Olivia, we honestly love you.
Sandy, the good girl of Rydell High. Kira, the Olympian muse who inspires the roller disco paradise, Xanadu. Livvy, the girl singer who dreams of the big time but must first take to the cosmos. Olivia Newton-John was all of these and more. The singer who sweetly asked "Have You Never Been Mellow" and implored us to get "Physical" in the 1980s' longest-charting Number One was a dedicated activist for environmental and animal rights, and a courageous advocate for cancer care. Her passing at the age of 73 is a loss keenly felt by fans around the world - and maybe even beyond.
Born in England but raised from the age of six in Australia, Olivia had her foot in the door of showbiz from her teenaged years. With her bright smile and brighter outlook, she was in a girl group at 14, and not long after clinched the top prize on a talent content with her renditions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's "Everything's Coming Up Roses." Everything was coming up roses for Newton-John who formed a nightclub duo with friend Pat Carroll (not the late American comedienne-actress) and was eyed by New York impresario Don Kirshner to headline his custom-built rock group Toomorrow.
Kirshner had big plans for Toomorrow. His previous charges, The Monkees, had successfully battled him for creative control in what TV Guide called "The Great Revolt of '67." He bounced back with The Archies, a group that couldn't possibly challenge him-because its members were cartoon characters. The Archies' recording of Jeff Barry and Andy Kim's "Sugar, Sugar," primarily sung by Ron Dante and Toni Wine, was Billboard's Year-End No. 1 of 1969. Kirshner envisioned similar success for Toomorrow. He wasn't taking any chances with the flesh-and-blood performers, signing them to five-year contracts with yearly retainers. Kirshner asserted at one press conference that The Beatles "had become big business, leaving behind their image as exciting, real people." Toomorrow could be "the biggest thing in the history of the business."
While Toomorrow, the band and the 1970 sci-fi musical film of the same name, didn't endure, Kirshner's eye for talent didn't let him down. Olivia did become one of the biggest names in the history of the business. (Second Disc Records felt privileged to reissue the long-lost soundtrack album to Toomorrow, in which Livvy's star shines brightly, on vinyl in 2021.) Closely aligned with producer-songwriter John Farrar, it wasn't long before she took the world by storm, enjoying a number of successes in the U.S. on the Pop, Country, and AC charts including "If Not for You" (1971, No. 1 AC), "Let Me Be There" (1973, No. 6 Pop/No. 7 Country/No. 3 AC), "I Honestly Love You" (1974, No. 1 Pop/No. 6 Country/No. 1 AC), "Have You Never Been Mellow" (1975, No. 1 Pop/No. 3 Country/No. 1 AC), and "Please Mr. Please" (1975, No. 3 Pop/No. 1 AC/No. 5 Country). Unbelievably, the best was still to come.
The 1978 Paramount picture Grease, based on Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's stage musical but augmented with new songs by Farrar and others, captivated audiences with its love story between tough Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and sweet Sandy Olsson (Olivia). Grease became the highest-grossing musical film at that point in time, while its soundtrack ended the year as the second best-selling album of the year, only behind the juggernaut that was Saturday Night Fever. The Grease phenomenon continues today, in no small part due to Newton-John's magnetic and touching performance.
When Newton-John's character of Sandy transformed at the finale of the movie from virginal innocent to leather-clad greaser, the confident and versatile artist took the opportunity to similarly revamp her already-successful music career. The sultry cover of Totally Hot, released just a few months after Grease, featured her emulating Sandy's climactic leather look. The lead single "A Little More Love" (composed, like "You're the One That I Want," "Hopefully Devoted to You," and many ONJ hits before it, by John Farrar) rewarded her with a fourth consecutive top five U.S. Pop smash. She returned to the big screen with the future cult classic Xanadu in 1980. Like Grease, it spun off three major hits ("Magic," "Xanadu," and the irresistible Cliff Richard duet "Suddenly"). Farrar's spellbinding "Magic" spent four weeks atop the Hot 100 and five atop the AC chart, becoming her biggest ever AC hit. The pump was primed for one of the biggest triumphs in a career filled with them.
Physical, recorded between October 1980 and June 1981, completed Olivia's transition from young ingenue to adult superstar. Upon its release in October 1981, it went top ten in eight countries around the world including the United States. It spun off three hit singles including the title track, one of just four tracks not written or co-written by producer Farrar. Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick's "Physical" was an immediate hit with over two million copies shipped to the U.S. alone and a chart stay of ten weeks atop the Hot 100 - the longest run of any song in the 1980s.
Those accomplishments would been enough for many artists, but Olivia never stopped sharing her musical gifts with her fans. Of her 26 studio albums, many shared uplifting and inspirational messages including Gaia: One Woman's Journey (her first album since her initial breast cancer diagnosis in 1992), Stronger Than Before, and Grace and Gratitude. The four-time Grammy Award winner shared warmth at the holidays with 2012's This Christmas, reuniting her with old friend John Travolta, and 2016's Friends for Christmas, with British-born Australian vocalist John Farnham.
While battling cancer diagnoses in the public eye, she kept a high profile to shed light on the disease and support those fighting it. She built and lent her name to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne and advocated for the use of medical cannabis. She never forgot her fans, making appearances at Grease-related events, recreating "Physical" with a comic flair on television's Glee, and making countless talk show appearances to share her story and inspire others.
Olivia Newton-John will be missed, but her legacy remains one of empowerment and dedication. We remain hopelessly devoted to you.