Olivia Newton-John, pop singer and ‘Grease’ star, dies at 73

Olivia Newton-John, who sang some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and 80s while recasting her virgin girl-next-door image into a spandex-clad vixen – a transformation mirrored in miniature by her starring role in ‘Grease’ , one of the most popular musicals of its time – died Monday at her ranch in Southern California. She was 73 years old.

The death was announced by her husband, John Easterling. She had been living with a breast cancer diagnosis since 1992 and in 2017 she announced that the cancer had come back and spread. For years, she was a strong advocate for cancer research, establishing a foundation in her name to support it and opening a research and wellness center in metropolitan Melbourne, Australia. Originally from England, she grew up in Australia.

Ms. Newton-John has amassed No. 1 hits, chart-topping albums and four records that have sold over two million copies each. More than anything else, she was sympathetic, even loved.

In the early phase of her career, Ms. Newton-John wowed listeners with a high-pitched, supple, vibrato voice that suited amiably the genre of faded middle-of-the-road pop that, by the mid-1970s, often passed for country music.

Her performance on the charts made that blur clear. She scored seven Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Country chart, two of which became back-to-back overall hits in 1974 and 1975. First came “I Honestly Love You,” a serious statement co-written by Peter Allen and Jeff Barry, followed by “Have You Never Been Mellow”, a feather of a song written by the producer of many of his greatest albums, John Farrar.

“I Honestly Love You” also won two of the singer’s four Grammys, for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

The combination of Ms. Newton-John’s consistently benign music – she was never a critics’ favorite – and comely but unimpeachable image has led many writers to compare her to earlier blonde ingenues like Doris Day and Sandra Dee. “Innocent, I’m not,” Ms Newton-John told Rolling Stone in 1978. “People always seem to see me as the girl next door. Doris Day had four husbands,” she said , but she was still considered “the virgin”.

A movie debut in 1978 was meant to put the singer’s chaste image behind it, starting with “Grease.” Her character, Sandy, went from a pigtailed bob loving John Travolta’s bad-boy Danny to a gum-slapping bad girl. “Grease” became one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time, even surpassing “The Sound of Music.” Its soundtrack was the second best-selling album of the year, beaten only by the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, which also featured Mr. Travolta.

The “Grease” soundtrack spawned two No. 1 hits, both sung by the co-stars, including the maniacally vigorous “You’re the One That I Want” and the doo-wop romp “Summer Nights.” . A ballad that Ms Newton-John sang alone, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, earned the film’s only Oscar nomination, for best song.

Applying the evolution of her ‘Grease’ persona to her singing career, Ms Newton-John titled her upcoming album ‘Totally Hot’ and showed off the leather cover from shoulder to toe. The album, released in late 1978, went platinum, giving the rock “A Little More Love” with the line “Where did my innocence go?”

The album featured Ms. Newton-John singing in a somewhat more powerful voice. Although her sales plummeted as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, early in the decade she began the most commercially powerful period of her career, culminating with the single “Physical,” which spent 10 weeks on the charts. top of Billboard. Later, the magazine declared it to be the greatest song of the 1980s.

Olivia Newton-John was born on September 26, 1948 in Cambridge, England, the youngest of three children born to Brinley and Irene (Born) Newton-John. His mother was the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. His Welsh-born father had been an MI5 intelligence officer during World War II and later served as headmaster of Cambridgeshire High School for Boys.

When Ms Newton-John was 6, her family immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where her father worked as a university teacher and administrator. At 14, she formed her first group, Sol Four, with three girls from school. Her good looks and confidence quickly landed her solo performances on local radio and TV shows as “Lovely Livvy”. Ready to go!! Show,” she met singer Pat Carroll, with whom she would form a duet, as well as her eventual producer, Mr. Farrar, who would later marry Mrs. Carroll.

Ms Newton-John won a local TV talent show whose prize was a trip to Britain. While there, she recorded her first single, “‘Til You Say You’ll Be Mine”, which Decca Records released in 1966.

After Ms Carroll moved to London, she and Ms Newton-John formed the duo Pat and Olivia, which toured Europe. When Ms Carroll’s visa expired, forcing her to return to Australia, Ms Newton-John remained in London to work solo.

In 1970, he was asked to join a crudely fabricated band named Toomorrow, formed by American producer Don Kirshner in an attempt to repeat his earlier success with the Monkees. Following their grand design, the band starred in a sci-fi film written for them and recorded its soundtrack. Both projects failed.

“It was terrible, and I was terrible in it,” she later told The New York Times.

His first solo album, “If Not for You”, was released in 1971, its title track a cover of a Bob Dylan song.

After a few hiccups in the US, Ms Newton-John released the album ‘Let Me Be There’ (1973), which led to a Grammy win for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Two key changes in pop music boosted his career during this decade: the rise of “soft rock” in reaction to the harder genres of the late 1960s, and the integration – some would say neutralization – of music. country, also embodied by stars like John Denver and Anne Murray.

The latter trend became a problem in 1974, after Ms Newton-John was chosen singer of the year by the Country Music Association over more traditional stars like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. The protests led to the formation of the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers. Yet after Ms. Newton-John recorded her album “Don’t Stop Believin'” in Nashville in 1976, the friction eased.

The second phase of her career, which began with ‘Grease’, saw further success with a duet with Andy Gibb, ‘I Can’t Help It’, followed by an attempt to expand her acting career. with the 1980 musical film “Xanadu,” starring Gene Kelly. As the film floundered, its soundtrack went double platinum, with hits like “Magic” (which held Billboard’s No. 1 spot for four weeks) and the title track, recorded with the Electric Light Orchestra.

A campy Broadway show based on the film opened in 2007 to some success.

Ms. Newton-John’s hit “Physical” also produced the first video album to hit the market, with music videos for all tracks on the album. “Olivia Physical” won the Grammy in 1982 for video of the year.

She was paired again with Mr. Travolta in the 1983 film “Two of a Kind,” an attempt to repeat the success of “Grease.” But the film disappointed even though its soundtrack proved popular, especially the song “Twist of Fate”.

Ms Newton-John was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1979.

By the mid-1980s, his career had cooled. For several years, she cut back on work to care for her daughter, Chloe Rose, whom she had with then-husband, actor Matt Lattanzi. They had met on the set of “Xanadu” and married in 1984; they divorced in 1995. She married Mr. Easterling, the founder of Amazon Herb Company, in 2008.

Besides her husband, she is survived by her daughter, Chloe Rose Lattanzi; his sister, Sarah Newton-John; and his brother, Toby.

After learning she had breast cancer in 1992, Ms Newton-John became a strong advocate for research into the disease. Her Olivia Newton-John Foundation fund is dedicated to researching herbal treatments for cancer, and she has opened a Cancer Research and Wellness Center under her name at Austin Hospital, outside of Melbourne.

Despite her own treatments, she continued to release albums and tour but failed to move up the charts. And she continued to act in films and on television.

In May 2017, she revealed that her cancer had returned and had metastasized to her lower back. She released a memoir, “Don’t Stop Believin” in 2018.

Until the end, Ms. Newton-John was a firm believer in her friendly musical approach. “It pisses me off when people think because it’s commercial it’s bad,” she told Rolling Stone. “It’s completely the opposite. If people like it, that’s what it’s supposed to be.


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