The Story of... 'Without You' by Harry Nilsson
7 March 2022, 10:43
We've all resorted to playing Harry Nilsson's gut-wrenching ballad 'Without You' to get us through despairing break-ups.
Sat by the window, the rain pouring outside, pining after your one true love after they broke up with you and left you on love's scrap heap. You get the picture.
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But who wrote the song? What's its legacy? Has anyone else covered it?
Here's all you need to know about Harry Nilsson's epic track:
Who wrote 'Without You'?
Even though 'Without You' is widely regarded as Harry Nilsson's signature song, he didn't actually write it himself.
The songwriter credits belong to Badfinger band members Peter Ham and Tom Evans who originally released the song in 1970.
It wasn't initially released as a single, so nobody was familiar with the song until Nilsson gave it a lush, orchestral makeover.
Ironically, the other track that Harry Nilsson is most remembered by is also a cover: 'Everybody's Talkin'' became a sensation after featuring on the soundtrack for Midnight Cowboy, with folk singer Fred Neil writing the original.
How did Harry Nilsson come to record the song?
Nilsson first came across the song after hearing it at a Laurel Canyon party in 1971, thinking it was initially a song by The Beatles.
By chance, Badfinger were actually signed to The Beatles' label Apple Records, so Nilsson submitted a demo to their former publicity head Derek Taylor.
His initial version was moody, accented by dark and dramatic orchestration. He would have to be persuaded by producer Richard Perry to transform it into the grandiose, tear-jerking ballad that was the final release.
Talking in 2008, Perry remembers having to "force him [Nilsson] to take a shot with the rhythm section. Even while we were doing it, he'd be saying to the musicians, 'This song's awful.'"
Did Nilsson damage his voice by hitting the song’s top notes?
In short, no. His voice remained intact for a few years after, but straining to reach the powerful notes in the song certainly didn't help.
Years of substance abuse during his well-documented partying days with pal John Lennon throughout their 'lost weekend' from 1973-1975 would ultimately ruin Nilsson's vocal chords, causing irreparable damage after drunken screaming matches with Lennon on a microphone.
The laboured recording of 'Without You' gave Nilsson issues elsewhere however, causing a painful bout of haemorrhoids.
Derek Taylor said "they wanted to get more power, more power in the top notes, so they went away with it and did what was necessary."
"Harry burst into terrifically unpleasant haemorrhoids on that top note. Whenever I hear it I always think of haemorrhoids. It somehow doesn't spoil it – though it should."
When was it released?
Harry Nilsson's version was released in 1971, featuring on his lauded album Nilsson Schmilsson.
How did it perform in the charts?
'Without You' eventually climbed to the top of the charts both in the UK and the US, staying at No.1 for five weeks here in the UK and for four weeks on the Billboard charts.
This won the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal in 1973, as well as nominations for Record Of The Year and Album Of The Year for Nilsson Schmilsson.
What is the song’s legacy?
Despite Paul McCartney describing 'Without You' as "the killer song of all time", the song's success had mainly destructive consequences.
Although the popularity of 'Without You' earned songwriters Ham and Evans the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically, they would never see their fair share of the financial windfall due to Apple Records collapsing in 1973.
Career setbacks and financial difficulties would result in Ham hanging himself in 1975, with Evans sadly following suit in 1983 after continued arguments within the band regarding the distribution of royalties.
For Nilsson, the success and fame became too much for him to handle as he spiralled into alcoholism. His career, and his health more importantly, would never recover.
Has anyone covered ‘Without You?’
It's almost harder to pinpoint someone that hasn't covered 'Without You', given that over 180 artists have recording their own renditions since Nilsson's.
Explaining how her version came to fruition, Mariah said: "I used to love the song 'Without You' when I was a little girl and I remember that it always made me cry and I always thought it was such a beautiful song."
"I heard it again when I was in a restaurant, they had it playing over the muzak, and I was like, 'I love this song, this is such a great song, I haven’t heard it in so long,' and I just decided that I wanted to cover it, so we did it, and I just think it's an incredible song, it’s a beautiful song."
On the day her rendition was released in the US in 1994, Harry Nilsson died of heart failure at the age of 52.