One of the earliest, finest power ballads, reaching number 1 in the 70s and 90s, Without You is a tune surrounded by tragedy. This version, by maverick singer-songwriter Nilsson, is the best.
Harry Edward Nilsson III, born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn on 15 June 1941, came from a family of circus performers on his father’s side, who were known for their aerial ballet. His father walked out on the family when he was only three – which had a profound effect on Nilsson, becoming the subject matter of his songs 1941 and Daddy’s Song.
He grew up with his mother and younger half-sister. They were so poor, he took on a number of jobs from a young age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. Nilsson grew more and more interested in music, and it was his mechanic uncle that helped him on the way to becoming such a great singer. He formed an Everly Brothers-style duo with a friend. When the Paramount closed in 1960, he lied his way into a job working for a bank on their new computer system.
In 1962, Nilsson also got a job singing the demos of budding songwriter Scott Turner. He’d also started writing tunes himself, and in 1963 he co-wrote for Little Richard. Reportedly, upon hearing Nilsson sing, he exclaimed ‘My! You sing good for a white boy!’ the following year, he wrote three songs with Phil Spector.
Thanks to publisher Perry Botkin Jr, who invested his life savings into getting Nilsson the means to record four songs for Tower Records (a subsidiary of Capitol). This material was compiled into his debut album, Spotlight on Nilsson, released in 1966. That same year, he signed with RCA Victor and recorded Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967). This LP really showcased the potential of his voice and ability to cover other artists as well as his own material. His cover of The Beatles’ You Can’t Do That, in which he quoted 17 other songs by the Fab Four, caught the attention of their press officer Derek Taylor. Thanks to a major label behind him, and his songwriting duties for hot acts like The Monkees, Nilsson finally quit the bank.
Nilsson’s career went from strength to strength over the next few years critically and then commercially. His cover of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ first featured on 1968 album Aerial Ballet, before becoming a deserved hit a year later thanks to its inclusion in the film Midnight Cowboy. At the press conference in which The Beatles announced the formation of Apple Corp, John Lennon was asked the name of his favourite American singer, and Paul McCartney was asked his favourite American group. Both replied ‘Harry Nilsson’. Aerial Ballet also contained his original version of the melancholy One, later covered by Three Dog Night.
In 1970, Nilsson had become aware of a then-little-known songwriter called Randy Newman. He was so impressed, he made a whole album of his material, Nilsson Sings Newman, which helped get Newman recognised despite selling poorly. The following year Nilsson travelled to the UK to record Nilsson Schmilsson, his most famous work, which featured Without You by Badfinger.
The sad story of Badfinger is a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of the mercenary music business. One of the first signings to Apple Records, with the help of The Beatles they scored several hits. Without You, written by band members Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Their version had featured on 1970 album No Dice. It’s a decent stab, but a little unsure of itself, like a demo when compared to the covers that were to come, but then, Ham and Evans hadn’t realised the potential it had.
It had originally been two separate songs. Ham had written one called If It’s Love. He thought one of the verses had potential.
‘Well I can’t forget tomorrow
When I think of all my sorrow
I had you there but then I let you go
And now it’s only fair that I should let you know… if it’s love’
Meanwhile, Evans had a chorus for a song called I Can’t Live, which fitted well with Ham’s song. Combined, they finished Without You.
Recorded in London’s Trident Studios, Nilsson was backed by Apple alumni and Beatles collaborators. The man behind the haunting, plaintive piano was Gary Wright, who had appeared on George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, Klaus Voorman of Plastic Ono Band took up bass, leading session drummer Jim Keltner was on drums and John Uribe played acoustic guitar. Strings and horns were arranged by Paul Buckmaster.
Although this sounds timeless now, nobody was producing power ballads quite like this in 1972, and although as a genre I’m more likely to laugh at them than truly appreciate them, Without You is a classic. You could argue these days that Nilsson is in effect using emotional blackmail to get his love to stay, but to argue that, you’d be ignoring such an impressively bleak, tortured performance. He sounds so tender at the start, his voice almost feminine as he remembers how she left him. It’s still an awe-inspiring performance, the way his voice shifts halfway through that first chorus. He’s a broken man, and by the final chorus… you just know that Nilsson knows how it feels to be so bereft. This is the difference between his version and Mariah Carey’s number 1 in 1994. Yes, she hits all the notes and it’s technically great, but hard to believe in. It’s also a great production by Perry, classy, and not too overblown. Unlike many power ballads, it’s succinct. It doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Nilsson quickly followed up his hit album with Son of Schmilsson, but he had begun to ignore Perry’s advice and lost fans with the use of swearing in his songs. He did however write another UK number 1 – David Cassidy topped the charts with his cover of The Puppy Song in 1973.
Nilsson was going through a divorce at the time, which made him the perfect drinking companion for Lennon, separated from Yoko Ono and in the midst of his ‘lost weekend’ with May Pang. They became close friends, raising hell and gaining the wrong kind of press for incidents like being thrown out of a Smothers Brothers show. They managed to get it together enough to make an uneven album together, Pussy Cats in 1974, featuring a killer cover of Many Rivers to Cross.
Three years later, Nilsson readied what he considered his best work Knnillssonn. RCA agreed and promised a big promo campaign, but the death of Elvis Presley threw a spanner in the works. However they did release a greatest hits without his permission, so he left the label.
In 1978, Nilsson, along with the world, was shocked to discover The Who’s Keith Moon was found dead in the London flat he rented out. This in itself was terrible news, but the fact that Cass Elliott of The Mamas & the Papas had died in the very same room in 1974, was too much to take. He sold the flat to Pete Townshend and spent all his time in LA from then on.
Nilsson’s output grew more sporadic as the 80s began. His soundtrack for Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) did as well as the disappointing film, and he was left reeling from the murder of his friend Lennon in December. Nilsson never toured or performed at big concerts, but the death caused him to make more public appearances to give his opinions on gun control in the US. In the mid-80s he returned to the studio, becoming mainly involved in writing music for film and TV through his new production company Hawkeye. Sadly, the project floundered and it was discovered his financial adviser had embezzled Nilsson of all his earnings. He was left close to bankruptcy, while she served less than two years in prison.
Nilsson was born with congenital heart problems, and when he suffered a heart attack in 1993, he knew the writing was on the wall. Years of heavy boozing and smoking will also have taken its toll. He pressed RCA to release a box set of his work, and tried to make one last album, but had only recorded vocal tracks when he died of heart failure on 15 January 1994, aged only 52. The album was finally released in November 2019 as Losst and Founnd. A gifted singer and songwriter, who did things the way he wanted (and one could argue he created the first remix album with 1971’s Aerial Pandemonium Ballet) Nilsson is remembered fondly.
One of the most famous stories attached to Without You is of course the horrible fate of both its songwriters. Following Nilsson’s cover, the future looked bright for Ham and Evans, who were awarded the 1972 Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically. However, it was to be their last hit. When Apple folded in 1973, the group became mired in legal disputes thanks to manager Stan Polley. They were left in limbo and without money coming in, and Ham was showing signs of mental illness. On 23 April 1975, Ham’s body was found hanging in his garage studio, with a suicide note that ended ‘P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard’.
After this tragedy, Evans and guitarist Joey Molland spent years trying in vain to recapture Badfinger’s magic, often amid blazing rows. The money issues only got worse, and Evans then became caught up in royalty rows with Molland, drummer Mike Gibbins and their first manager Bill Collins. Following a particularly nasty argument between Molland and Evans, the songwriter’s body was found at his home on 19 November 1983. He too had hung himself.
If you like your cover versions twisted and harrowing, and if any song deserves that, it’s this one, I’d suggest cult singer-songwriter Bobby Conn’s from 2000, which you can enjoy here.
Written by: Pete Ham & Tom Evans
Producer: Richard Perry
Weeks at number 1: 5 (11 March-14 April)
Franz Ferdinand singer Alexander Kapranos – 20 March
Actor Nick Frost – 28 March
Photographer Tony Ray-Jones – 13 March
Violinist David McCallum Sr – 21 March
Film producer J Arthur Rank – 29 March
21 March: Chancellor Anthony Barber announced a £1,200,000,000 tax reduction in the Budget.
26 March: The UK’s last trolleybus system, in Bradford, was closed.
30 March: The Parliament of Northern Ireland was suspended.
31 March: A large CND demonstration was held protesting against the nuclear base at Aldermaston.
1 April : William Whitelaw was appointed as the first Northern Ireland Secretary.
6 April: Motoring giant Ford launched new flagship saloon model, the Granada, which replaced the Zephyr, to be produced in Dagenham.
11 April: BBC Radio 4 launched long-running parodic panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The ‘antidote to panel games’ still entertains to this day.