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Superstar Yvonne Elliman back in Hawaii

by Agge Sjobom, assignment editor


At 17, she walked barefoot in London. At 18, she walked with Jesus. By the time she was 25, she was a superstar.

Today, 20 years later, Hawai‘i’s only international singing superstar, Yvonne Elliman is back in her hometown Honolulu to record a new album.


“Tom [producer Tom Moffatt] calls and says ‘why don’t we make a record?’” Elliman said to Kalamalama in an interview on May 6. “I had prayed for the opportunity to sing again,” Elliman said.

She had retired from the spotlight when she married songwriter Wade Hyman in 1981 and was living in Malibu, Calif. “He was an artist, and the most amazing salesman,” Elliman said of her husband. “He was gorgeous and smart. He was perfect for the job,” she added laughing. One month later, they were pregnant with daughter, Sage, now 19.

After having her second child, Ben, now 16, the urge to perform was no longer there. Her venue was now at home. “I lost the desire to be on stage, I wanted to be with my kids,” she said. Now, back in Honolulu searching for songs to put on her new album, Elliman said she will probably not go back to the disco music that she was known for.

“I’m not putting down disco, but it put me in a lime light that I wasn’t comfortable with,” she said. “I became this disco person; I was not happy musically. It forced me to be fake.” Elliman’s most famous song, “If I Can’t Have You,” from the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, was written by the Gibb brothers of the BeeGees. It was handed to her, as were most of the songs on all her albums.

When she toured with Eric Clapton in the 1970s, she found the creativity to write. “He gave me the break that I needed in life. I started to write,” she said. Here in Hawai‘i Elliman has found the creativity again with her two friends, Keith Chang and Allen Alexander. “They have gotten me to the point where I can’t wait to play again,” Elliman said. Chang traveled with Elliman early in her career, both to London and New York, and has known her for more than 30 years. He was struck by her the first time he saw Elliman perform with her group We Folk at a talent show. “I was blown away by her talent, her everything,” Chang said via telephone, but he didn’t anticipate how big a star she would become. “I knew that she was talented, but that doesn’t always guarantee success,” said Chang. “I was quite surprised that she accomplished what she did,” he added.

Many in Hawai‘i have kept track of Elliman’s success. “She was a local girl done good,” said Maura Evans, president of Yvonne Elliman’s unofficial fan club in Hawaii. “We love her music; she has a fantastic voice,” Evans added on the phone from her work as a front desk clerk at Aston Waikiki Grand. Excited that Elliman is back on the island, Evans said that “There are definitely people who want to pay to see her play.”

Elliman was born in Ho nolulu, in 1951. Before she turned 4, she got a ukulele. When she was 7 years old she took piano lessons. But it was the guitar that she seemed to be most successful with. “When Yvonne played the guitar, everybody could feel the music,” said Elliman’s father, Russell Elliman, reminiscing about a successful performance she did for deaf children.

Elliman’s band teacher at Roosevelt High School, Peter Wilcox, encouraged her to go to London to pursue a career in music. “He convinced other teachers to pass me so that I could go to London,” Yvonne Elliman said and laughed.

When she first came to London she walked barefoot, as she had done in Hawai‘i. But she quickly learned to wear shoes on the cold and harsh streets of London, she said.

Her purpose in coming to London was to become a rock guitarist. Instead she was discovered by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who decided that she would be perfect for a role in his rock opera musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which he was writing together with Tim Rice.

"He said ‘You are my Mary Magdalene!,’” she said and laughed, remembering the moment that would change her life forever. She eventually claimed the role not only on the record, but also on Broadway and in the film version. “The human aspect of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar made me interested,” said Yvonne Elliman.

She recalled some of the hardships faced when filming on location in Israel, in extreme heat. “It was four months in 115 degree heat, and sometimes 120 degrees,” she said. “They had these little guys with no shirts on bringing trays of watered-down lemonade which they would make you drink, because people were just dropping. You don’t realize you are sweating.”

But after the movie, she said, she was fed up with the musical, and her role in particular. “When I was walking the streets in New York, people would walk up to me and scream ‘Mary!’ They didn’t know my name,” Yvonne Elliman said.

In the middle of Jesus Christ Superstar productions, she also managed to release a couple of albums. Her first album, self-titled Yvonne Elliman, didn’t sell as well as she hoped. “I thought it was going to be a hit, ‘everybody want me,’ you know,” she said laughing as she recalled her own naiveté. “It was the next obvious thing for me.”

Before touring with Eric Clapton, she released her second album, Food of Love, in 1973, which remains her favorite. For the album, she gave a list of topics for the writers such as gluttony and lesbianism. “I just wanted to completely purge myself after the Jesus Christ Superstar thing,” Yvonne Elliman said laughing.

On the Food of Love project, she also worked with guitarist Peter Townshend. This experi ence was a treat to Elliman, as well as amusing. “He was so wild,” she said. “By the time we put the third track on, he played so much that the electricity went out in the whole building, and it is a huge building,” she added laughing.Even though the album wasn’t a success, she was able to work with material she liked.

“I was finally getting in touch with my choices, you know,” Yvonne Elliman said. “For the first time my husband at the time wasn’t choosing all the songs.” Her husband at the time was Bill Oakes, whom she married when she was on Broadway. They remained married to for eight years. Through Oakes, she ended up singing back up vocals for Eric Clapton. He was recording the song “I Shot the Sheriff” for his album 461 Ocean Boulevard. The musical chemistry between Clapton and Yvonne Elliman was evident, and she began touring with him. Clapton provided her with the musical experiences that she had only dreamed of before.

“We just had a wonderful time,” she said. “Can you imagine how, and where I was at this point? I was with Eric Clapton! I was singing on his album! This is why I had gone to England.”

Along with the touring and doing backup singing on Clapton’s album, she released three more albums, Rising Sun, 1975, Love Me, and Night Flight, both released in 1977. Night Flight included the Saturday Night Fever hit “If I Can’t Have You.” In 1979, she released her self-titled album Yvonne. Her long-anticipated new album is expected to be released sometime next year.

It doesn’t seem that Yvonne Elliman has any regrets. After all, this local girl has made it into the Guiness Book of World Records twice through Jesus Christ Superstar and Saturday Night Fever.

“If I drop dead tomorrow, I know that I had an incredible life,” she said.

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