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

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I’d forgotten that Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” came from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack until I saw a documentary about the Bee Gees the other evening. I always liked the song…possibly the smoothest song of the disco era…but it’s definitely one for smooching to, not for dancing to.

The arrangement and production is first class. “If I Can’t Have You” shimmers at a level few other songs did back in the heyday of disco…or since, for that matter. You really get the feeling of this record playing to half a dozen couples spaced far apart on the dancefloor as the disco winds down for the night, rocking gently in one another’s arms, the glitterball overhead catching the sparkles in the dancers’ outfits.

It helps that “If I Can’t Have You” is a great song. Written by the Bee Gees — one of the finest, and most prolific, songwriting teams of the late 20th century — and produced by Freddie Perren, who also produced Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, all the elements were in place for a great song.

Yvonne Elliman was an experienced artist by the time Saturday Night Fever came along. She had spent several years in the touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar and had been in Eric Clapton’s backing band for a while. There were even a couple of US Top 20 hits under her own name in the mid-1970s.

But nothing in her career up to that point would have prepared her for the phenomenal success of “If I Can’t Have You” — a 1978 Number One in the Billboard Hot 100, and a Top 5 UK hit the same year.

Ironically, it wasn’t even the song she had been taken on to sing for Saturday Night Fever. At first, Yvonne Elliman was lined up for “How Deep Is Your Love”, but the Bee Gee’s manager felt that would be a better song for them and swapped Yvonne Elliman onto “If I Can’t Have You” instead.

Which was an excellent decision on his part, of course, as the Bee Gees took “How Deep Is Your Love” to the top of pretty much every pop chart around the world. It has since gone on to become one of the Gibb Brothers’ signature songs.

The Bee Gees also recorded their own version of “If I Can’t Have You”, which was released as the B-side of another of their monster hit records — “Stayin’ Alive”.

Of course, the Gibb Brothers do a more than acceptable job with their own version of the song they wrote. If you hadn’t heard Yvonne Elliman’s version before you’d think it was a pretty decent effort for a B-side. But compared to her recording, something is definitely missing, even if I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

Maybe the “shimmering” element I like so much in her recording comes entirely from Yvonne Elliman. Who knows? But there’s definitely something in her recording that isn’t present in any of the other versions over the years.

The way she sings might be a big part of it. As someone who spent four years in the cast of a musical, I’m prepared to bet she knew how to blast her vocal out to the audience in a jam-packed theatre.

But on “If I Can’t Have You” Yvonne Elliman is about as far away from the stereotypical Ethel Merman-style stage performance as it’s possible to get. This is a hushed, intimate occasion. We’ve been allowed into an inner temple somewhere, as a special treat. She’s singing right up close to the microphone, she’s not trying to make sure the people right at the back of the Upper Circle can hear every word she’s singing.

And that’s maybe appropriate. The lyrics are the sort of words you might whisper down the phone to someone who had just told you they were breaking up with you. Worse still, it might even be a message you left on an ex’s answerphone after a long evening drinking wine and feeling sorry for yourself.

Not only does Yvonne Elliman make “If I Can’t Have You” shimmer, she delivers her vocal with complete sincerity.

For most of the hedonistic soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, nothing matters very much as long as you can dance to it… “Disco Inferno”, “You Should Be Dancing”, “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever”, among others, were pretty much all about the boogie.

Only “How Deep Is Your Love” and “If I Can’t Have You” take us in a different direction, and of the two…much as I like and admire the Bee Gees…Yvonne Elliman’s is the more convincing performance. I believe every word when she sings…

Don’t know why I’m surviving every lonely day
When there’s got to be no chance for me
My life would end and it doesn’t matter how I cry
My tears of love are a waste of time if I turn away
Am I strong enough to see it through?
Go crazy is what I will do
If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby

This is someone who is just about managing to keep on keeping on. The love of their life is gone and they don’t know how they’re going to make it through. For now, they’re still putting one foot in front of the other and taking it a day at a time. But they’re not at all sure there’s any point in all this — after all, if they can’t have you, they don’t want nobody, baby.

While Yvonne Elliman isn’t exactly saying she’s running off to join a convent, she is saying that she thinks the course of her life has now been set in concrete and there’s no hope for the future.

And, as always in these situations, it isn’t just the break-up, however hard that may be in itself. The emotional turmoil comes from having to consign the dreams of a “happy ever after” life to the bin. The pain comes not from someone leaving you, but from having to set fire to everything you’d ever hoped for and imagined having in your life…

Can’t let go and it doesn’t matter how I try
I gave it all so easily to you my love
To dreams that never will come true
Am I strong enough to see it through?
Go crazy is what I will do

“If I Can’t Have You” would turn out to be the high point of Yvonne Elliman’s chart career. Although she has made plenty of music since, nothing else has rivalled the commercial performance of her Bee Gees-penned hit from the summer of 1978.

She could perhaps have prospered if she’d gone “all in” on the disco boom, but Yvonne Elliman’s heart lay elsewhere and wanted to take her music in a different direction.

And in a way, that’s a good thing. Even though it was less commercially successful, Yvonne Elliman was pursuing her own dreams rather than having to give up her dreams to do what other people wanted her to do instead.

Maybe her dream of hitting the top of the charts every other week was not to be. But her dream of holding on to what was special, and good, and true for her and her music was something she never lost.

And “If I Can’t Have You” teaches us anything, it teaches us the importance of holding on to our dreams…even when the rest of the world is against us.

Yvonne Elliman does such a great job on this song, I don’t think you’ll find a better version.

However, the Bee Gee’s version is below, along with a Kim Wilde version which I don’t remember at all, but which did pretty well in the UK in the early 1990s. It’s probably fair to say that if Yvonne Elliman’s version hints at “If I Can’t Have You” being a dance record, Kim Wilde’s version leaves you in absolutely no doubt.

Whichever version you prefer, I hope you enjoy a few minutes with one of Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb’s finest compositions, in the company of the positively shimmering Yvonne Elliman…

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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