Harry Nilsson gets the Duke’s special treatment

Duke Special is no slouch as an original songwriter, and his side projects inspired by other people’s work show an equally intriguing side to him

The lives of others are becoming something of a speciality for Peter Wilson (aka Duke Special), a fortysomething songwriter and performer from Belfast via Lisburn who has made a virtue out of being left of centre. Over the past 10 years, Wilson has released several critically lauded solo albums, but his side projects have highlighted an equally intriguing side to the man.

These side projects, reviewed fitfully by the critics and appealing to Special’s fanbase only, have nonetheless showcased to what degree good original songwriters – of which Wilson is one – can be influenced by other areas and artists.

From the late 2000s, he has creatively connected himself with works by singer Ruby Murray, writers Bertholt Brecht, Mark Twain, Paul Auster and Willa Cather and photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Now comes the turn of American songwriter Harry Nilsson who, despite a large back catalogue, is largely known for just a few songs: Without You (a cover of a Badfinger tune), Everybody's Talkin' (the theme tune, written by Fred Neil, of the movie Midnight Cowboy), and One (covered most famously perhaps by Aimee Mann on the soundtrack to the movie Magnolia).


Lives of others

According to Wilson, delving into the lives of others is part of an urgent need he feels to swim out of his creative depth.

“It’s also doing work without either an agenda or, sometimes, a huge amount of knowledge,” he says. “Without either or both of them, you can then learn, absorb and live with their work. I love finding out new aspects of these people. It’s a very rich activity for me.”

Is it a form of creative therapy too? There’s ambiguity in Wilson’s answer. It’s as much an education, he says, as an immersion in someone else’s work and life.

“You’re learning not only about them but you’re coming away enriched by what they’ve done, and, as a result of that, your own music benefits.”

Such an occurrence is crucial to self- development, says Wilson, a process that initially scratches the skin and then gets under it. “I mostly read the news, for example, via an app on my phone, and we dip into music via Spotify, or something similar. All we’re doing is reading bits and pieces of writing, and hearing bits and pieces of music. In some ways, creativity, long-form or not, seems like something of a lost art, which is why I like the idea of really, really exploring someone’s work.”

Which brings us, neatly enough, to Nilsson. But for those few songs already mentioned, at most, this American songwriter has drifted into a no-man’s-land of vague recollection. Wilson says he, like most people, had only heard a few of Nilsson’s songs, but that it was the songwriter’s association with The Beatles that really piqued his interest and investigation.

"I'm a huge Beatles fan, so that was the start. But by a total coincidence, just before I dived into it seriously, RCA brought out a box set of his music [Nilsson: the RCA Albums Collection]. I got that, as well as the biography that came out last year [Nilsson: the Life of a Singer-Songwriter, by Alyn Shipton]. Good timing, wasn't it?"

Wilson’s exploration of Nilsson’s often oblique and morose yet innately melodic back catalogue uncovered aspects of the man that had been unknown to him.

"He's known for quite melancholy songs, including Without You and Without Her and others, but there was also such a sense of fun to him. And romance, too, like the romantic way in which he proposed to an Irish woman, Una O'Keeffe, who he married in 1976 and had six children with. So, yes, there was a spontaneous and a wild side to him, which is what most people probably know about, but there was another, far softer and generous side. As there always is."

Nilsson’s life

One of the more unusual aspects of Nilsson's life was that, despite his success in the 1960s and 1970s (including Grammy Awards for Everybody's Talkin' and Without You), he very rarely performed live.

"He did some TV, including Top of the Pops, but the only way he would do that particular show was by stipulating there not be a live audience. Was it nervousness? Yes, I reckon so, but he was also something of a perfectionist, which if you're performing live you can be quite vulnerable about."

Wilson’s NCH show, he says, will be in two parts. The first will be a Nilsson set: “I’ll describe how I came to choose particular songs or the background to them, and I’ll be speaking briefly of his life.”

The second will be Duke Special songs, one or two of which may be new ones from his next album, which is scheduled for release in the first half of next year.

“It’s quite a departure from my previous thematic-based records. Musically it’s shaping up to be a lot more direct, with some Blue Nile, OMD, Depeche Mode influences.”

For the moment, however, it’s all about Nilsson. “Every person has a book of their life somewhere,” says Wilson, “and it’s good to live and breathe in their skin. Plus, other people’s lives are often perceived as being more exciting and interesting than your own, but it’s impossible, isn’t it, to be objective about your own life?”

And his favourite Nilsson song? "I love Don't Forget Me, from his 1974 album, Pussycats. There's an amazing line in it about getting older yet still wanting to drive at 100mph towards a wall, as you're smiling all the time. That pretty much sums up Nilsson's life."

Duke Special performs with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the NCH on September 11


  • Paul Auster Eight-time nominee for the Impac Award. In 2010, Duke Special released The Silent World of Hector Mann, which featured songs from the likes of Neil Hannon, Ed Harcourt and Ben Castle, inspired by Auster's fictional silent-film star from his novel The Book of Illusions.
  • Ruby Murray (1935-1996) Born in Belfast. Throughout the 1950s, Murray was one of the most popular singers in the UK. In 1955, she had seven top 10 UK hit singles. In 2011, Duke Special released a three-track EP, Duke Special Sings the Songs of Ruby Murray.
  • Willa Cather (1873-1947) Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for her first World War novel, One of Ours (1922). In 2012, Duke Special released Oh Pioneer, the title of which is a direct reference to Cather's 1913 novel, O Pioneers!
  • Harry Nilsson (1941-1994) Came to prominence when both John Lennon and Paul McCartney named him as their favourite American songwriter. Duke Special will perform the music of Nilsson at Dublin's National Concert Hall on September 11th.