Story Behind The Song: Nilsson’s ‘Without You’

Nilsson Schmilsson

Nilsson: “Without You” (1971)


Harry Nilsson’s recording of “Without You” is what a masterpiece sounds like. It won a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal in 1973, and the song has since become a standard, having been recorded and sung by literally hundreds of artists, including Mariah Carey, Ill Divo and Frank Sinatra. Not bad for a song that began as an afterthought.

As retold by Joey Molland in the documentary Badfinger, the Liverpool band had recorded eleven songs for their (1970) No Dice album and were looking for one more. Tom Evan had written part of a song, the now-familiar chorus of “I can’t live, if living is without you…” but Evan hadn’t written verses for it. Pete Ham had written a verse, “I can’t forget this evening and your face as you were leaving…” that was lyrically compatible. So the two unfinished songs were put in the same key and joined together to form “Without You”. Seeing the song as a mere album track and not a potential single, they recorded a fairly basic guitar version, as lip-synched here:

Harry Nilsson heard the song and obviously either he or his producer Richard Perry saw the potential for something much bigger in it. Again according to Molland’s recounting, Badfinger were recording “a couple years later” (what must have actually been their next album, Straight Up) when Nilsson, who was using another room of the same studio to record the Nilsson Schmilsson album, came into their control room. He introduced himself, saying something like “I’m Harry Nilsson.  I believe you guys are Badfinger”, and invited them down the hall to hear a mix he’d just finished. The band was blown away by the powerful arrangement of Nilsson’s cover version. It’s a jaw-dropping vocal performance and one of the greatest pop recordings of its era.


Badfinger is one of those bands, like Nilsson himself, who wrote or recorded music everyone knows, but relatively few seem to know who actually did it. Counting “Without You”, which became a classic thanks to Nilsson’s amazing version, along with “No Matter What” and “Day After Day” it is this writer’s opinion that Badfinger were responsible for writing three of the greatest pop songs of the 1970’s

“No Matter What”

“Day After Day”

Despite this band’s promise and obvious songwriting talent, the business wasn’t kind to them. Bad breaks and bad management (including the embezzlement of much of their money) eventually led to despondency. Pete Ham and Tom Evan, the two writers of “Without You” both committed suicide, Ham in 1975 and Evan in 1983.

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