NEW YORK, NY.-
Olivia Newton-John, who sang some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and 80s while recasting her image as the virginal girl next door into a spandex-clad vixen a transformation reflected in miniature by her starring role in Grease, one of the most popular movie musicals of its era died Monday at her ranch in Southern California. She was 73.
The death was announced by her husband, John Easterling.
Newton-John amassed No. 1 hits, chart-topping albums and four records that sold more than 2 million copies each. More than anything else, she was likable, even beloved.
In the earlier phase of her career, this English-Australian singer beguiled listeners with a high, supple, vibrato-warmed voice that paired amiably with the kind of swooning middle-of-the-road pop that, in the mid-1970s, often passed for country music.
Her performance on the charts made that blurring clear. She scored seven Top 10 hits on Billboards Country chart, two of which became back-to-back overall No. 1 hits in 1974 and 75. First came I Honestly Love You, an earnest declaration 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 her biggest albums, John Farrar.
I Honestly Love You also won two of the singers four Grammys: for record of the year and best female pop vocal performance.
The combination of Newton-Johns consistently benign music she was never a favorite of critics and comely but squeaky-clean image caused many writers to compare her to earlier blond ingénues like Doris Day and Sandra Dee. Innocent, Im not, Newton-John told Rolling Stone in 1978. People still seem to see me as the girl next door. Doris Day had four husbands, she said, yet she was still viewed as the virgin.
An entry into movies in 1978 aimed to put the singers chaste image behind her, starting with Grease. Her character, Sandy, transformed from a pigtailed square smitten with John Travoltas bad-boy Danny to a gum-smacking bad girl. Grease became one of the highest grossing movie musicals ever, besting even The Sound of Music. Its soundtrack was the second best-selling album of the year, beaten only by the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, which also starred Travolta.
The Grease soundtrack spawned two No. 1 hits, both sung by the co-stars, including the manically lusty Youre the One That I Want and the doo-wop romp Summer Nights. A ballad Newton-John sang alone, Hopelessly Devoted to You, earned the films lone Oscar nomination, for best song.
Applying the evolution of her Grease character to her singing career, Newton-John titled her next album Totally Hot, and presented herself on the cover in shoulder-to-toe leather. The album, released at the end of 1978, went platinum, yielding the rock-oriented A Little More Love with the line, Where did my innocence go?
The album featured Newton-John singing in a somewhat more forceful voice. Though her sales dipped as the 1970s turned into the 80s, by early in the decade she began the most commercially potent period in her career, peaking with the single Physical, which spent 10 weeks on Billboards top perch. Later, the magazine declared it to be the biggest song of the 1980s.
Olivia Newton-John was born on Sept. 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England, the youngest of three children of Brinley and Irene (Born) Newton-John. Her mother was the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. Her Welsh-born father had been an MI5 intelligence officer during World War II and afterward served as headmaster at Cambridgeshire High School for Boys.
When Olivia Newton-John was 6, her family immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where her father worked as a college professor and administrator. At 14, she formed her first group, Sol Four, with three girls from school. Her beauty and confidence soon earned her solo performances on local radio and TV shows under the name Lovely Livvy. On The Go!! Show she met singer Pat Carroll, with whom she would form a duet, as well as her eventual producer, Farrar, who later married Carroll.
Newton-John won a local TV talent contest whose prize was a trip to Britain. While tarrying there, she recorded her first single, Til You Say Youll Be Mine, which Decca Records released in 1966.
After Carroll moved to London, she and Newton-John formed the duet Pat and Olivia, which toured Europe. When Carrolls visa expired, forcing her to go back to Australia, Newton-John stayed in London to work solo.
In 1970, she was asked to join a crudely manufactured group named Toomorrow, formed by American producer Don Kirshner in an attempt to repeat his earlier success with the Monkees. Following his grand design, the group starred in a science-fiction film written for them, and recorded its soundtrack. Both projects tanked.
It was terrible and I was terrible in it, she later told The New York Times.
Her debut solo album, If Not for You, was released in 1971, its title track a cover of a Bob Dylan song.
After some duds in the United States, the singer 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 Newton-Johns career that decade: the rise of soft rock in reaction to the harder genres of the late 60s, and the mainstreaming some would say the neutering of country music, also epitomized by stars like John Denver and Anne Murray.
The latter trend became an issue in 1974, after Newton-John was chosen female vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association over more traditional stars like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Protests led to the formation of the fleeting Association of Country Entertainers. Yet, after Newton-John recorded her Dont Stop Believin, album in Nashville in 1976, the friction eased.
The second phase of her career, which began with Grease, found further success through a duet with Andy Gibb, I Cant Help It, followed by an attempt to expand her acting career with the 1980 musical film Xanadu, with Gene Kelly. While the movie floundered, its soundtrack went double-platinum and boasted hits like Magic, (which commanded Billboards No. 1 spot for four weeks), and the title song, recorded with the Electric Light Orchestra.
A campy Broadway show based on the film opened in 2007 to some success.
Newton-Johns smash Physical also yielded the first video album to hit the market, which featured clips for all the albums tracks. Olivia Physical won the Grammy in 1982 for video of the year.
She was paired again with Travolta in the 1983 movie Two of a Kind in an attempt to repeat the success of Grease, but the film disappointed even as its soundtrack proved popular, especially the song Twist of Fate.
Newton-John was named an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1979.
By the mid-80s, her career had cooled. For several years, she cut back on work to care for her daughter, Chloe Rose, by her husband, actor Matt Lattanzi, whom she had met on the set of Xanadu and married in 1984. They divorced in 1995. In 2008 she married John Easterling, founder of the Amazon Herb Co.
In addition to Easterling, she is survived by her daughter, Chloe Rose Lattanzi; her sister, Sarah Newton-John; and her brother, Toby.
In 1992, Olivia Newton-John learned she had breast cancer and advocated for research into the disease. She continued to release albums and tour but failed to make headway on the charts. She also acted in movies and television.
In May 2017, Newton-John disclosed that her cancer had returned and had metastasized to her lower back. She published a memoir, Dont Stop Believin, in 2018.
Newton-John firmly believed in her audience-friendly approach to music. It annoys me when people think because its commercial, its bad, she told Rolling Stone. Its completely opposite. If people like it, thats what its supposed to be.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times