Back in the early 70s, there was still a distinct generational difference between what ‘the kids’ listened to and what ‘the olds’ listened to. Only particularly foresighted adults were listening to what current music was offering at the time and very few kids had anything but a passing interest in their parents music collection. Pop culture had made a quantum leap in the mid 50s when rock and roll exploded on an unsuspecting public and pop music morphed from twee toe tappers to something much more primal and libidinous. Rock and roll also spawned the rise of the teenager and a whole generation started questioning their parents’ ideals and culture, including the musical ‘standards’ that had clogged up the radio-waves at the time and continued to do so far into the late 60s.
Almost none of the leading lights of the late 60s music scene had taken much in the way of musical inspiration from the standards of old, indeed, with the exception of The Beatles covering “‘Til There Was You”, it was evident that rock and roll’s primary influences were folk, blues and country and western rather than jazz or musicals. By the 70s for an established pop or rock musician to even consider recording a standard in the traditional manner was nothing short of revolutionary, so when Harry Nilsson suggested doing just that, his record company must have laughed him out of the office.
Luckily for us though Nilsson persevered and recorded a series of standards during a number of sessions with full orchestral backing, his pure tones being one of the very few voices to be able to carry such an ambitious project off. Even after hearing the splendid results, the record company executives were nervy and only released two thirds of the material that had been recorded as A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. The remainder of the material would later see limited release as A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night years later and you can now purchase a CD which compiles the material together.
To call A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night an artistic achievement is something of an understatement, although commercially it didn’t do so well at the time. Ironically it has aged better than you’d expect, though sadly it has spawned countless imitations in recent years with the likes of Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook series and the cultural vacuum that was Swing When You’re Winning. Despite all of this, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night is considerably more culturally substantial than its legacy suggests.