Newton-John skillfully made the transition from popular country-pop
singer to popular mainstream soft-rock singer, becoming one of
the most successful vocalists of the '70s in the process. The
transition itself wasn't much of a stretch — her early '70s hits
"I Honestly Love You" and "Have You Never Been Mellow" were country
only in the loosest sense — yet the extent of her success in both
fields was remarkable. As a country singer, her first five charting
singles all went Top Ten in the U.S.; as a pop singer, she had
no lest than 15 Top Ten hits, including five number one singles,
highlighted by "Physical," which spent ten weeks at number one
in 1981-1982. Newton-John's sweet voice suited both country-pop
and soft-rock perfectly, which is what kept her at the top of
the charts until the mid-'80s. After 1984, she was no longer able
to reach the Top 40, partially because of shifting musical tastes
and partially because she was unable to successfully record sexy
dance-pop, no matter how hard she tried. Nevertheless, her '70s
and '80s hits remained soft-rock and adult contemporary staples
into the '90s, when she was no longer recording frequently.
Although she was born in Cambridge, England, Olivia Newton-John
was raised in Melbourne Australia, where her father was the headmaster
of Ormond College (her grandfather, Max Born, won the Nobel Prize
for physics). She tenatively entered show business at the age
of 12, when she won a local Haley Mills-lookalike contest. A few
years later, she formed an all-female vocal group called the Sol
Four with three school friends. Once the Sol Four disbanded, Newton-John
entered a television talent contest, winning the grand prize of
a trip to London, England. Once in London, she formed a duo with
Pat Carroll, another Australian-based vocalist, and tried to work
her way into the music industry. Though her partenership with
Carrol was short-lived — Pat was sent back to Australia once her
visa expired — Olivia was making inroads in the business. Following
Carrol's departure, Newton-John recorded and released her first
single, a version of Jackie DeShannon's "Till You Say You'll Be
Mine." Shortly afterward, she became a member of Toomorrow, a
bubblegum group assembled by Don Kirshner in hopes of creating
a British version of the Monkees.
Toomorrow appeared in a science-fiction movie of the same name
and had one minor British hit single, "I Could Never Live Without
Your Love," in early 1970 before the group quietly disbanded.
Following the failure of Toomorrow, Newton-John became part of
Cliff Richard's touring show, appearing both as an opening act
at his concerts and on his British television series, It's Cliff!.
The exposure as a singer and comedienne on the show helped Olivia's
career immersurably, and her first single for Uni Records, a version
of Bob Dylan's "If Not For You" became a Top Ten hit in the U.K.
in the spring of 1971; in America, it was surprisingly successful,
spending three weeks at the top of the Adult Contemporary charts
and peaking at number 25 on the pop charts. For the next two years,
Newton-John's success was primarily contained in Britain, where
she had a string of lesser hits with covers of George Harrison's
"What Is Life" and John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads."
In America, her career was stalled — her follow-up single, "Banks
of the Ohio," barely scraped the lower reaches of the Top 100.
On the other hand, she didn't release a full-length album in the
U.S. until 1973, when Let Me Be There appeared. The title track
from the record became a huge hit, going gold in early 1974 and
peaking in the Top Ten country and pop charts. "Let Me Be There"
was so successful it won the Grammy award for Best Country Vocal
Performance, Female, much to the consternation of many members
of Nashville's music industry.
"Let Me Be There" was followed by four other Top Ten hits — "If
You Love Me (Let Me Know)" (number two country, number five pop,
1974), "I Honestly Love You" (number six country, number one pop,
1974), "Have You Never Been Mellow" (number three country, number
one pop, 1975), and "Please Mr. Please" (number five country,
number three pop, 1975). Newton-John moved to Los Angeles late
in 1974, and early the following year, she won the Female Vocalist
of the Year award from the Country Music Association. As a protest,
several members of the CMA quit the organization. Ironically,
Olivia Newton-John was already planning to move away from country.
During 1976 and 1977, she had a number of minor hits with soft-rock
songs. Though none of these were big pop successes, they began
to establish her as a pop singer, not a country-pop singer.
Olivia Newton-John's transformation into a mildly sexy pop singer
was complete in 1978, when she starred in the movie version of
the popular Broadway musical Grease. Also starring John Travolta,
Grease was an international hit and it spawned three huge hit
singles — "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "Summer Nights" and "You're
the One That I Want; " the latter two were duets between Newton-John
and Travolta. "You're The One That I Want," in particular, was
a massive success, reaching number one in both America and Britain;
in the U.K., it spent a staggering nine weeks at number one. During
1979, Olivia released the Totally Hot album, which boasted a mixture
of soft rock and light disco. The record was another hit, with
the first single "A Little More Love" peaking at number three
on the US pop charts and going gold. Early in 1980, Newton-John
starred in the roller-disco fantasy film Xanadu. While the movie
was an unqualified bomb, the soundtrack was a huge hit. "Magic"
spent four weeks at the top of the U.S. pop charts, while the
ELO duet "Xanadu" reached number eight and her duet with Cliff
Richard, "Suddenly," peaked at number 20.
With her next album, Physical, Newton-John continued to rework
her image, re-inventing herself as a sexy aerobics fanatic. The
first single from the record, the suggestive "Physical," was a
huge hit, spending ten weeks at number one during the fall and
winter of 1981-1982. Physical spawned another Top Ten hit — "Make
a Move on Me" — and became her most successful record. Following
the album's success, she was awarded with an Order of the British
Empire. In 1983, Newton-John again starred with Travolta, this
time in the comedy Two of a Kind. The movie was a bomb, but a
song she recorded for the soundtrack, "Twist of Fate," became
a Top Ten hit in early 1984.
By the end of 1984, Newton-John had married actor Matt Lattanzi.
The following year, she released the Physical clone Soul Kiss,
which produced only one minor hit with its title track. In 1986,
she had a daughter named Chloe and opened a clothing store chain
called Koala Blue. Newton-John attempted to launch a comeback
in 1988 with The Rumour, but the album was ignored. She signed
with Geffen the following year, releasing the children's album
Warm and Tender. During the late '80s and '90s, she devoted herself
to her family and business, as well as several environmental activist
organizations. In 1992, Koala Blue folded and Newton-John was
diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next year, she successfully
underwent treatment for the disease. In 1994, she returned to
recording with the indepently released and self-produced album
Gaia. Back With a Heart, a return to Nashville, followed in 1998.
One Woman's Live Journey was issued two years later. — Stephen