“Without You” — Nilsson / Mariah Carey

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Photo by Dan Gribbin on Unsplash

Whether you think “Without You” is a Nilsson song or a Mariah Carey song largely depends how old you are. But the correct answer is “neither”.

“Without You” was written in 1970 by two members of British group Badfinger, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and was first recorded by Badfinger for their 1970 album “No Dice”.

Badfinger’s main claim to fame was that they were the first group signed to the Beatles’ Apple record label. Although modestly popular at the time, the group imploded in the early 1970s in the aftermath of series of lawsuits and contractual disputes.

Even Badfinger themselves didn’t think “Without You” was that great a song and never released their album track as a single.

Listening back to the original version today, it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the iconic song we think of today. At least not until Harry Nilsson, fresh off the back of his success with “Everybody’s Talkin’”, picked it up.

Nilsson’s recording became a UK and a US Number One in early 1972 and Pete Ham and Tom Evans won 1972’s Ivor Novello Award for Best Song, Musically and Lyrically.

And while it might not have been absolutely the first song recorded in the style of what we’d now call a power ballad, it is certainly one of the earliest, and best-selling, examples of that genre. Nilsson’s somewhat atypical sweeping, soaring vocal on “Without You” won him the Best Male Vocal Grammy in 1973.

But the switch Nilsson’s producer, Richard Perry, made so successfully…the change that took a so-so album track and made it into an iconic worldwide Number One record…was the light and shade he built in to a song Badfinger broadly did as a straight run-through.

We go from hushed, quiet, introspective verses to searingly heart-rending choruses in the blink of an eye, then return to quiet introspection again just as quickly, mirroring perfectly the emotional ups and downs of someone experiencing heartache like they’ve never felt before…

No I can’t forget this evening, or your face as you were leaving
But I guess that’s just the way the story goes
You smile, but in your eyes
Your sorrow shows
Yes it shows

We’re at the “putting a brave face on it” stage of the break-up here. “Maybe it’s for the best”… “of course, you need to do what you think it right”… “it’s a shame it came to this”…

All the time, we’re just trying to hold things together for long enough to give her time to jump into her car and drive away. When the car door slams and the engine starts, we know we won’t be able to handle the feelings that are welling up already…but we need to keep a lid on them for a minute or two yet.

An instant later, she’s backed out the driveway and set off down the street, without so much as a glance back in the rear-view mirror. Now we don’t need to hold in our emotions a moment longer…

I can’t live
If living is without you
I can’t live
If living is without you
I can’t live
If living is without you
I can’t give
I can’t give any more

Nilsson reportedly wasn’t too keen on the orchestration. His initial preference was for a very minimal accompaniment, along the lines of the first verse, throughout.

Producer Richard Parry and orchestral arranger Paul Buckmaster prevailed in the end though, and it’s their contribution which turned “Without You” into the classic song we think of today.

Notwithstanding Nilsson’s iconic performance, it’s probably fair to say that when it comes to iconic vocals, you’d have to go quite some way to beat Mariah Carey.

Mariah Carey is one of those artists I can admire for their technical skills without always being all that keen on what they do with them.

For me, she strays just a little too often into showcasing her technical brilliance without always remembering that it should be connected with the emotions in the song she’s singing. Although, by any standard, she is an amazingly gifted performer.

On “Without You”, though, I wasn’t disappointed.

Of course, her top-notch vocal skills get a first-rate workout. If Harry Nilsson had turned the vocal performance dial up to 11 for his recording, Mariah Carey took it up to about 25 on hers. To call her version a “tour de force” is somewhat underselling how perfectly Mariah Carey performs this song.

Her technical skills are all there, of course, but they’re secondary to the song and the emotions it captures, rather than the song just being a vehicle to display her undoubted talents.

For all that, Mariah Carey’s version of “Without You” only made it to Number Three in the Billboard Hot 100, although it hit the Number One spot in the UK and much of the rest of the world.

For such an iconic heartbreak song, “Without You” has rather embodied the heart-rending emotions it portrays.

It’s co-writers, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, both took their own lives, a few years apart. And Harry Nilsson passed away in January 1994 just days before Mariah Carey’s version of “Without You” hit the record shops.

It’s hard to choose between Nilsson’s recording of “Without You” and Mariah Carey’s — they’re both wonderful in their own ways.

Overall, Nilsson’s version probably conveys the tortured emotions better, but Mariah Carey definitely turns in a first-class vocal performance and scores pretty well on the emotional front too — when she opens up full-throttle on the chorus for the first time, she conveys technical brilliance, power and emotion all at the same time better than just about anyone else I can think of.

So, because I find it hard to choose a preferred option myself, you can find both major hit versions of “Without You” below and, for completeness, the Badfinger original.

In a year when we’ve lost so many fine people, when so many families have had their lives turned upside down, and when we have all had to endure enforced separation from the ones we love one way or another, there’s probably no more appropriate song to sum up 2020 than “Without You”, whichever version of it you prefer…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here…

Nilsson version: https://open.spotify.com/track/6MrILERJLA3Jcq0E9poZsp

Mariah Carey version: https://open.spotify.com/track/1kMOJBmpfWD9fir6st9uqS

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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