of the week

This is “the killer song of all time”, Paul McCartney once said about the band he championed, produced and signed to the Beatles’ Apple label. But few even knew that Without You had anything to do with Badfinger until Harry Nilsson brought this heart breaking song to the world’s attention. Not only is it a heart breaking song, but it’s an even sadder story for the song’s two writers both who should have been multi-millionaires just from this song alone, but weren’t.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were, among many things, every generous songwriters. They gave away many of their songs to help other acts make a successful career. It’s a fascinating subject that, at the time of writing, my friend Bob Harris is touring the UK with Colin Hall presenting, ‘The Songs The Beatles Gave Away’. A show very worthwhile catching if you can. Badfinger were one of the many acts to benefit from this.

Originally called The Ivey’s when they formed back in 1961 by singer Pete Ham in Swansea, they took their name from a local street in Swansea, Ivey Place, and over the next eight years had an ever-changing line-up with drummer Mike Gibbins joining in 65, rhythm guitarist Tom Evans being added in 1967 and lead guitarist and keyboard player Joey Molland joining in 1969 and these four then became the classic line-up.

They got signed to Apple records and the band began submitting songs for single release, but the label kept rejecting them. The original bass player, Ron Griffiths mentioned this in an interview with Disc & Music Echo magazine which Paul McCartney had read and then decided to give them a song he had already written for the film The Magic Christian. He played them the demo and they liked it but wanted to change a few bits. Macca refused saying, “No, this has gotta be exactly like my demo ‘cos this is the hit.” That song was Come and Get It and, naturally, Paul was right.

Just prior to its release, it was decided that a name change was needed because, apparently, some people were getting The Iveys mixed up with the Ivy League so various suggestions were made, but in the end, it was Neil Aspinall, the Beatles head of the Apple label corporation who suggested the original working title of With A Little Help from my Friends which was Bad Finger Boogie.

In January 1970, Come and Get It reached number four in the UK and on the back of that success, the band began writing for their debut album, No Dice. The song that closed side one of the album was Without You, a song penned by Ham and Evans which began with Ham, who had planned to take his girlfriend, Beverley out for the evening but, instead, decided to stay in the studio and said he would make it up to her. Beverley said it was okay, but Pete said, “Your mouth’s smiling but your eyes are not.” This became the line, ‘You always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows’. Evans then added a chorus and within a couple of days Without You was written.

Both writers were in serious relationships which were not going too well. Ham wrote, ‘No I can’t forget tomorrow when I think of all the sorrow when I had you there but then I let you go,’ with Evans writing, ‘I can’t live, if living is without you’ about his own relationship. Although the words are meaningful and heartfelt, the rhythm and musical arrangement was un-dynamic and tired sounding and so, the song remained an album track until……

The American singer Harry Nilsson who, at this time was known for the song Everybody’s Talkin’ which featured in Midnight Cowboy and a song he made famous but had not written, that was penned by Fred Neil. Nilsson was friends with the Beatles and was often in London and on one occasion was at a party when he heard Without You and thought, understandably, it had been written by the Beatles. He loved the song and knew it had potential and called on the American producer Richard Perry to help him shape it musically. Perry, who had already worked with Barbra Streisand and would go on to work with Carly Simon, Andy Williams, Art Garfunkel, Diana Ross, Leo Sayer and the Pointer Sisters, agreed and they transformed it into a worldwide hit.

Nilsson made the song his own, when he sings the line, ‘I can’t give, I can’t give any more’ you really feel that he’s given everything he can and you simply believe every word he sings. When it comes to the repeated line, ‘I can’t live, if living is without you’ his soaring high voice stops you in your tracks. It comes out of nowhere and, if you’ve ever been in that situation, and most have, you re-live that moment.

Nilsson’s version topped the UK and US singles charts in March of 1972 spending five and four weeks there respectively, but meanwhile Badfinger went on to have two other hits, No Matter What and Day After Day and were a popular touring band, but their affairs were a mess which was no fault of Apple’s – and they never received their money. The whole financial situation has been blamed on their former manager Stanley Polley. They were desperate and in 1975, Pete Ham told Tom Evans, “I know a way out. I’ll see you again.” The next morning he was found hanged in his garage. He left a note directly blaming Polley for his financial ruin. Tom was so distressed that he quit the music business. He briefly reformed Badfinger in 1978, signing with a new American manager, but still the monies for Without You weren’t forthcoming and the current band fell apart with much ill feeling. In 1983 after singing some Everly Brothers songs with his wife, Marianne, Tom hanged himself too.

Al Kooper, producer and session keyboard player on many of Bob Dylan’s songs who also had Polley as his manager, blames Polley entirely for their deaths. In his 1998 updated memoir, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor, he wrote, “Polley reminded me of Dr. Hannibal Lechter (sic) from the Thomas Harris books. An acknowledged brilliant doctor, but one who just happened to eat a few of his patients.” Polley died in July 2009 of natural causes. He was 87.

The song has been covered nearly 200 times and is a firm karaoke favourite and is like listening to numerous cats stuck in various trees. In 1994, in a rare feat, a cover went to number one in the UK courtesy of Mariah Carey. When Mariah was 18, she was singing backup for the New York singer, Brenda J. Starr, who was enjoying US hits with I Still Believe and What You See Is What You Get. When they went to a party, Mariah Carey passed a demo tape to Tommy Mottola, the 38-year-old president of Columbia Records. On his way home, he played it in his car and felt that he had discovered his own Whitney Houston.

He signed her to the label and the first album, Mariah Carey, was two years in the making and showed the strength of her song writing as well as her voice. Tommy threatened to sack the promotions team if she did not have a number one single. With such pressure, Mariah Carey scored a US number one with Vision Of Love and then with Love Takes Time, Someday and I Don’t Wanna Cry. An impressive start but George Michael was not happy at the attention being lavished on his labelmate and this was one of his complaints against Columbia’s owner, Sony.

As well as topping the UK chart, Mariah’s version went to number three in the States and spent six weeks there leading to the senior US publishing organisation, ASCAP, certifying it as the most played song of the year and two Badfinger members (Joey Molland and Mike Gibbins) and their UK manager, Bill Collins, the father of actor Lewis Collins, received the award.

Harry Nilsson, who really made the song famous never got to know that the song had gone back to top as he died of a heart attack at the age of 52 just one month before Mariah reached the summit. Tommy Mottola became besotted with Mariah Carey, left his wife and children and, in June 1993, married her in a lavish ceremony and lived in a huge house on a 50-acre site in the Hudson River Valley. The marriage didn’t last and they divorced in 1998. Mariah, in her 2020 memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, revealed that during her marriage to Tommy, she felt he had an ‘oppressive’ presence.

It is generally accepted that the split for songwriters should be equal if a pre-agreement hasn’t been made, therefore if two people share a songwriting credit they should get 50% each. Naturally there have been many cases where this hasn’t worked and wealthy music business lawyers get involved and they usually end up making the most money out of it. In the case of Without You, a PRS member, whose name I will protect, has looked up the royalty shares for Without You and discovered, shockingly, that both Ham’s and Evans’ estates only get 16.6% share each of the song. This is disgusting and outrageous considering that without them, that song would never has existed. That really is a truly terrible tale of two innocent musicians and songwriters who only wanted to make music.