In 1972, Nilsson hit the Top of the charts with the single, Without You. Written by Tom Evans & Pete Ham of Badfinger, it stayed at the summit for 4 weeks and won Nilsson a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal. It was a breakthrough for both artists and it should have been the beginning of a long career for each. Instead it was the beginning of the end.
In the late 50s Harry Nilsson moved from NY to LA with a 9th grade education and lots of ambition. He got a job working on bank computers at night which left his days free to concentrate on songwriting. By the middle of the decade, fresh-faced Harry had secured a record contract with help from many fortuitous associations, mostly with arranger George Tipton who bankrolled Harry’s first recordings. He was recording solo LPs and having his song songs recorded by the Monkees and Glen Campbell. But his first big breakthrough was in 1969 recording Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, which was eventually used as the theme to the X-rated movie, Midnight Cowboy. He was also asked to write the theme to the new TV Show, The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father and the LA group, Three Dog Night took his song, One into the Top 10. Nilsson was now in demand, but it would be a few albums later that he’d bring out the big guns.
I’ve always felt a kinship with Harry Nilsson. We share the same birthday. We were both born in NY. As he was celebrating his 30th birthday, recording sessions for his new album, Nilsson Schmilsson, my family was celebrating the arrival of the first grandchild. Once I auditioned and had a hold on playing Nilsson in a bio-pic about Monty Python’s Graham Chapman which ended up in film limbo. I could grow my hair out as well as a thick beard and look just Harry did on the cover of the LP, bathrobe and all. It was this contrast from the lean shaven, suit wearing, Beatle-ish look to a scruffy hippie rocker that most likely foreshadowed where Harry was heading.
Produced by Richard Perry, Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry’s 7th album, had a little of everything. In less talented hands it was sound like a schizophrenic mish-mash. But with solid production, arrangements and performances, it became Harry’s best and was rewarded as such. Harry has given many great recorded vocal performances (check out A Touch of Schmilsson In the Night for more proof) but I’m not sure anything could ever top Without You.
Harry had been hanging out one night, playing cards with friends, when someone put on Badfinger’s, No Dice LP which featured the original version of the song. Throughout the night the song haunted him and he had to find out who it was. Was it a lost Beatles track? A late night drive to a record store proved that it wasn’t, but it was an Apple Records artist. (An aside: Harry was a Beatles freak and eventually became a fan & compadre of John Lennon as well as one of Ringo Starr’s best friends) Badfinger’s version was a raw, bluesy rocker with minimal arrangement. Nilsson wanted to keep some of that same feeling, but producer Richard Perry talked him into a larger big ballad string arrangement. When Harry hits that last chorus, the seams are about to burst with the strings keeping the song from full on anarchy.
When people try to explain to me what they think good singing is, I tell them to play Nilsson’s Without You and get back to me. With a spare piano intro played by Gary Wright, Harry starts off soft & slow, voice full of regret and disbelief that his girl has left him. He can’t let go and plays the memory of that fateful night over and over in his head. He plaintively explains that he can’t live if living is without you, and then he lets the pain ring out of his achingly beautiful voice, reaching an octave higher and echoing the same sentiment with confusion and desperation. He repeats the opening words, almost having to explain his outburst to whoever he telling this to, most likely his shadow in an empty room. No matter his other talents, Harry’s best gift was his voice and sings a simple story of lost love better than any other pop singer ever has. Even Badfinger probably didn’t realize the depth of their own song.
This song made Harry a star. But rather than build on its success, Harry lost his mind and devolved into an alcoholic lunatic, occasionally recording some good songs, but never coming anywhere close to his performance on Without You. By 1974 his voice was almost gone to due to his drinking, his “lost weekend” with John Lennon and subsequent strain he put on his voice shouting during the recording of his Pussy Cats LP. Badfinger should have been rich, but never collected most of the royalties of this song and its 2 writers, Ham & Evans, both committed suicide.
Nilsson die on January 15th, 1994, the week that Mariah Carey released her awful version of this song. Hopefully Harry never heard her version. I sure wish I never had. If any of you would like to educate the young about singing, play Harry & Mariah’s version of Without You back to back, of how to and not sing a song. That’s an education an aspiring singer should have.