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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 17, 2002

Reinvigorated Elliman may invest in rock future

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

Yvonne Elliman's hits include "If I Can't Have You" from "Saturday Night Fever."

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Yvonne Elliman

7:30 p.m. today

Blaisdell Arena

$35 for lower-level and loge seats, $25 for upper-level seats


Also featuring: Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp

Yvonne Elliman had it all, in her late teens and early 20s.

Fresh out of Roosevelt High School (Class of 1969), she journeyed to London, where Andrew Lloyd Webber swiftly signed her to do the first commercially successful "concept" album, "Jesus Christ Superstar," in which she sang the role of Mary Magdalene.

That was in the early '70s. The rock opera eventually became a hit Broadway show, then a popular film, and Elliman did both on her way to the big time.

From 1974 to 1978, she also toured with rock/blues favorite Eric Clapton, as one of his backup singers in a stint that included some of the best — and worst — times of her life.

"Going on the road with Eric, an established rock star, was one of the best things that happened to me," said Elliman, now 50 and a mother of two, who is performing with Chubby Checker ("The Twist") and Dee Dee Sharp ("Mashed Potato Time") tonight at the Blaisdell Arena. "I had the energy for that fast pace, but I was young and a little naive. I burned out. I had the feeling of power. I didn't save, giving away the money to people who needed to pay rent or hospital bills."

Then there were the drugs and alcohol, abundant in the rock culture.

"I should have died at least twice," she said of the dark side of her past. "I was sexually ignorant, too, and the record companies didn't do much to protect their acts. In fact, some provided cocaine to their big stars, along with the limos and Lear jets."

Elliman said she's lucky to be a survivor and have another chance — in life and music. Yes, she said, she's a commodity of the past. Big hits included "I Don't Know How to Love Him," from the "Jesus Christ Superstar" albums and "If I Can't Have You," from the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack of the late 1970s.

And yes, she's been contemplating a future that would include a return to rock, on stage and in recordings. "I have the memories and lessons from which to draw," she said.

In the '80s, she did the solo thing, with so-so results.

"I've always wanted to get back into action," Elliman said. "But I didn't really know if I could go back to doing shows." Tonight's concert is one rung on her new ladder of life.

She had a preview sampling of a live hometown audience Feb. 9 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village's Coral Ballroom, when she sang "The Girl From Ipanema" at a tribute to promoter/radio personality Tom Moffatt.

The veteran showman hired her on the heels of two popular holiday-season concerts in Hong Kong, which marked a return to touring for Elliman after nearly two decades away from the glamour and gusto of road life.

"I could feel the dry mouth, the heavy heart, the perspiring hands," she said of her Hong Kong shows. "But I also heard the adoration. They loved the old hits. They treated me like royalty. So when Tom asked if I'd do this one coming up, I said sure. It's for Tom."

She took a hiatus, married songwriter Wade Hyman 10 days after meeting him, and had two children: Sage, 19, and at Stanford; and Ben, 16, and newly enrolled at Roosevelt. (Hyman now is involved in a copper business in California.) For years, they lived on the Mainland, but Elliman has recently returned to Hawai'i, spending time with family and considering her options.

"It was always an issue of where I was living," Elliman said. "I think I'm a good mom, and I had to do the mom thing, but the kids are grown now. I recall when I had this big home in California, with all the fireplaces blazing, and I was alone and going from room to room. I needed to lay down some roots."

In her prime, Elliman, or more accurately, her bold, feminine singing voice, made a huge impression on the popular culture.

"I meet people and because of 'Saturday Night Fever,' they think I'm the disco queen," she said, laughing. "But I don't even dance."

She says she felt most satisfied artistically when working in rock with Clapton. At the time she was working with him, he was putting his own spin on American music — blues and gospel sounds, in particular. Elliman said she put body and soul into the genre, and would like to do so again, if ever she were to come back.

"My happiest moments were when I got crazy in the rock years with Eric," she said. "I met a lot of people; I served coffee to Bob Dylan and kissed Mick Jagger in the kitchen. And Eric was a great guy but difficult to talk to; when he was drunk, he was stoic and astute; when he was sober, he didn't communicate. He was a heavy drinker, but he joined AA, and he's totally changed now.

"I was happy, just being a backup singer to Eric, and while I had a marvelous ride with Mary Magdalene and 'Saturday Night Fever,' I still don't think I paid my dues. I don't know if I've earned that spot; I know I have talent, and I'm not going to bite the hands that fed me, but to be on Broadway at 18 and with no experience ... was spooky."

So while she plays acoustic guitar, she's learning to master electric guitar (at Harry's Music Store) and wants to discover new tunes — "the kind that would be offered to Bonnie Raitt or Sheryl Crow" — so she can map out recording and concert strategies as a rock performer.

She's been dabbling in the vintage styles of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin. And reminiscing about the good and bad times, which, she said are "life experiences ... which I can write about (in songs)."

Hawai'i, it turns out, is a safe haven to ease back into the business, she said. Little pressure, no one telling her what to wear, how to do her hair, what songs to sing. She's had offers locally to record and release a CD targeted only for Hawai'i, so that's a realistic option.

Singing in her "mom" years was restricted to the national anthem at her son's youth baseball games or at church functions. Nothing big. But Elliman's ambition is growing again.

"I may be a little late in admitting the truth, but I really love rock," she said. "I really enjoy playing the songs of Rolling Stones, Santana. I hope to get it right, that I'm not a phony because I admit that I'm not the disco queen. I rode that wave, yes; but now it's time for me to do what I want."

She's a little uneasy, thinking about being perceived as a rocker from the past. "I love the old rhythms, I sign my autographs in the same way, and I guess it's something you don't lose, like getting back on the bike again," she said of stardom.

But, she has perspective and a new priority. "I've joined the Asian Artists Alliance overseas to uphold certain rights of Asian artists (she has a Japanese mom and a Caucasian father), and I think the time's right for me to stand up and be counted."