We discuss Yvonne Elliman’s Jesus Christ Superstar songs and film experience, her years singing with Eric Clapton, her No. 1 gold single from the iconic '70s Saturday Night Fever movie, "If I Can't Have You," and the upcoming 2019 Ultimate Disco Cruise.
By Warren Kurtz
Photo courtesy of Randy Alexander, Randex Communications
GOLDMINE: This Easter, live on NBC television, was a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar with music that my wife Donna, our daughter Brianna and I, have played for many Easters. How did you meet Andrew Lloyd Webber in London in 1969?
YVONNE ELLIMAN: I was singing at the Pheasantry on King’s Road where Andrew Lloyd Webber happened to hear me. The songs ranged from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to a new Blind Faith song “Can’t Find My Way Home.” In fact, I believe I sang every song I knew at the time, since the club owner was frantic for someone to take the place of Jon Hendricks, a no-show headliner at the time. Jon, of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, had relocated from the U.S. the prior year. The club owner came to me and said, “Sing everything you know,” so I did, not knowing that Andrew was there to possibly cast Jon for the role of Pontius Pilot in his new, yet-to-be-recorded, Jesus Christ Superstar – A Rock Opera. After finishing my set, Andrew ran up to me and exclaimed, “You’re my Mary Magdalene!” I thought he meant Mary the mother, as my religious upbringing revolved solely around Christmas and its nativity scene. Later that week, when Andrew invited me to his flat to hear the lovely “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” I told him that it was a strange song for a mother to sing to her son. He looked at me surprisingly and said, “No, she was a whore!” I said, “Oh,” and probably blushed.
GM: Another family Easter tradition was watching the film. The soundtrack included a new favorite for us, “Could We Start Again?,” not on the original album. Brianna asks, “What challenges did you face filming in the desert?”
YE: The desert heat was brutal. 120 degrees most of the time. The movie crew walked around with trays of flavored water, forcing people to drink, because the sweat would evaporate before you would see it, causing dehydration and fainting. “Could We Start Again, Please?” was added to the opera for the Broadway show because there was a set change that needed more time to occur. Therefore, Peter and Mary would kneel at the foot of the stage and do the song while the set crew made the changes. In the movie they put me in the middle of a vast desert, on a hill, while they filmed me hundreds of yards away. I gesticulated, wildly, thinking that’s the only way they could see me. The director, Norman Jewison, yelled, “Cut!” He slowly made the long walk over to me. When he reached me he said, “Darling, we’re this close to you,” bringing his hands up and squaring off my face. I had a lot to learn about cameras and their ability to zoom in.
GM:By the mid-‘70s you were back on the Top 40 with the Bee Gees’ composition “Love Me,” followed by your version of “Hello Stranger.” Like you in Hawaii, we now live in a tropical state, Florida, where Barbara Lewis also resides these days. Was Barbara’s “Hello Stranger” a song you knew growing up?
YE: I had always loved “Hello Stranger,” and so it was my idea to cut it for the Love Me album. After it received a pretty nice chart position, Barbara called me up and thanked me for doing it, as she wrote the song and was probably enjoying some well-deserved royalties.
GM:In 1978 Donna bought me the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack at the new Peaches Records and Tapes in Cleveland and encouraged me to apply for a position there. I did, got the job, and every Saturday night we would play side one of that soundtrack with four Bee Gees songs and then ending with your No. 1 gold single “If I Can’t Have You.” During the weeknights we would play side two of your Night Flight album, while you were on tour that summer, which opened with “If I Can’t Have You” and concluded with a song that I was pleased to see selected as the flip side of the “Moment by Moment” single later that year, “Sailing Ships.”
YE: “Sailing Ships” was a particular favorite, as it was written by a fantastic songwriter, and good friend of mine, Stephen Bishop. I also had the great pleasure of having two friends from Hawaii, Cecilio Rodriguez and Henry Kapono, sing back up, whose music I was a big fan of. My mother, who worked in a cocktail bar which served many of the merchant marines, heard the flip side played over and over and over on the jukebox, and watched the sailors cry into their beers.
Flip side: Sailing Ships
A side: Moment by Moment
Top 100 debut: December 23, 1978
Peak position: 59
1978 Night Flight album and tour ad from RSO
GM:Another RSO album we would play in the store was Eric Clapton’s Slowhand, which includes Donna’s favorite song of his, “Wonderful Tonight.” Your harmonies are a key ingredient in the recording.
YE: “Wonderful Tonight” is a truly beautiful love song. Working on Eric’s albums was an opportunity of a lifetime. I learned so much and witnessed true musical gems going straight from performance to tape, no time consuming punch-ins and re-dos. Life on the road was like living a dream, being able to share the stage with a living legend and feeling the adulation from thousands of fans from around the world. I had four years of experiences that I will never forget.
GM:Early the following year, I conducted a lengthy interview with fellow Clevelander Eric Carmen, over dinner, going through his first three solo albums, including Boats Against the Current with “Nowhere to Hide,” one of my favorites. I love your version as the finale on your Yvonne album.
YE: Thank you. Eric Carmen was introduced to me by my producer at the time, Robert Appere. He had also produced Eric. Robert played me “Nowhere to Hide” for consideration. I loved its dynamic, majestic feel, and felt that Eric contributed greatly with his background vocals on my record with his tone, range and passion for the lyrics of which he wrote.
GM:In December of that year, Donna and I got married on your birthday. While we were preparing earlier that month, the opening song from your Yvonne album, “Love Pains,” was in the Top 40. What an exciting disco record.
YE: “Love Pains” didn’t do as well in the U.S. as it did in Europe, especially in the Netherlands. When I was asked to be part of a “Disco Fever” show over there, their top request was that song, followed by “If I Can’t Have You.” I had never done it except for one time at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Since this disco show was decades later, I had to drop it a couple keys to fit my lower range, a fact that’s in play with most of my live show songs these days. Ah well, it seems true that most things drop with age, except your blood pressure. I will be doing the hits on the Ultimate Disco Cruise. Thank you for your interest in me and my music. I hope to meet Goldmine readers on the cruise in February. I share my love and warmth from Hawaii. Aloha!
Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the disco peak in the U.S., the Ultimate Disco Cruise will feature Yvonne Elliman, France Joli, Gloria Gaynor, KC and The Sunshine Band, Kool & The Gang, The Spinners, The Village People, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Thelma Houston, The Trammps, Tavares, and more. The ship begins sailing from Florida on Valentine’s Day 2019, February 14 through 19, from Ft. Lauderdale to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with giveaways, interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.