"If You Go Away" is an adaptation of the 1959 Jacques Brel song "Ne me quitte pas" with English lyrics by Rod McKuen. Created as part of a larger project to translate Brel's work, "If You Go Away" is considered a pop standard and has been recorded by many artists, including Greta Keller, for whom some say McKuen wrote the lyrics.
Damita Jo reached #10 on the Adult Contemporary chart and #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966 for her version of the song. Terry Jacks recorded a version of the song which was released as a single in 1974 and reached #29 on the Adult Contemporary chart, #68 on the Billboard Hot 100, and went to #8 in the UK.
The complex melody is partly derivative of classical music - the poignant "But if you stay..." passage comes from Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.
A sad but hopeful song, the lyrics are told from the perspective of someone telling their lover how much they'd be missed if they left. This is described in vivid, hyperbolic terms, such as "there'll be nothing left in the world to trust". If the lover stays, the narrator promises them both devotion and good times ("I'll make you a day / Like no day has been, or will be again"). Some lines show that the narrator is speaking to the lover as they already are leaving, or considering doing so ("Can I tell you now, as you turn to go..."). The lines "If you go, as I know you will" and later "...as I know you must" make clear that despite the narrator's protests, the lover's leaving is inevitable.
McKuen's translation is significantly different to the original Brel lyric. The English version is based around contrasting what would happen "if you go away" and what could happen "if you stay".
In the original French version, the singer begs for his lover not to leave him and is more supplicant and almost self-humiliating (the title "Ne me quitte pas" translates "Do not leave me"). Significant is the last image of the French version; although the McKuen version has lyrics that come close to the original sentiment, the French lyrics are far bleaker (as is the song in general): "Let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog" (lit. translation of the original) as opposed to "I'd have been the shadow of your shadow if I thought it might have kept me by your side" (English lyrics).
The English version omits an interesting section of the original version in which the singer begs his lover to give their relationship a second chance, using examples derived from the natural world: "I will tell you of those lovers who saw their hearts catch fire twice;" "Fire has often been seen gushing out of an ancient volcano we thought too old"; "There are, people say, burnt lands that produce more wheat than the best of Aprils".
- 1960: Barbara, a close friend of Brel, was the first to cover the song on her Barbara chante Brel album, for which she was awarded Le Grand Prix du Disque.
- 1964: Marlene Dietrich recorded the first non-French cover version, "Bitte geh' nicht fort," which she performed at the Paris Olympia that year with Brel was her support act.
- 1965: Nina Simone recorded a French version on her album, I Put a Spell On You.
- 1967: Dusty Springfield released a version on her album The Look of Love. When Dusty's life story was turned into a musical in 2000, "If You Go Away" was chosen for the climax of the show. The stage Dusty was portrayed by singer/actress Mari Wilson.
- 1967: Jack Jones recorded the song for his album, Lady.
- 1967: Kim Weston recorded a version for her 1967 MGM album For The First Time.
- 1967: Lana Cantrell released a version on her album And Then There Was Lana. While mainly in English, this version retains one line of the original French: "Ne me quitte pas."
- 1967: The Seekers recorded a version for their album, Seen in Green.
- 1967: Shirley Bassey released a version as a single which also appeared on her album And We Were Lovers. Bassey also recorded an alternative version in Italy in 1968 and this version was only issued in Italy as a single. McKuen was very fond of Bassey's version and wrote to her saying he enjoyed it and thanking her. In 2002, her version of the song featured in the movie Merci Docteur Rey.
- 1968: Dottie West recorded a version for her album What I'm Cut Out to Be.
- 1968: Brenda Lee recorded a version in Nashville and it appears on her album Johnny One Time.
- 1968: Glen Campbell recorded a version on his album Wichita Lineman.
- 1968: Lill Lindfors recorded the song as “Om du går din väg” for her Polydor Records album Kom i min värld (Come To My World).
- 1968: Tom Jones released a version on his Decca hit album Help Yourself.
- 1969: Frank Sinatra released a version on his album My Way with Violetta Villas
- 1969: Scott Walker recorded a version on his album Scott 3.
- 1970: Oliver released a version on his album Again.
- 1971: Neil Diamond released a version on his album Stones.
- 1972: The Chopsticks recorded a version on their fourth and final album, If You Go Away, released on Crown in Hong Kong.
- 1974: Nana Mouskouri released a version of the song on her album Nana's Book of Songs.
- 1974: Ray Charles released a version of the song on his album Come Live with Me.
- 1989: Helen Merrill recorded a version of the song on her album Collaboration, accompanied by tenor-saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Joachim Kühn.
- 1990: Julio Iglesias recorded a version of the song on his album Starry Night.
- 1999: Emilíana Torrini recorded a version as the B-Side to the single To Be Free
- 2000: Moloko remixed and reworked Shirley Bassey's version. The new track was released on Bassey's The Remix Album... Diamonds Are Forever and was properly titled the "DJ Skymoo Mix."
- 2002: Patricia Kaas released a version on her album Piano Bar by Patricia Kaas concept album that grew out of her performance in the film And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen with Jeremy Irons and it contains her interpretation of the song.
- 2002: Wave in Head teamed up with Empire State Human to cover the song and was released on the album Synthetic Broadway.
- 2003: Cyndi Lauper released a version on her album At Last.
- 2003: Shirley Horn recorded a version of the song on her album May the Music Never End.
- 2004: Madonna recorded a version of the song as one of the songs of Hello Suckers – Madonna’s musical that never was made. Producers of the musical were Patrick Leonard and Mirwais Ahmadzaï.
- 2006: Art Of Time Ensemble recorded a version with vocalist Martin Tielli on their debut album Live In Toronto.
- 2006: Ambulette released a version of the song on their first EP, The Lottery.
- 2007: Belinda Carlisle recorded a version both in French and English on her album Voila.
- 2007: Lesley Garrett released a version of the song on her album When I Fall in Love.
- 2009: Barbra Streisand recorded the song with both English and French lyrics for her album Love Is the Answer.
- 2010: Julie Christmas recorded a demo version of the song that was released on her solo album The Bad Wife.
- Former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond covered the song during his solo career, on Jacques, an album of Jaques Brel covers. He also performed the track live several times, perhaps most memorably at a Royal Albert Hall performance on the live album Twelve Years of Tears in a very emotional rendition, with Almond sounding close to tears himself by the climax of the song. Also on Untitled, an album of Marc and the Mambas released 1982.
- Eartha Kitt recorded two live performances of the song, the first on "Live in London" and the second, as a medley with Hymn to Love, on "Live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival." She also included the song as part of her set when touring.
- Emilíana Torrini released a version of the song.
- 2012: Peter Murphy recorded the song with English lyrics with his band Dalis Car for their album album InGladAloneness .
Nick Currie, better known as Momus, returned to Brel's original song and translated it as "Don't Leave" in 1986, released initially on the Jacques EP and then on an expanded reissue of the album Circus Maximus.