FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
After hitting a career high in the 1970s, Yvonne Elliman spent a quiet couple of decades raising a family in California. She's back in Hawaii now and back on the music scene, showcasing the voice that won her a starring role in "Jesus Christ Superstar."
‘70s songbird soars with new sounds
Thirty years ago, disco was the national craze. "Saturday Night Fever" and the Bee Gees were pop-culture phenomena. On the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack - which held the sales record for soundtracks until eclipsed by "Titanic" 10 years later - a song penned by the Gibb brothers, "If I Can't Have You" reached the top of the Billboard charts. That song was performed by Hawaii's Yvonne Elliman.
The '70s marked the peak of Elliman's career - one that took off suddenly for a young woman exploring the London music scene just after high school graduation. She experienced worldwide success with a starring role in the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" and toured with a rock superstar, Eric Clapton. Then she quietly withdrew to raise a family.
Yvonne Elliman played Mary Magdalene to Ted Neeley's Jesus.
Her eclectic music talents are back in play today as she finishes another album of the music that remains close to her heart.
Elliman grew up loving music, performing and attending symphony concerts with her father. "I always wanted to be onstage. I loved doing recitals, watching concerts."
Her early influence was Barbara Streisand, but she'd also emulate the music of television commercials and variety shows of the era. As a teenager during the 1960s, she was captivated by the British Invasion and American rock singers of the era, from Grace Slick to Janis Joplin.
She formed her first group, We Folk, while a student at Roosevelt High School.
"My father managed the four of us," Elliman said. "We won competitions, played hotels, performing for tourists and servicemen all over the island."
Elliman's band teacher at Roosevelt, Peter Wilcox, encouraged her to pursue a career in music, so she left for London a few weeks after graduating in 1969.
She performed on the streets of London, at Piccadilly Circus and in various clubs. It was at the Pheasantry in Chelsea that she caught the eye of two songwriters destined for stardom: "Andrew Lloyd Webber came up to me and said, 'You're my Mary Magdalene.'"
Webber and his partner, Tim Rice, offered her the part in their rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar," and she performed onstage, in the film version and on the soundtrack album. Her big-screen performance won her a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a musical or comedy, while "I Don't Know How to Love Him" became her first hit song. She sang it in front of a national TV audience during the 1972 Tony Awards.
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Elliman starred with Jack Lord in a two-part "Hawaii Five-O" in 1978.
Then came a pairing with Clapton on his "461 Ocean Boulevard" album and subsequent tour in 1974. Elliman was Clapton's backup singer on his next four albums and tours and can be heard on Clapton classics from "I Shot the Sheriff" to "Lay Down Sally" and "Wonderful Tonight."
The two also wrote "Get Ready" together. "Eric was top notch; we always traveled first class," she said. "It was a great honor to be in his band, and I'd have to pinch myself at times."
Elliman's impact on Clapton's band and life has not been forgotten. In his recent autobiography, he said she was "a brilliant young singer."
She fit in well with the group and became a good friend, he said. "I was also impressed by her terrific voice, and it wasn't long before I asked her to join the band."
In 1975, Yvonne signed with RSO Records, and her association with the Gibb brothers - also RSO clients - began. Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote "Love Me" for her; it became a Top 20 hit in both the United States and United Kingdom in 1976. Her cover of Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger" reached the top of the charts on the adult contemporary category the same year.
"Saturday Night Fever" producer Robert Stigwood chose Elliman to cover "If I Can't Have You," which became an international hit in 1978. She was soon performing on "The Midnight Special" and "American Bandstand," as well as the Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas talk shows. She starred in a two-part episode of "Hawaii Five-O" in 1978.
For the next 20 years, though, Elliman settled down to raise a family. She remarried and had two children, Sage and Ben, raising them in California.
In recent years she's re-entered the music scene. Her songs have been covered by artists including Liza Minnelli, Eve's Plum, LFO and Fatboy Slim. In 2001 she returned to Hawaii to sing with the Honolulu Symphony and at the Diamond Head Crater Fest. Concerts abroad included a tribute to "Jesus Christ Superstar" composer Rice.
In 2004 she released her first CD in years, "Simple Needs," for which she wrote all the songs, including one for her mother, "The Queen of Clean."
In the summer of 2006, Elliman reunited onstage with other "Superstar" alumni, Ted Neeley and Barry Deenan, in a one-night show in Los Angeles that included Ben Vereen and Jack Black.
She's finishing work on a follow-up to "Simple Needs," "T Nahpele," which she says will emphasize today's social issues while returning to her rock 'n' roll roots.
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A.J. McWhorter, a collector of film and videotape cataloging Hawaii's TV history, has worked as a producer, writer and researcher for both local and national media. His column runs on the first Monday of each month. E-mail email@example.com