The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Yvonne Elliman – “If I Can’t Have You”

HIT #1: May 13, 1978

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

If you were listening to the radio in the first half of 1978, you were hearing a whole lot of Barry Gibb. In one 15-week run, four songs that Barry Gibb wrote or co-wrote went to #1 on the Hot 100. All of those #1 hits arrived in a row. With that streak, Gibb broke a record set by the team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who’d had three consecutive #1 hits in 1964. To this date, no other songwriter has ever had that many consecutive #1s. I’m not sure if it would even be possible.

After the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” Andy Gibb’s “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” and the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever,” Barry’s fourth consecutive smash was “If I Can’t Have You,” a song that the Bee Gees wrote for themselves and ultimately gave to the former Broadway star Yvonne Elliman. This was the fourth and final #1 from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the first album ever to launch that many chart-toppers. Yvonne Elliman, like Andy Gibb before her, had been in the right place at the right time. And like Andy Gibb, she rode the Bee Gees’ wave.

This wasn’t the first time that Elliman was in the right place at the right time. Elliman grew up in Honolulu, the daughter of a Japanese-American mother and an Irish-American father. She sang in a folk group in high school, and at the urging of a teacher, she moved to London as a teenager to try to find work as a singer. One night, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice heard her singing at a London club called the Pheasantry, and they brought her in to play the part of Mary Magdalene in their 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jesus Christ Superstar had a weird evolution. Rice and Webber wanted to stage a psychedelic musical about the gospel, but they first recorded it as a concept album. Elliman wasn’t the only member of the cast who’d eventually have pop success. Ian Gillan sang the role of Jesus shortly after he’d become the frontman of Deep Purple. (When Gillan was in Deep Purple, they peaked at #4 with 1973’s “Smoke On The Water.” It’s an 8. Deep Purple also got to #4 with 1969’s “Hush,” but Gillan wasn’t in the band then. “Hush,” anyway, is a 9.) The role of Judas went to Murray Head, who peaked at #3 with 1984’s “One Night In Bangkok,” a song from the musical Chess that Tim Rice co-wrote with two former members of ABBA. (“One Night In Bangkok” is an 8.)

In any case, the Jesus Christ Superstar album was a massive hit. In the US, it was the best-selling album of 1971, topping even Carole King’s Tapestry and the Carpenters’ Close To You. Because the album did so well, Webber and Rice got to turn it into a Broadway show, and it turned out to be hugely successful there, as well. Elliman stayed with the role, playing Mary Magdalene on Broadway and then again in the 1973 movie version of the musical, which got her a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actress – Musical Or Comedy. (She lost to Glenda Jackson from A Touch Of Class.)

Elliman had a minor hit with “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” one of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar; it peaked at #28. (Helen Reddy’s cover of the same song got to #13.) But something more significant happened in 1971, when Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway and Elliman moved to New York. Elliman met Bill Oakes, who was president of Robert Stigwood’s RSO label. Elliman and Oakes got married in 1972, and they divorced eight years later.

Elliman could’ve easily ended up on the RSO roster even if she’d never married Oakes; Robert Stigwood produced both the stage and film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar. When RSO artist Eric Clapton recorded his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff,” a #1 single in 1974, Elliman happened to be in the Miami studio. She sang backup on the song, and then she ended up touring and recording with Clapton for years. She was also recording her own music at the time, and RSO teamed her up with producer Freddie Perren, a former Motown guy who’d written and produced the Sylvers’ 1974 chart-topper “Boogie Fever.” In 1976, Elliman got to #14 with “Love Me,” a song that Barry and Robin Gibb wrote for her.

Elliman considered herself a ballad singer, and she didn’t care much about disco. The Bee Gees originally wanted to give her “How Deep Is Your Love,” a ballad they’d written for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But Robert Stigwood insisted that they sing that song themselves. Instead, the Bee Gees gave her another of their songs: “If I Can’t Have You,” which was definitely not a ballad.

As written by all three Bee Gees, “If I Can’t Have You” is a desperate lost-love song. Elliman’s narrator pines dramatically for one particular person: “Am I strong enough to see it through? / Go crazy is what I will do.” We don’t learn anything about this person she can’t stand to be without, and we don’t learn why they’re not together. All we hear is the pure need of it.

Elliman recorded her version of “If I Can’t Have You” with Freddie Perren, a guy who knew how to produce a disco record. And it’s fully disco, full of synth-strings and cheesy horns and a strutting bassline and a chorus that repeats again and again and again. Elliman has a sturdy and capable voice, but she doesn’t quite sell the heart-wrecked intensity of the song the way the Bee Gees would’ve done. We know this because the Bee Gees recorded their own version and released it as the B-side of their “Stayin’ Alive” single.

“If I Can’t Have You” isn’t one of the best songs of that miraculous Bee Gees run, but it’s still pretty good. It’s got a monster of a hook, and it surrounds that hook with roiling drama. Elliman doesn’t sell the song the way Barry Gibb does, which is sort of weird; she is, after all, an actress. But then, Gibb is a completely singular vocalist. On all the other big Bee Gees-written hits of that moment, Barry Gibb comes through on backing vocals and ends up stealing the song. That doesn’t happen on “If I Can’t Have You,” and maybe that’s why the song did as well as it did. Maybe it avoided the overkill. Or maybe it would’ve just been another Bee Gees #1.

“If I Can’t Have You,” incidentally, plays a couple of times in Saturday Night Fever. Whenever we hear it, Tony is at the bar in the disco, and there’s a topless dancer just up on a tiny stage behind the bar. Nobody pays much attention to her. Was this something that happened at discos? Or was it just a way to get some boobs into the movie? I honestly have no idea. In any case, those are the only boobs in Saturday Night Fever. The few sex scenes in the film are pretty gross and disturbing, and Tony never seems remotely interested whenever girls at the disco hit on him.

“If I Can’t Have You” remains Yvonne Elliman’s only top-10 hit. She had a few more minor hits, including the theme for the Robert Stigwood-produced John Travolta/Lily Tomlin romantic flop Moment By Moment. She also starred in a two-episode arc of Hawaii Five-O. In the early ’80s, she left entertainment behind to raise her kids. Since then, she’s come back, recording a couple of albums this century and giving occasional performances. The Bee Gees, meanwhile, will be in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: 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.” Here it is:

(DJ Khaled and Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column. Young Jeezy and Juelz Santana will be here as guest rappers, and Fat Joe will be here as a member of Terror Squad. Jeezy’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2005 Akon collab “Soul Survivor“; it’s an 8. Juelz Santana peaked at #6 with 2005’s “There It Go (The Whistle Song)“; it’s a 6. Bafflingly, Rick Ross has never had a top-10 hit as a lead artist; his highest-charting single, 2008’s “The Boss,” peaked at #17. The highest-charting single with a Ross guest verse is Drake’s 2019 track “Money In The Grave,” which peaked at #7; it’s an 8. Fat Joe is basically the lead artist on that one Terror Squad #1, but as a lead artist, his highest-charting single is technically the 2002 Ashanti collab “What’s Luv,” which peaked at #2. That one is a 3.)

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