Following Leona’s rendition of the song Without You, on Simon Cowall’s X-Factor show last week, I was amazed at some people who compared it to Mariah Carey’s version, suggesting that Leona had outclassed Carey. I have no argument with that. I can’t stand Mariah Carey, and her version of Without You sounds more an excuse to show off her famed vocal range than an attempt to sing the song with the sensibility it deserves.
But surely if comparisons are going to be made, they should be made to the original, I thought, by Harry Nilsson, back in 1971. Nilsson’s version is terrific – a plaintive, desperate cry, combined with great vocal control. It’s poetry in a way – an example of how emotion can often be communicated more powerfully through well-timed restraint than by histrionics (like Carey).
However, when I looked at the sleeve notes on Nilsson’s album, I realised he hadn’t written the song. Then I realised there was an eerie story behind it.
The song was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of the band Badfinger, and released as a track on their 1970 No Dice album. Nilsson recounts how he was wandering about his house humming the tune. He got out all his Beatles albums to seek out which album it was on, and found nothing. Eventually, he discovered the Badfinger album, recorded Without You in 1971, and Nilsson's version became a massive international hit. You can hear a snatch of the lo-fi, but interesting, Badfinger original here (towards the bottom of the page).
However, Badfinger didn’t benefit from the royalties for long. Their manager, Stan Polley, was allegedly embroiled in dodgy deals and the group couldn’t get an album released due to litigation. Pete Ham, in inexplicably desperate financial straits, hanged himself in his garden in 1975 and wrote a note to his girlfriend and her son, which read, “Anne, I love you. Blair, I love you. I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better. Pete. P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”
In 1983, Tom Evans and another member of the band, Joey Molland, had an argument, reportedly about the share of royalties each deserved from Without You. Immediately afterwards, Evans hanged himself, also in his garden.
Mariah Carey covered the song (what is she smiling about? And what’s with the choir? Does she have no respect for words?) and released it as a single in the USA on 15 January 1994. Harry Nilsson died of heart failure later the same day…
(this final coincidence appears to be disputed, as the date of Carey's release is given, by some sources, as 24th January, and one source also gives this date for Nilsson's death, which is wrong. So this may be an urban legend, however believable, or perhaps even inevitable, it might sound)