Olivia Newton-John, the top female pop vocalist of the 1970s who starred in movies including “Grease” and “Xanadu,” died Monday. She was 73.
Her husband posted the news on her official Facebook page, writing:
Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.
Chart historian Joel Whitburn ranked the warm-voiced Australia-bred singer as the No. 1 female soloist of the ‘70s. Her nine top-10 singles of the decade included three chart-topping 45s; the biggest of them, “You’re the One That I Want,” a duet with John Travolta drawn from the smash 1978 soundtrack of the musical “Grease,” spent nearly six months on the U.S. lists.
Newton-John remained a potent commercial force into the ‘80s; she logged the biggest hit of her career, “Physical,” in 1981. Though her other major toplining musical feature “Xanadu” was a costly 1980 flop, its double-platinum soundtrack spawned three hit singles, including the No. 1 radio ubiquity “Magic.”
Originally slotted as a country vocalist, she quickly conquered the pop charts with a succession of well-scrubbed tunes. Though the hits dried up in the early ‘90s, she remained a cherished performer into the new millennium, with a durable fan base sustained by the continuing popularity of “Grease” as a cable TV staple and sing-along theatrical screenings.
She was born September 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England. Her grandfather was the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. When she was six, her family moved to Melbourne.
Active in music from high school, Newton-John went pro in her teens, appearing on Australian TV. She returned to Britain on a plane ticket she won competing on the Aussie talent show “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Though she recorded for British Decca during her stay, she grew homesick and returned to the Antipodes, but moved back to England to perform with her music partner Pat Carroll.
After an ill-fated stint with Toomorrow, producer Don Kirshner’s attempt to formulate a U.K. equivalent of the Monkees, Newton-John’s solo career took off with “If Not For You,” a cover of the countrified Bob Dylan-George Harrison song, and a version of the folk standard “Banks of the Ohio.”
Both singles managed to chart in the U.S. in 1971, but she had to wait two years before making a major impact in the States. Her MCA singles “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” reached the top 10 of both the country and pop charts. The former number garnered a Grammy Award for best female country vocal performance, and Newton-John scored an Academy of Country Music Award as most promising female vocalist.
Her early career peaked in 1974 with the ballad “I Honestly Love You,” which topped the pop chart and peaked at No. 6 country; the song earned Newton-John female vocalist of the year kudos from the Country Music Assn. in 1974. A second pop No. 1, “Have You Never Been Mellow,” arrived in 1975. Though she would tally three more top-five country singles and reliably crossed to the adult contemporary charts, she was firmly entrenched as a pop star in the U.S.
Newton-John’s career sizzled with the mega-hit “Grease.” Though the 29-year-old singer worried she was too old for her role, she turned in a confident performance in the ‘50s-themed musical as virginal high schooler Sandy Olsson, and displayed impressive chemistry opposite Travolta, coming off his “Saturday Night Fever” breakthrough and cast as bad boy Danny Zuko.
The Paramount release was an immediate hit, spawning a hugely successful soundtrack album. The Newton-John/Travolta duet “You’re the One That I Want” was succeeded by two more top-five singles, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights,” also drawn from the picture. The soundtrack LP sat at No. 1 for 10 weeks, and spent a total of 77 weeks on the charts.
Following the double-platinum 1978 album “Totally Hot,” Newton-John returned to the screen for the ill-starred “Xanadu.” The creaky roller disco-themed plot incongruously cast the singer as a Greek muse, opposite 68-year-old Gene Kelly. Greeted with dismal reviews, the picture was an instant flop. Its main beneficiary was Newton-John: the singles “Magic,” “Xanadu” (with the Electric Light Orchestra) and “Suddenly” (with Cliff Richard) pushed the No. 5 soundtrack album to double-platinum status.
Newton-John’s film career never really recovered from “Xanadu.” A re-teaming with Travolta in the 1983 rom-com “Two of a Kind” also stiffed at the box office, and her leading roles were thereafter restricted to TV movies.
Having successfully messed with her squeaky-clean image with her good-girl-gone-naughty turn in “Grease” and her album “Totally Hot,” Newton-John upped the ante with 1981′s single “Physical.” The sexed-up single’s lyrics were softened by a coy video implying that the song was actually about…working out.
The singer recalled in 2017, “I was having a panic attack when it came out because I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve gone too far! We just need to do a video about exercise.’ And that made it even bigger!” The single, her last No. 1, held the top of the chart for 10 weeks, shifting more than 1 million copies.
After the double-platinum “Physical” album of 1981 and the top-five singles “Make a Move On Me” (No. 5, 1982) and “Heart Attack” (No. 3, 1982), Newton-John’s pop career stuttered. She took a protracted hiatus from performing after the 1986 birth of her daughter Chloe (from her marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi, who she divorced in 1995).
She experienced business and personal setbacks in 1992. Koala Blue, a chain of boutique shops she operated with her onetime singing partner Pat Carroll, folded amid bankruptcy. She experienced a serious health scare when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; following a mastectomy, she became a high-profile spokesperson for cancer awareness, and established the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Victoria, Australia.
Following her Nashville return “Back with a Heart” (1998), Newton-John’s albums sold principally Down Under; a late exception was the 2012 Yuletide album “This Christmas,” a pairing with Travolta that reached No. 81 domestically.
She toured successfully with Aussie star John Farnham, and dueted with him at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She continued to act, taking an unusual turn as a gay ex-con country singer in the feature “Sordid Lives” and its cable TV spinoff. After guesting as herself in 2010 on Fox’s hit “Glee,” a remake of “Physical” with the cast reached No. 89, becoming her first pop single to reach the chart in 12 years.
She returned to the road in the U.S. for a well-received 2017 trek.
She is survived by second husband John Easterling and her daughter.