Olivia Newton-John Was Magic

Photo: Ron Howard/Redferns

Before Olivia Newton-John did the hand jive to “You’re the One That I Want” and hit the gym with “Physical,” the British-Australian singer’s calling card was “I Honestly Love You,” a delicate ballad from 1974 co-written by Brill Building alum Jeff Barry and Australian impresario Peter Allen. In her 2018 autobiography, Don’t Stop Believin’, Newton-John, who died this week at 73, recalled the reaction she had to finding the song while sifting through demos with her eventual longtime collaborator John Farrar: “It was so simple, with a meaning that was deeper than the ocean … I could certainly relate, and I knew that everyone would be able to make those words fit their own personal story of love and perhaps even loss. Just putting the word ‘honestly’ into the mix made it even more poignant.”

Establishing that personal, everyday connection with her audience was not only important to Newton-John but a crucial aspect of country music, the genre she was slotted in by accident early in her career. “In England, we just do what we like and don’t worry about whether it’s country or pop or whatever,” she told the Memphis Press-Scimitar in 1974. True to her word, her pop heyday transcended any attempts to musically pigeonhole her.

Newton-John was a regular chart-topper in the States throughout the ’70s, her lithe soprano adapting well to the soft pop sound that was popular on that era’s fuzzed-out AM radios. In 1971, she hit No. 1 on Billboard’s “Easy Listening” chart with her second single, a cover of folk titan Bob Dylan’s besotted “If Not for You”; Newton-John’s version took cues from the cover that appeared on George Harrison’s All Things Music Pass with a grinding slide guitar acting as a counterpoint to Newton-John’s lilt.

If Not for You, the album that followed, revealed the path Newton-John would take in the early ’70s, splitting the difference between covers of AM Gold staples and tracks from the folk and country world (the Kris Kristofferson–penned “Me and Bobby McGee,” which Newton-John performed with a slippery drawl, the murder-ballad staple “Banks of the Ohio”). Her emotion-racked performances got a little brassy at times, while the arrangements — by Farrar and his frequent collaborator Bruce Welch — bolstered the musical points she was trying to make with insistent arpeggios and shout-along backing vocals surrounding her on “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and sweeping strings backing her up on “If You Could Read My Mind.”

While touring steadily and bringing her shyly genuine presence to TV shows such as The Smothers Brothers Show, she remained a staple on country, adult-contemporary, and pop radio, amassing top-ten-chart peaks across all those formats and enticing enough record buyers to notch four straight gold-selling singles during 1974 and ’75. ”If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” the first entrant in that solid-gold run, couches its pleas for affection in upbeat country pop, while “Please Mr. Please,” which closed it out, spins a tale of woe from a night at the jukebox. In the short time since her debut, she’d refined her on-record vocal performances so that she was coaxing emotions from songs instead of brightly underlining them.

While Newton-John did have ideas in her lyrics that echoed what you would typically find in country songs — as well as instrumental details borrowed from roadhouse stages — her music overall leaned soft-rock enough for country-music purists to be outraged by her inclusion in their ranks. She was such an outsider to America that she represented England in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest (England came in fourth that year, while Sweden’s entrant, ABBA, took first place). Stories about the Cambridge, England–born, Australia-raised Newton-John not knowing enough about country music and its players swirled through the Nashville world and into the press with the dam of resentment bursting after she was named the Country Music Association’s 1974 Female Vocalist of the Year, beating out the likes of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

That November, a grip of Nashville musicians met at the home of then-couple George Jones and Tammy Wynette to form the Association of Country Entertainers, which had the goal of preserving “the identity of country music as a separate and distinct form of entertainment”; membership was available “exclusively to those persons who make their living as country music entertainers and who identify themselves primarily as such.” While members claimed this was a way to have the organization be artist forward, keeping out industry types who would be dazzled by sales figures and, as a result, confuse popularity with artistic merit, it was also the drawing of a clear line against arrivistes.

Eventually, people stood up for Newton-John, including Parton’s sister Stella, who released the protest song “Ode to Olivia” in the spring of 1975. (Opening lyric: “We ain’t got the right / To say that you’re not country / You’re just a country girl / It’s so plain to see.”) Newton-John, however, took the criticism in stride; she’d actually missed it as it was happening thanks to her hectic touring schedule. “I’ve never claimed to be a country singer; to call yourself that, you’d have to be born in that background,” Newton-John told People in 1975 during an interview at a Mississippi rodeo. “I simply love country music and its straightforwardness. And since the records have also sold well outside of the country … it seems to me that we’re broadening the acceptance for country music. I wasn’t out to do anybody out of an award.”

In the years that followed — and even now — the debates over what counts as “country” music continued to have flare-ups over purity despite artists such as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers succeeding with their own pop-crossover experiences. (ACE, which eventually shifted its focus to expanding country-radio playlists, dissolved in 1981.) But Newton-John was still a star after the dustup, hosting network-television specials, releasing albums at a steady clip, and headlining the Metropolitan Opera House in the spring of 1977. (“Olivia Newton-John Conveys Her Niceness,” the headline on the New York Times review read, one of many examples of the ’70s music press brushing her aside because of her songs’ gentleness and her fresh-faced demeanor.) But a dispute over the particulars of her contract with MCA, her label at the time, led to a legal stalemate. “I realize that it was a pretty gutsy move, especially as a woman,” Newton-John wrote in her autobiography. “Most women were told to just let the men deal with the legal aspects of being in show business. This Aussie wouldn’t hear of it.”

But the resulting lawsuit, and Newton-John’s early career, would eventually be overshadowed by her appearance as Sandy Olsson in the film version of Grease, the sock-hop musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey that had its Broadway premiere in 1972. It wound up being another moment when she pushed aside any attempts to put her in a box. Newton-John met Grease producer Allan Carr at a dinner party thrown by fellow Aussie pop star Helen Reddy, and at first she was resistant to his suggestion that she star in the musical comedy. In the early ’70s, she’d been a member of the group Toomorrow, an effort by Monkees Svengali Don Kirshner to recapture the Prefab Four’s magic with a band tailor made for acting in movies and being featured on their soundtracks. The group starred in a roundly derided sci-fi musical — in which dying aliens kidnap the band and have them play for an audience of extraterrestrials — and released a couple of singles before disbanding. That experience made Newton-John wary of being back on the big screen. “I didn’t want to make another mistake that would last forever on celluloid,” she recalled in her memoir.

Carr was insistent. Though Newton-John was a 28-year-old British-Australian and the play’s Sandy was an all-American high-school student, the producer was willing to change the character so she wouldn’t have to put on an accent. Eventually, John Travolta, who had been tapped to play bad-boy Danny Zuko in the movie, showed up at Newton-John’s Malibu ranch, a gesture that charmed her enough that she went on a screen test with him.

The mutual appreciation lit up the screen. “When we walked inside the room together, it was magic and everyone saw it. Knew it,” Newton-John wrote in 2018. Grease became a massive worldwide hit, spawning three top-ten hits featuring Newton-John. Two of them had been written expressly for the movie by Farrar, who was still producing and arranging all of Newton-John’s music: the weepy slide-guitar-assisted “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which added late-’70s arena-rock oomph to the country-ballad ideal, and the peppy duet “You’re the One That I Want,” which punctuated its flirtations between Travolta and Newton-John with a bouncing-ball bass and piano extracted from a honky-tonk.

Over the course of the movie, Sandy transforms from innocent new girl to leather-clad baddie, with Newton-John’s wide-eyed performance giving extra juice not only to her own songs but to other tracks such as Stockard Channing’s sardonic “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” The “new” Sandy arrives nine minutes before the movie ends, smoking a cigarette, her hair a wild tangle of curls, her voice in full Marilyn Monroe mode. “My lips were slathered in bad-girl red lipstick, my top was squeezed tight, and my legs and bee-hind were poured into those pants! Tell me about it, stud, indeed!” she recalled.

Newton-John’s career evolution would mirror Sandy’s. In 1978, she released Totally Hot, which, image-wise, wiped away the fresh-faced young woman who’d caused such a stir among Nashville purists. Newton-John called the reaction she’d received as tough-girl Sandy a “light bulb moment … That outfit would pull the shy Olivia Newton-John out of her comfort zone in other ways.” Like Sandy at the end of Grease, she was clad entirely in black on the cover of Totally Hot, the single “Deeper Than the Night” trading a fuzzed-out electric guitar for the slide that had accompanied her on early-’70s tracks. Her evolution would continue in the late ’70s and early ’80s with collaborations with prog-poppers Electric Light Orchestra (the title track of the 1980 roller-skate fantasia Xanadu) and fellow Australian pop titan Andy Gibb (the plush duet “I Can’t Help It”) further pushing her away from the smooth-edged sounds of her early-’70s music.

But it was the early-’80s cut “Physical” that cemented her new post-country, post-Grease image in pop culture. Released in late September 1981 — a little less than two months after MTV launched — “Physical” was a sex-driven workout, its popping bass line and sinuous (if not quite aerobics-class-appropriate) groove matched by Newton-John cooing double entendres about working out, or at least working something out, with a paramour. The song was pulled from stations in more conservative U.S. markets because of its euphemism-studded lyrics; the accompanying clip, which featured a headband-and-leotard-clad Newton-John mugging her way through a session at the gym, was a staple on the then-nascent video channel. It was also successful enough to lead to the release of Olivia Physical, an early-’80s take on what would become the “visual album,” which included videos for each song on Physical as well as clips from Xanadu and Grease.

As it turned out, Newton-John’s voice was pretty well suited to the spiky dance pop that would become popular in the early 1980s. “Heart Attack,” a greatest-hits-album add-on with a skronky sax solo to counteract its slapped-down bass, allowed her to narrow her voice into a yelp, while “Twist of Fate,” from Two of a Kind, her 1983 onscreen reunion with Travolta, let her twist it into a desperation-filled yowl. The latter song would be her final appearance in the “Hot 100” top ten, peaking at No. 5, though by that time her musical legacy — which would be further bolstered over the years by Grease megamixes, samples by the likes of Doja Cat, covers by devoted followers such as Juliana Hatfield, and early-MTV retrospectives — had been pretty well solidified.

“I have to confess that ‘Magic’ remains one of my all-time favorite songs, and I love how the words apply to my life,” Newton-John wrote in 2018. The Farrar-penned Xanadu cut is one of her best, its drowsy guitars playing off her steely-eyed vocal in a way that makes its hopeful lyrics feel in reach. “If all your hopes survive / Destiny will arrive,” Newton-John wails, her voice holding the long i’s of each line’s final word with enough resolve to turn that phrase into her own pop prophecy.

Olivia Newton-John Was Magic