Yesterday the world received the sad news that singer Olivia Newton-John had died at age 73. A cause of death was not given, but Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer that surfaced for a third time in 2017. Her Grease costar and hit duet partner John Travolta was quick to weigh in with a tribute on social media …
“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”
While I liked much of her music, I didn’t know a whole lot about her, so I went in search of this evening.
From Songfacts, I learned …
Olivia Newton-John was born in 1948 in Cambridge, England, but emigrated with her family to Australia as a child. Her maternal grandfather was German physicist Max Born, who won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his work with Quantum Mechanics.
She competed on the Australian TV show Sing, Sing, Sing and won a trip to Great Britain, where she formed a duo with Pat Carroll (the future wife of John Farrar, who would become Olivia’s regular producer and songwriter). In the ’80s, the pair reunited to open Koala Blue, a chain of women’s clothing boutiques.
Long before the fantasy musical Xanadu notoriously flopped, she starred in another musical sci-fi stinker, Toomorrow (1970). Producer Don Kirshner was hoping to follow-up his success with The Monkees with the title group fronted by Olivia. It didn’t work.
Despite not liking the song at all, her first hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s If Not For You, using an arrangement by George Harrison. It topped the Adult Contemporary chart and peaked at #25 on the pop chart.
Her first #1 pop hit was 1974’s I Honestly Love You. She found even greater success in the Adult Contemporary market, where she landed 10 chart-toppers and several more in the Top 10 throughout her career.
She nearly turned down the role of Sandy in Grease because, at 29, she worried she couldn’t pull off playing a teenager (she’s always looked younger than her age, but not that young). Once she met John Travolta, however, their chemistry was instantaneous, and she signed on immediately.
Her country-pop ballads were hits on the country chart, but a 1974 Grammy win for Best Female Country Vocal Performance (Let Me Be There), coupled with a CMA win for Female Vocalist of the Year, soured Nashville veterans who viewed her as an interloper who threatened the purity of the genre. Led by George Jones, several CMA members quit and formed the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers to “preserve the identity of country music as a separate and distinct form of entertainment.”
She married Xanadu costar Matt Lattanzi in 1984, and gave birth to her only child, daughter Chloe, two years later. She and Lattanzi divorced in 1995.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and stayed in remission until 2017, when she announced the cancer had returned and metastasized to her lower back.
Due to a zipper breaking, Olivia Newton-John had to be sewn into the trousers she wears in the last carnival scene of Grease.
And from an article in Variety, I found out …
Chart historian Joel Whitburn ranked the warm-voiced Australia-bred singer as the No. 1 female soloist of the ‘70s. Her nine top-10 pop singles of the decade included three chart-topping 45s; the biggest of them, “You’re the One That I Want,” a duet with Travolta drawn from the smash 1978 soundtrack of the musical “Grease,” spent nearly six months on the U.S. lists.
Originally slotted as a country vocalist, she quickly conquered the pop charts with a succession of well-scrubbed tunes. Though the hits dried up in the early ‘90s, she remained a cherished performer into the new millennium, with a durable fan base sustained by the continuing popularity of “Grease” as a cable TV staple and sing-along theatrical screenings.
In recent years, she spoke about her seemingly upbeat attitude even as the cancer returned after she had been diagnoses as cancer-free. “I’m happy. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I have much to live for. And I intend to keep on living it,” she told Gayle King in an interview for “CBS This Morning” conducted at her California ranch in 2019. “‘Why me’ has never been a part of it.”
But you probably know most of this, and if not, you can find it easily enough. For tonight, let’s sit back and listen to some of her tunes.