If I Can’t Have You by Yvonne Elliman (RSO, 1978)

Hearing this song again takes me back to driving around Philadelphia in an almost fully carpeted Trademark van filled with cherry tobacco smoke. Now some of you may be looking at this 45 and thinking, What a cheap hit, she was riding the Bee Gees coattails on that one. I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong, dead wrong. As crazy as the 2001 Odyssey was in giving Tony & Stephanie first prize in a rigged dance contest when it was apparent that the Puerto Rican couple were way better dancers.

Hawaiian-born (Haven’t seen her birth certificate, so I’ll take her word for it) Yvonne had been slowly working her way through the music industry during the entire decade, playing the original Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar to touring with Eric Clapton and singing back-up on I Shot The Sheriff. When she married Bill Oakes in the early ’70s, he helped her get a record contract with RSO Records owner, Robert Stigwood. A few mid-70s Top 20 hits later, Robert kept her in mind to sing a song off the soundtrack to a new film he was producing, Saturday Night Fever. He had the Bee Gees write a soft ballad for her much like their track, Love Me, which she already had a hit with. But at the last moment, he suggested the Barry and the brothers sing How Deep Is Your Love and gave Yvonne a midtempo disco number If I Can’t Have You.

If it indeed was his suggestion, that was a stroke of genius. I can’t imagine anyone but Barry singing How Deep.., nor could I imagine anyone else doing justice to If I Can’t Have You other than Yvonne. The Bee Gees version, released as a B-side to Stayin’ Alive, was so heavy-handed, too synthy, and sluggish. Yvonne’s version, produced by Freddie Perren, was light, classy, and sensitive with a touch of Philly-soul. In the movie, the song plays off the unrequited love that doormat Annette was for Tony at the same time that macho Tony finds himself falling for Stephanie. The song grooves along perfectly, and there’s just enough ache in Yvonne’s voice to convey the longing and feeling of impending rejection that both will face. In other hands, this song is an album cut. In Yvonne’s, it’s a career-making smash.

And she’s friggin hot…that always helps.

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2 Comments

  1. J.A. Bartlett

     /  August 26, 2012

    I can’t call it the best song on “Saturday Night Fever” as long as “Stayin’ Alive” exists, but this is always welcome whenever it pops up on shuffle or on the radio. Her “Love Me” is very good too, as is her version of “Hello Stranger.” And Freddie Perren had a master’s touch with glossy disco stuff, bringing the rhythm without letting the thump get mindless.

    Reply
  2. Steve E.

     /  August 26, 2012

    And her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright” are among the highlights of “JCSuperstar.” I have to differ with you, though, on the Bee Gees’ version of “If I Can’t Have You.” I’ve always thought it popped out of the speakers.

    Reply

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