Yvonne Elliman

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Yvonne Marianne Elliman (born December 29, 1951) is an American singer, songwriter, and actress who performed for four years in the first cast of the stage musical Jesus Christ Superstar. She scored a number of hits in the 1970s and achieved a US #1 hit with "If I Can't Have You"; the song was also #9 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Her cover of Barbara Lewis's "Hello Stranger" went to #1 on Adult Contemporary chart, and "Love Me" was also #5, giving her 3 top 10 singles. After a long hiatus in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time she dedicated herself to her family, she made a comeback album as a singer-songwriter in 2004.

Success

Yvonne Elliman, Food of Love

During the first half of 1978, Barry Gibb was a very popular artist on the radio. Four songs by Barry Gibb or his collaborators reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 during a 15-week period. These #1 hits all came out one after the other. By breaking that record, Gibb surpassed the duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who scored three straight #1 songs in 1964. No other songwriter has ever had so many straight #1s as of this writing. I'm not even convinced it would be feasible. Barry's fourth consecutive hit single, "If I Can't Have You," came after the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," Andy Gibb's "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water," and the Bee Gees' "Night Fever."

Daughter of an Irish-American father and a Japanese-American mother, Elliman was raised in Honolulu. In high school, she performed in a folk group, and at the advice of a teacher, she travelled to London as a teenager to look for singing jobs. She was discovered singing one evening at the Pheasantry in London, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice hired her to portray Mary Magdalene in their 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.

The album Jesus Christ Superstar was a huge success. It outsold the Carpenters' Close To You and Carole King's Tapestry as the best-selling albums in the US in 1971. Because of the album's success, Webber and Rice were able to adapt it into a Broadway production, which was also a big success. Elliman continued to play Mary Magdalene, first on Broadway and then in the 1973 motion picture adaptation of the musical, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress - Musical Or Comedy. (Glenda Jackson from A Touch Of Class defeated her.)

"I Don't Know How To Love Him," one of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, was a small hit for Elliman and peaked at number 28. (Helen Reddy reached #13 with her cover of the same song.) But in 1971, when Broadway's production of Jesus Christ Superstar debuted and Elliman relocated to New York, something more significant occurred. Elliman got to know Robert Stigwood's RSO label president Bill Oakes. Eight years after Elliman and Oakes' 1972 wedding, they divorced.

Elliman might have easily become a member of the RSO even if she had never wed Oakes because both the theatrical and movie adaptations of Jesus Christ Superstar were made by Robert Stigwood. Elliman just so happened to be at the Miami studio when RSO musician Eric Clapton recorded his cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff," a #1 single in 1974. She provided background vocals for the song, and she afterwards spent many years touring and recording with Clapton. RSO paired her up with producer Freddie Perren, a former Motown employee who had written and produced the Sylvers' 1974 number-one single "Boogie Fever," while she was also recording her own music at the time. "Love Me," a song that Barry and Robin Gibb wrote for Elliman, reached #14 in 1976.

Elliman regarded herself as a ballad singer and had little interest in dance. The song they had composed for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, "How Deep Is Your Love," was what the Bee Gees had originally intended to offer her. Robert Stigwood, however, insisted that they perform that song on their own. Instead, the Bee Gees sent her "If I Can't Have You," another one of their songs—clearly not a ballad.

"If I Can't Have You" is a heartbreaking lost love ballad that was composed by the three Bee Gees. The narrator in Elliman's story longs fervently for a single individual, asking, "Am I strong enough to see it through? / Go mad is what I will do." We are not given any information about the person she cannot live without, nor are we given any information as to why they are not together. All we can hear is the need itself.

Elliman collaborated with Freddie Perren, a man who knew how to make a disco record, to record her rendition of "If I Can't Have You." And it's completely disco, with synth-strings, cheesy trumpets, a strutting bassline, and a chorus that keeps repeating itself. Elliman has a strong and competent vocal, but she doesn't quite convey the song's heart-wrenching passion as well as the Bee Gees would. The Bee Gees released their own version of this song as the B-side to their single "Stayin' Alive," so we know this.

The song "If I Can't Have You" appears a few times in Saturday Night Fever, incidentally. Every time we hear it, Tony is at the disco's bar, and a topless dancer is perched high above a tiny stage just behind the bar.

The sole top-10 success for Yvonne Elliman is "If I Can't Have You." She also scored the theme for the Robert Stigwood-produced romantic failure Moment By Moment starring John Travolta and Lily Tomlin. She also had a two-episode arc as the lead in Hawaii Five-O. She gave from the entertainment industry to raise her children in the early 1980s. Since then, she has returned, making a few albums this century and performing on occasion. Meanwhile, this column will once more feature The Bee Gees.

Samples of Her Single

Producers Cool & Dre interpolated “If I Can’t Have You” on DJ Khaled’s 2007 Young Jeezy/Juelz Santana/Rick Ross/Lil Wayne/Fat Joe posse cut “Brown Paper Bag.”

Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson singing along with “If I Can’t Have You” in a classic 2013 Black Mirror episode

TV Appearances

  • Hawaii Five-O (TV Series) as Yvonne Kanekoa
    • S11E12 Number One with a Bullet: Part 1 (1978) ... Yvonne Kanekoa

The Hawaiian "kumu" mob, first introduced in "A Death in the Family" (episode #10.24) returns with a new boss named Tony Alika (Ross Martin), and their first order of business is to kill the head of the Hawaiian music mafia and muscle in on a promising new singer, played by real-life singing star Yvonne Elliman. Episode aired Dec 28, 1978 Stream on Paramount+

    • S11E13 Number One with a Bullet: Part 2 (1979) ... Yvonne Kanekoa

To get out from the thumb of the Hawaiian kumu mob, the manager of a promising singer tries to cut a deal with a mainland gangster to get them to buy up her contract, leading to the threat of a vicious mob war. Episode aired Jan 4, 1979 Stream on Paramount+

Discography

  • Yvonne Elliman (1972)
  • Food of Love (1973)
  • Rising Sun (1975)
  • Love Me (1977)
  • Night Flight (1978)
  • Yvonne (1979)

Links