(August 11, 2022). Very few of the artists whose passings have inspired this blog’s many memorials over the past seven-and-a-half years hit as personally as this one.
Pop music icon, movie actress and cancer activist Olivia Newton-John, who died Monday (August 8) after a courageous, decades-long battle with breast cancer, was one of the first pop stars I could legitimately claim as a personal favorite during my youth—one whose records were in our household not because my parents listened to them, but because I did.
The British-born, Australian-raised Newton-John, whose professional singing career dated back to the 1960s but really took off in the early 1970s, was someone whose come-up coincided with my musical awakening and whose songs shaped my pop music foundation for decades to come.
Aside from the Jackson 5, I can’t think of another artist during my childhood that captivated me as quickly.
Before Olivia, my musical palette consisted mainly of a bunch of J-5 singles, a few kiddie albums courtesy of Disneyland Records, and whatever soul albums and 45s my mom had in our living room. I also came to love legendary acts like Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire and the Isley Brothers among many others—but those were of my mom’s doing, the result of her buying every album those artists recorded in the 1970s because they were her favorites.
Olivia was different. When she exploded onto the scene in late 1973 (after having had a relatively minor hit in 1971 with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You”), her songs struck a chord with me unlike any of the others had. She nurtured a pop spirit I didn’t yet know I’d had.
Catchy pop tunes like “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” were my introduction to catchy, hook-laden, female pop songs. Produced by her lifelong friend and incredibly talented musical partner John Farrar, Olivia’s pure vocals deftly alternated between the soft whispering coo of the verses to her rousing anthemic choruses on those uptempo numbers.
Perhaps, as a then-adolescent seven-year-old, I was also drawn to those two songs because of that “funny” deep-voiced guy that backed Olivia’s sweet, perfectly toned vocal. It was a male-female contrast often featured in country songs at the time.
Or maybe it was my introduction to the steel-pedal guitar used to give Livvy just enough country music street cred to appeal to those fans. Whatever it was, it all worked and I was quickly becoming hooked.
She followed those first two top-10 crossover hits with “I Honestly Love You,” her first No. 1 pop single in the U.S. No funny backing male vocalist this time, it was just Olivia singing a beautiful but serious song about an emotion I had yet to experience but, based on her sincere performance, was beginning to understand.
To borrow a couple of tennis metaphors, if Olivia’s “Honestly” was pop music’s successful volley to earn a break point in an otherwise all-R&B household, then the next single consolidated that break with an ace.
That next single, Olivia’s “Have You Never Been Mellow” was as soft a pop/country/adult contemporary song as one could find on the radio in early 1975. Yet that warmly sung tune about just letting go found its way into our family’s record collection, becoming the first non k-pop (um, that would be kiddie pop) single my Mom bought for her genre-exploring, eight-year-old son.
The hits kept coming afterwards. “Mellow” was followed by the somewhat gimmicky, but still appealing ballad “Please Mr., Please,” with its hooky jukebox reference (“don’t play B-17”) and the British-Aussie Olivia singing about a button-pushing cowboy and some good Kentucky whiskey that no one could imagine her ever having tasted.
As far as my exposure to “Please Mr., Please” went, it helped that in 1975, my family happened to be stationed in Kentucky where the song got plenty of play.
Back then I was still learning about different genres and what distinguished them, but even I knew that “Please Mr., Please” was as direct an attempt as any by Olivia to reach discerning country music fans and convert the purists who didn’t appreciate that a British-Australian woman who recorded her songs in London was winning key country music recognition here in America and hitting the top ten on that genre’s charts.
Still, like its four predecessors, “Please Mr., Please” did just that and was another crossover smash for Newton-John (No. 3 pop, No. 5 country, No. 1 AC in late 1975). It seemed her hit streak and, by extension, my fandom would continue to thrive.
But two things happened in late 1975/early 1976 that interrupted my musical relationship with Olivia.
First, our family moved from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky to Petersburg, Virginia and my exposure to country-tinged pop became limited to major crossover hits like the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” or C.W. McCall’s “Convoy.”
Secondly, Olivia stopped having major crossover hits. Her next several singles after “Please”—while all mid-chart successes—didn’t reach the pop top ten or my musical consciousness. Songs like “Something Better To Do,” “Let It Shine” and Don’t Stop Believin’” (no relationship to the Journey hit), just didn’t register with me.
I had turned ten in 1976 and, thanks to Petersburg’s more R&B-leaning stations, instead began getting more into the Commodores, Rufus and Chaka, The Sylvers, Rose Royce, Brothers Johnson, Parliament-Funkadelic, Diana Ross and, of course, Stevie, EWF and the Isleys (still thanks to my Mom). I essentially went two years without hearing any Olivia, which for a ten-year-old was like a lifetime.
But a major discovery reintroduced me to my once-and-future favorite pop star: “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.”
I discovered the radio countdown show in early 1977 and in that first episode was Olivia’s waltzy ballad, “Sam.” Like its immediate predecessors, it wasn’t a major pop hit (peaked at No. 20), but its presence on the countdown reminded me that Livvy was still around and doing just fine.
More importantly though, pop music was back in the forefront for a kid about to reach puberty. Love songs began taking on new meaning. I began paying attention to sexuality in music as well. And, while my puberty was still officially a year away, it couldn’t have been paired with a more perfect event.
Olivia’s famous transformation and elevation to superstardom.
The movie “Grease” was released on June 16, 1978, two days after my 12th birthday. My closest friends have often heard me say that the movie was my all-time favorite. It still is. I’ve seen it more times than any other film.
At the time I had no idea it was adapted from a long running Broadway musical, but who wouldn’t love the story of an Australian high school girl transplanted to 1950s America only to find her summer love interest wasn’t the good guy she thought he was.
And with that backdrop, what was that girl to do?
Olivia’s pure and wholesome “Sandy” character became a cigarette-puffing (then stomping), black-leather-clad, curly-coifed sex siren that made even the slinkiest of her Pink Lady friends seem virginal. The song that backed her transformation, “You’re The One That I Want” with movie co-star John Travolta, is forever associated with the iconic scene and helped the movie become the highest-grossing film of 1978, as well as the biggest grossing musical of the 20th century.
The “Grease” soundtrack was also the second-highest selling album of 1978, behind that other John Travolta-starring film’s soundtrack (“Saturday Night Fever”). (Both albums, btw, made RSO Records’ very rich founder Robert Stigwood even richer that year.)
But more importantly, “Grease” put Olivia back in the top ten, and firmly in my consciousness where she would remain forever. She followed the chart-topping “You’re The One That I Want” with two more of the movie’s hits, “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “Summer Nights” (the latter teamed with Travolta and the movie’s cast). All three reached the top five on the Hot 100. Only “Hopelessly Devoted” continued Olivia’s country chart presence, peaking at No. 20 there.
That was just the beginning of Olivia’s new era. To reuse the tennis metaphor, if “Grease” was Olivia’s break point from country to pop, then her next release was the consolidation of that break.
The album Totally Hot, released in late 1978, contained one of her biggest hits, “A Little More Love.” The sultry, mid-tempo rocker was a clean break from the safe country music that fueled her rise to stardom earlier in the decade (although it still received enough country radio play to reach No. 94 on that chart).
It was also Olivia embracing her “Sandy” transformation fully by exploring her more sensuous side. In a display of total self-awareness, Olivia sang in the song’s second verse, “where did my innocence go? How was a young girl to know?”
Indeed, how was a young girl like Olivia to know the success that awaited her with her more innocent image now behind her?
“A Little More Love” sold a million copies and reached No. 3 on the pop chart in early 1979 amid a flurry of disco tunes (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “YMCA” prevented it from climbing higher). But it easily became my personal Olivia favorite, even if my 12-year-old, newly pubescent mind didn’t quite get metaphorical lyrics about “night dragging her feet” and Olivia “waiting alone in the heat.”
As the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s, Olivia’s success continued with one pop gem after another. She finished the decade with the soft, rock-disco vibe of “Deeper Than The Night, which ironically just missed a very disco-heavy top-10 and was held to a No. 11 peak, before she teamed with Andy Gibb on the top-20 ballad “I Can’t Help It” from his After Dark album.
Olivia’s two biggest chart singles—“Physical” and “Magic”—came in the 1980s.
Next came the “Xanadu” movie and soundtrack and two very important singles from them: “Magic” and “Xanadu” (the latter recorded with the Electric Light Orchestra). With “Magic,” Olivia’s fantasy-themed ode to the mythological powers of the Muse she played in the film, the singer returned to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart for a fourth time (following “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “You’re the One That I Want”).
Although that may not seem like a big deal now, four No. 1s by female singers was huge back then. It tied Livvy, for a short time at least, with Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand for having the most No. 1s by solo female singers (although Summer’s and Streisand’s hits—like Olivia’s—included duets with other singers). Diana Ross would break the tie a few weeks after “Magic” with “Upside Down” and, a year later, “Endless Love.” Several women have had far more No. 1s since.
The movie “Xanadu” was a box-office flop, but the songs made the soundtrack a big success and further etched Olivia into pop’s pantheon. She had become one of the biggest pre-MTV stars and was at this point among the most beloved singers around the world.
Then, a year after “Xanadu,” as if she needed anymore career validation, Olivia released what would become not only her biggest hit, but the biggest single of the 1980s with “Physical,” the double entendre-laced bop that spent ten incredible weeks at No. 1 (then a record) on the Hot 100.
The song was released just weeks after the launch of MTV and had an accompanying playful video meant to dilute the song’s true meaning by featuring a bunch of woefully out-of-shape guys doing aerobics to the song while Olivia worked them out in true Jane Fonda style.
But we all knew what Olivia really meant, especially as those overweight men transformed before our eyes into buffed, muscle-bound studs, not unlike Olivia’s own pop-to-country, wholesome-to-sexy metamorphosis several years earlier.
In my mid teens by then, I was also fully aware of Olivia’s sex appeal and how it was capitalized upon to help sell her songs. “Physical” was followed by another million-seller “Make A Move On Me,” which preceded “Heart Attack” and another metaphorical hit, “Tied Up.” All of these were singularly focused and done in convincing fashion by Olivia.
“Tied Up” was particularly surprising, with our Olivia acknowledging an impending one-night stand and her willingness to give into it nonetheless, as long as both parties recognized that that’s exactly what it was.
The End of an Era, the Beginning of Another
As the second British Music Invasion hit the U.S. in the mid-1980s and musical styles changed, Olivia fell out of favor with top-40 radio and the hits stopped coming as fast. “Twist of Fate,” from her second John Travolta co-starred romantic movie “Two of a Kind,” was her last top-10 pop hit in early ‘84.
This coincided with my transition from high school to college where you just didn’t find a lot of people bumping Olivia’s hits (come to think of it, neither were any of my high school friends that I knew of…okay, I was a rare bird, admittedly).
Instead, my college dorm’s “stereo wars” were soundtracked by the likes of Prince, U2, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds and others. As far as female singers went, Olivia had been brushed aside on pop radio by Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and new pop princess Whitney Houston.
Olivia’s last top-40 entry was 1985’s “Soul Kiss,” another sultry, double-entendre-filled song with Olivia breathily purring and pushing her explicit boundaries even further (“well I get down on my knees and beg you baby”).
Few artists had completed the country-to-pop metamorphosis as effectively as Olivia did during the 1970s. Linda Ronstadt and Anne Murray come to mind, but Ronstadt was arguably pop-focused throughout and Murray never really left her country roots during her prime. Olivia was our generation’s Taylor Swift, except sweeter and less acerbic.
Even more astonishingly, Olivia’s complete metamorphosis from the wholesome image she crafted with songs like “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” to sexier tunes like “A Little More Love” and the many ‘80s hits that followed was a true story of life imitating art, a change we could easily have seen coming after her iconic “Grease” transformation.
As the 1980s gave way to the ‘90s, Olivia’s priorities changed. The glitzy pop songs gave way to marriage and family, and ultimately to her life-long cause of fighting breast cancer after her first diagnosis in 1992.
That same year, she released a career retrospective called Back to Basics: The Essential Collection 1971 – 1992, which contained a song I considered her best in a decade: “Not Gonna Be The One.”
By then, music had once again changed and I was thoroughly immersed in ‘90s hip-hop and R&B. Very few pop songs appealed to me the way that had in the 1970s and ‘80s.
But “Not Gonna Be The One” was special. It was another reminder of the pureness of Olivia’s brand of pop singing, once again under the musical direction of her longtime producer and friend John Farrar.
Lyrically, it was Olivia telling a wandering ex-lover that she wasn’t going to allow him to come back into her life and use her again. But the song could easily have been a metaphor for her fight with cancer, with the singer refusing to give in to a brutal disease that she was able to survive for over 30 years.
A Wish Come True
In 2017, twenty-five years after “Not Gonna Be The One,” I had the chance to see my first pop music crush perform in Chicagoland. In the weeks leading up to the show, Olivia announced that her cancer had returned and metastasized.
It was a dire outlook with Olivia postponing some shows and announcing that she had begun experimental treatments earlier that year. But none of that stopped her.
She ultimately gave that Chicago-area performance, which I attended and wrote about. Olivia sounded as perfect as ever. She couldn’t have known she was fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine to see her in person. I couldn’t have known it would be my last chance to see her.
But both were true.
And now, several days after her ultimate transition, I struggle to write one of the most difficult tributes yet.
The many memorials I’ve read since Monday have been reassuring and reaffirming…a reminder that I wasn’t the only one Olivia touched this greatly.
Thank you Olivia Newton-John for the decades of music and for perfectly soundtracking my childhood and coming of age. It may sound cliché at this point, but I’ll end this tribute the way so many others have, with those four famous words immortalized by Olivia:
I honestly love you.
R.I.P. Olivia Newton-John (September 26, 1948 – August 8, 2022)
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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