R.I.P. Olivia Newton-John

This post actually dates to over 3.5 years ago, when some over-hasty vulture jumped the gun and announced that Olivia Newton-John (1948-1922) was dying of cancer…in response to which she (or her people) rapidly posted a retractive tweet about being in remission, a “never felt better” kind of thing. At the time, I was in the midst of a series of posts inspired by my brother-in-law’s accidental archive of hundreds of TV Guides, one of which you see pictured above. I’m not sure I’d have done a post on the singer otherwise at the time, but the news of someone’s passing is obviously orders of magnitude a more suitable moment to memorialize them than some random birthday, and so I put the post in storage for the inevitable sad day, because her cancer had reached stage IV, and she had first been diagnosed with it 30 years ago.

Newton-John’s period of success in the U.S. lasted over a decade, from 1971 through 1985. From my vantage point, that stretch lasted from the first grade to a couple of years after high school, essentially my whole waking life through young adulthood. One associates her with several different pop phenomena of the times. She was part of a sort of Australian mini-Invasion that included Helen Reddy and the Bee Gees. She also seemed to be a part of what might be called the “wholesome pop” movement along with artists like The Carpenters and The Osmonds. She very definitely was also a prominent player in the country and country-rock or country-pop wave of the mid 70s, along with Linda Ronstadt, John Denver, Glen Campbell, Mac Davis, Crystal Gayle, etc. The success of Grease (1978) made her a part of 50s nostalgia phenomenon spawned by American Graffiti and Happy Days. Her participation in Xanadu (1980) along with Electric Light Orchestra, Gene Kelly, Cliff Richard etc, thanks to its timing, will always be coupled in my mind with Queen’s in Flash Gordon, which came out the same year. And her smash hit “Physical” (1981) become an inadvertent theme song for the fitness craze led by the likes of Jane Fonda. (I always associate the 1983 movie Flashdance and its iconic imagery of Jennifer Beals in a sweatshirt with this aspect of the spandex-sporting era.) Whether it was by way of her own instincts, or savvy management, or a public that projected its own constantly shifting obsessions upon her, Olivia Newton-John managed to stay in the spotlight for a good long time.

She’d been a pop star in her native country since her teenage years, long before her first American hit single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You” which had first been recorded by George Harrison. This was in 1971, and I’m certain that my introduction to the song came by way of her version, though I later came to know those of the other two better. Her next two hits, each possessing eminently singable choruses, were penned by a guy named John Rostill. “Let Me Be There” (1973), was no doubt pushed over the top in popularity by Mike Sammes gimmicky bass singing in the backup (his group also performed on my favorite Disney Christmas record). This was followed by the virtually identical sounding “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” (1974). The latter was followed the same year by the #1 ballad “I Honestly Love You”, which began to elevate her to an Elvis level of popularity, though can’t help but associate it with other monster confections of the time like Morris Albert’s “Feelings”, which came out the same year, and Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” (1977). “Have You Never Been Mellow” (1975) also went to #1, though its prominent employment of a ’70s buzzword afterward consigned it to a later life of ridicule. (No! No, my good woman, I am not and have never been, nor have ever aspired to be…”mellow”). “Please Mr. Please” (1975), co-written by Rostill, was another singable juke-box number. During that high point of the mid ’70s, Newton-John was a constant television presence, not only her own TV specials per above, but also in appearances on the shows of Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Mac Davis, Donny and Marie, Neil Diamond, The Midnight Special, etc,

She continued to have minor hits for the next couple of years before rebounding in a huge way with the Grease film, soundtrack, and singles in 1978. Xanadu (1980) was not the smash phenom that Grease was, but it did spawn a couple of hit singles. In the post-Grease, MTV era she reinvented herself with a sexier, more techno-pop sound, which sustained her through the mid ’80s. Her last American top 20 hit was “Soul Kiss” (1985). But naturally she never stopped after that, she was prolific in the recording studio, had big hits in other countries and was naturally always in demand in live performances. Her last live show was two years ago.

Working on this post has made me aware of several interesting factoids about Olivia Newton-John I never knew while she was alive: 1) Her father was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Max Born, who fled to England because of the Nazis; 2) she was half Jewish (her mom was Born’s daughter); 3) she was born in England, thus unlike the Bee Gees, who were Australian-English, she was English-Australian; 4) her dad worked on the Enigma project for MI5 during World War 2; and 5) her sister was married to Jeff Conaway of Taxi.

At any rate, Olivia Newton-John, having left the realm of the “Physical”, has now joined the ranks of the incorporeal, and as such, will live on in the hearts and memories of millions (including this former tween admirer) for a good long while to come.