He was born Harry Edward Nilsson III and raised in Bushwick, a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York City. His father left the family when Nilsson was three years old.
While trying to break into the music business, he supported himself by working the night shift at a California bank.
He received a $40,000 publishing royalty when the Monkees recorded his "Cuddly Toy
," the song that finally earned him attention in the music industry.
He became a sensation after The Beatles called him their favorite singer, but that fact didn't always sit well with Nilsson. He told the Record Mirror in 1968: "I've had a lot of publicity out of the fact that the Beatles liked my album [Pandemonium Shadow Show], and named me as their favorite singer. But I didn't really like that. Obviously I was very pleased and very flattered – and now I've got to know John and Paul quite well, and we get on well together. They're both very gentle people. But I wasn't keen on getting all that publicity because of them. It made me feel that I was riding on someone else's back – in other words it was because of them that I was being talked about, and not because of me. But I think the whole thing was blown up a bit out of proportion by the Press."
Palling around with the Beatles proved to be a double-edged sword. His career nearly ended when the media accused him of being a bad influence on John Lennon after the two, along with a group of friends, caused a drunken spectacle at a Smothers Brothers show in West Hollywood's Troubadour in 1974. "It ruined my reputation for 10 years. Get one Beatle drunk and look what happens," Nilsson said.
Nilsson on songwriting (Record Mirror, 1968): "When I write my songs I do them on many different levels. There may be a message in them, and they may have a point to make – but the important thing, the first thing they should do, is entertain. Before they put across their message, they should be good to listen to – pleasant on the ear. Most people don't want to have their ears pounded with messages – they just want to relax and listen to good sounds. Pop music. But the thing is that the messages are there if they want them – the songs just have to be taken on a different level."
He never performed before a live audience during his entire recording career. Shortly before his death, however, he did join Ringo Starr on stage one night during the ex-Beatle's tour.
In 1980, he started an ill-fated movie production company called Hawkeye that released the derided Whoopi Goldberg film The Telephone
In 1991, he was forced to file bankruptcy after discovering that his longtime accountant was stealing from him.
Struggling with the painful effects of diabetes and surviving a massive heart attack in 1993, Nilsson cleaned up his act and kicked his lifelong drug and alcohol habits. Unfortunately, the damage was done. He died of heart failure in 1994.