Yvonne Elliman (born Yvonne Marianne Elliman in 1951) is an American singer who rose to fame through her song “If I Can’t Have You”, at the height of the disco craze. She also played in the production of Jesus Christ Superstar as one of the members of the original cast. While in London then, she was asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tin Rice to sing the part of Mary Magdelene for the recording of Jesus Christ Superstar album. Her first single off the LP, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” was her first charting single and broke into the Top 40. She then moved to New York for the Broadway production of the hit rock opera. She played the role and had been with the cast for four years. She also did work with Eric Clapton as one of the backing vocalists on many of his albums, her most know works being “I Shot The Sheriff”. Elliman, who was once considered to sing “How Deep Is Your Love”, instead recorded another Bee Gees previous hit “If I Can’t Have You”. It also became a hit for her, peaking at the top of the Hot 100 chart in 1978, making this highest point of her career. After that, she released singles that had only become minor hits, and then retreated from the limelight. She returned to show business after a long hiatus, releasing an album titled Simple Needs and performing in music festivals and benefit concerts globally.
Early career, and “Jesus Christ Superstar” days
Yvonne Marianne Elliman was born on December 29, 1951 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she also spent her childhood. She displayed her penchant for music by joining a high school band named We Folk.
Following her graduation in 1969, Elliman moved to London. In the English capital she began to sing folk for local pubs and clubs before getting discovered by songwriters Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. They invited her to sing as Mary Magdelene for the audio recording of Jesus Christ Superstar which was later released in 1970. Following the album’s release, Weber and Rice offered her the role of Mary Magdelene for their new rock opera of the same title.
With her big role in the stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, it brought Elliman to fame. She also had her first charting single with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” the Jesus Christ Superstar LP. The single reached the Top 40 pop charts, peaking at #28 in 1971.
By the early 1970s Elliman had moved to New York City for the Broadway musical production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It was also there where she met her would-be first husband Bill Oakes, who was then thre president of RSO Records. Elliman was part of the musical’s original cast. She again essayed the role of Mary Magdalene on stage, and also on the eventual film adaptation (which was released in 1973). Elliman’s portrayal as Mary Magdalene (again) on the screen version brought her to fame, and also got her a best actress nomination from the Golden Globe Awards in 1974.
It was also her future husband Oakes who introduced Elliman to colleague Robert Stigwood, who in turn invited her to be one of the backup singers for Eric Clapton’s hit “I Shot the Sheriff in 1974. Aside from being a member of Clapton’s touring band (where she remained for five years), Elliman also secured her own recording contract as well, with RSO.
Even as she was part of the Jesus Christ Superstar, Elliman had pushed her solo recording career. Her self-titled solo debut LP was released in 1972. It was followed by Food For Love (1973; one of the session musicians also include Pete Townshend), Rising Sun (1975), before she achieved her first charting album Love Me (1977) which peaked at #68 on the Billboard 200.
Love Me‘s songs, “Hello Stranger” and the title track, both went to the Top 20 pop chart once again. “Hello Stranger” peaked at #15 (and #1 on the adult contemporary singles chart) while “Love Me” reached #14 pop (#5 adult contemporary) and also became a UK top ten hit at #6.
Biggest hit with “If I Can’t Have You”
Stigwood was also the manager of the Bee Gees, who were then riding on the crest of commercial success and fame in the midst of the disco era. The Bee Gees was working for the soundtrack of the hit musical Saturday Night Fever in 1977. One of the songs they wrote, “How Deep Is Your Love,” was originally intended for Elliman. However, Stigwood preferred the Bee Gees themselves to perform it. Elliman instead got to sing another one of Bee Gees’ tunes, “If I Can’t Have You” which the band themselves had already recorded.
Elliman’s version of “If I Can’t Have You” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978. It also peaked at #9 on the adult contemporary singles chart, and #4 on the UK chart. It was Elliman’s only Top 10 and number one hit single. After that, she continued to score minor hits such as “Moment by Moment” and “Love Pains” before she receded from the limelight to focus on raising her family.
After a long hiatus, Elliman returned to performing at the beginning of the 21st century, releasing her all-new album Simple Needs in 2004. That same year also witnessed the release of a best-of album, The Millenium Collection: The Best of Yvonne Elliman. She went on making live performances well into the 2010’s.