This gut-wrenching ballad was originally released by Badfinger
in 1970 and appeared on their second album, No Dice
. Badfinger members Peter Ham and Tom Evans wrote it.
Ham had written a song called "Is This Love?" but wasn't happy with the chorus. Evans came up with the "I can't live if living is without you" chorus but had no verses for it, so they put the two songs together as one.
Tom - Mishawaka, IN
The Badfinger original wasn't released as a single, so most people weren't familiar with it. Nilsson's version, laced with lush orchestration, became a huge hit, climbing to #1 US in February 1972 and staying for four weeks. Nilsson was known as a songwriter and wrote most of the songs he recorded, but two of his biggest hits were covers: "Without You" and "Everybody's Talkin'
"Without You" is not the kind of song Nilsson, who died in 1994, would have written. His compositions were far more acerbic, and he took pains to avoid the topic of love (or lack of it).
Nilsson first came across this song at a Laurel Canyon party in 1971 and thought it was a Beatles song. Badfinger was signed to Apple Records, The Beatles' label, and their version of "Without You" was produced by Beatles associates Geoff Emerick and Mal Evans. Nilsson also had a Beatles connection: John Lennon helped launch his career when he referred to Harry as his "favorite American group." He and Lennon enjoyed a destructive time together from 1973-1975 that became known as the "lost weekend."
Nilsson's version added an orchestra and gave the song a dramatic production. When Nilsson recorded it, he initially played the song slow and dark, accompanied only by piano. Producer Richard Perry recalled to Mojo magazine April 2008 that he had to persuade an unwilling Nilsson to record it as a big ballad: "I had to force him 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.'"
This song made a lot of money for a lot of people, but for those most entitled to the windfall, it had tragic consequences. As the song's writers, Peter Ham and Tom Evans should have been set for life, but Badfinger's label, Apple Records, collapsed in 1973 and they never got their due. Despondent over career setbacks and overwhelmed by myriad legal difficulties, Ham hanged himself in 1975. In 1983, Evans followed suit, hanging himself from a willow tree after a bitter argument with Badfinger guitarist Joey Molland about the royalties for "Without You."
As for Nilsson, he didn't handle success well. Alcoholism ran in his family, and the fame and fortune from "Without You" triggered him to drink. He went into a downward spiral, and his career and health never recovered. Nilsson died of heart failure in 1994 at age 52.
Nilsson had released several albums by the time he recorded Nilsson Schmilsson, but he refused to tour, which made promoting him a challenge. In the mid-'60s, he developed a small but fervent following and earned the admiration of many songwriters and musicians in the Los Angeles area. "Everybody's Talkin'" became his first hit when it was used in the movie Midnight Cowboy in 1969. With backing from his label, he pegged the producer Richard Perry to produce his Nilsson Schmilsson album, in part because Perry worked on Ringo Starr's Sentimental Journey album. Perry agreed on the condition that Nilsson let him call the shots.
When it came time to record the vocal to "Without You," Nilsson had reneged on his agreement and was butting heads with his producer. In the documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, Perry said: "About halfway through the album we had a difference of opinion that didn't settle itself easily, so like two proper gentlemen, we decided to have a meeting over high tea at the Dorchester Hotel [wink, wink] to discuss what we were going to do. I said, 'Harry, you do remember when you came to me and asked me to produce you, my only condition was that I would have creative control.' He looks me dead in the face and says, 'Well, I lied.'
And with that, we realized we were late for the session to do his vocal on 'Without You.' Without another word, we jumped into a taxi, ran down to the studio, and he went right up and sang the vocal you hear on the record."
This won the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal in 1973. It was Nilsson's second Grammy; he won the Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male, award in 1970 for "Everybody's Talkin'." "Without You" was also nominated for Record of the Year, and Nilsson Schmilsson for Album of the Year.
Early demos of the song didn't have Nilsson's soaring vocal. Nilsson and Richard Perry brought the demo to Derek Taylor, the former publicity head for The Beatles' Apple Corps organization. Taylor had just secured a position as a producer and talent scout with the British division of Warner Bros. and Nilsson wanted his opinion on the rough mix of the track. "They'd made a very good demo, which to me was sufficient to be a hit," Taylor, who went on to produce A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, recalled. "But 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 hemorrhoids on that top note. Whenever I hear it I always think of hemorrhoids. It somehow doesn't spoil it – though it should."
Mariah Carey's version debuted at #1 in the UK in 1994 and hit #3 in the US. Nilsson died of heart failure on January 15, 1994 - the same day Carey's version was released in the US. Later in 1994, Nilsson's version was reissued to take advantage of the renewed interest.
The soft rock group Air Supply did a popular cover of this song in 1991.
This song was featured in a 2016 commercial for Heinz that first aired during the Super Bowl. In the spot, a pack of dachshunds dressed like hot dogs run toward a group of humans dressed as ketchup, mustard, and other sauces.