Adam Lambert’s ‘If I Can’t Have You’: The Story Behind The Cover

Disco tune, written by Bee Gees and sung by Yvonne Elliman, appeared on 'Saturday Night Fever' soundtrack.

Given his 17 years of experience on the stage, Adam Lambert could easily have boogied his way across the “American Idol” floor on disco night on Tuesday. But the show’s restlessly creative front-runner, as usual, did exactly what you didn’t expect, taking the iconic-yet-frothy dance hit “If I Can’t Have You” and slowing it way, way down.

Despite its ebullient arrangement, the 1977 hit penned by disco power trio the Bee Gees has a painfully longing lyric, starting with the opening lines, “Don’t know why I’m surviving every lonely day/ When there’s got to be no chance for me.” Lambert took that underlying sorrow and made it the centerpiece of a sensual, k.d. lang-style heartbreak lament that once again set him apart from the rest of the pack.

The feat was even more surprising given that the song has been so frequently covered since Hawaii-born singer Yvonne Elliman’s version became a worldwide smash and hit #1 in the U.S. in 1977. Up until then, the former folkie and backup singer for Eric Clapton (she can be heard on such Slowhand hits as “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Lay Down Sally”) was best known for originating the role of Mary Magdalene in the original version of the Broadway show “Jesus Christ Superstar” and for a string of moderate adult-contemporary hits.

But following a Golden Globe win for her role in “Superstar,” Elliman was given “If I Can’t Have You” by the brothers Gibb, who had also penned one of her previous hits, “Love Me.” The Bee Gees were unable to record the song themselves due to the pressures of finishing work on the megahit “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. The tune appeared on the “Fever” soundtrack album, which at one point was the best-selling record in history before being surpassed by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

“If I Can’t Have You” has been covered by everyone from “Kids in America” singer Kim Wilde to indie rockers Eve’s Plum and boy band LFO, who tossed a bit of hip-hop flavor onto it in 1999 and changed the title to “Can’t Have You.”

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