It’s a story about a rock and roll band that’s so horrifically tragic that perhaps it should be told only at Halloween.
No, it isn’t a tale about one of my all time favorite sweets, Butterfinger, but rather a story about Badfinger – one of the finest power-pop bands from the 1970s.
The four-piece group from England were in the news recently as one of their hits, Baby Blue, was featured in the final episode of Breaking Bad, considered by many to be one of the most successful television series in the history of the medium.
But Badfinger were irrevocably badly broken themselves many years earlier in a history filled with unbelievable talent, questionable management and greedy lawyers.
This eventually led to the suicides of Badfinger’s two main singers and writers Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Both hanged themselves in their homes almost eight years apart. How and why did this tragedy happen?
IF YOU WANT IT, HERE IT IS DEPT. Badfinger’s career started off quite strongly as they were signed in 1969 by Apple Records, the Beatles “boutique” record label. Paul McCartney wrote their first top-10 hit, Come and Get It, which featured Evans on lead vocal.
The original version of the group toured the U.S. and even visited Augusta several times with two unforgettable shows at Bell Auditorium.
Their second album, 1970’s No Dice, contained the bouncy and infectious No Matter What, another big hit for the group. Written and sung by Ham, the song continues to be a staple of classic rock stations.
No Dice also included a song written by Ham and Evans titled Without You that, for reasons unknown, was never issued as a single by the group. The strong yet somber ballad was taken to No. 1 in 1972 by Harry Nilsson and in 1994 by Mariah Carey.
Without You alone should have made millions for its composers, but the majority of the royalties never reached Ham and Evans because their attorney Stan Polley had arranged for most of the money to be funnelled directly to him. The band, like many others back in the day, had no idea what was happening to their finances.
DAY AFTER DAY DEPT. Badfinger’s third album Straight Up (1972), produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren, was another winner. Ham’s gorgeous Day After Day was another hit as was the aforementioned Baby Blue.
But most of the money was still missing, as Polley had placed the band on salaries as they toured the world in support of their increasing fame.
The Beatles, who had disbanded in 1970, were also dissolving Apple Records and eventually Badfinger signed with Warner Brothers. Incomprehensibly, lawyer Polley finagled most of the proceeds from their new label that reportedly should have paid Badfinger $3 million for six albums.
After a self-titled album in 1974 on Warner’s, the band was broke. Not even their paltry salaries were being paid, and Polley would not return phone calls.
Ham was virtually broke and he became more and more despondent over his undeserved plight. On April 23, 1975, he wrote a note to his wife and unborn child telling them that “he loved them.”
Ham ended the missive with “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard” and then proceeded to hang himself in his garage.
REUNION 1979 DEPT. After Ham’s suicide, the remaining members of the band formed other groups without much success. A reunion with Evans and longtime Badfinger guitarist Joey Molland produced two albums that didn’t sell, and it seemed as though Badfinger’s days were over.
Incredibly, more legal problems over royalties ensued, and Tom Evans was left virtually penniless. On Nov. 18, 1983, he went to his garden at his home and hanged himself just as Ham had done.
The two writers and singers who had penned and sung the lyrics “I can’t live, if living is without you” were now gone forever.
BADFINGER TODAY DEPT. Joey Molland continues to tour as Badfinger even though he wrote or sang none of the band’s hits. In the 1990s, his version of the group played at the old Post Office Nightclub on Washington Road as well as at the Riverwalk Augusta Amphitheatre.
Polley died in 2009. Happily, the descendants of Ham’s and Evans’ estates are now getting their shares of the band’s royalties, which can run these days well over $100,000 a year.
For sure, musicians being cheated out of their money might be a story older than Methuselah. But in Badfinger’s case it was a story so unbelievably sad that even Breaking Bad’s Walter White character would have had trouble concocting that unique, unfortunate formula.
Ham’s lyric in Baby Blue “Guess I got what I deserved” should never have been the case in one of the saddest and strangest rock and roll stories ever.
If you want to read more about Badfinger, check out the book The Tragic Story of Badfinger by Dan Mantovina.