest a first-ever authorized CD release of Harry Nilsson’s score to Robert Altman’s film Popeye, including Nilsson’s original demos? Just suggestin’…