Olivia Newton-John, beloved actress and singer best known for her role as Sandy Olsson in Grease and for a long string of hits topped by 1981’s “Physical,” died on Monday (Aug. 8). She was 73.
Her official Facebook page confirmed the news, noting: “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.”
Newton-John was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s and 1980s. She was also a notably nimble artist – moving from early country music hits like “Let Me Be There” to mainstream pop hits like “Have You Never Been Mellow” to sexier, edgier fare like “Make a Move on Me.”
She was also one of the first artists to have significant success in video. She won a Grammy for music video of the year for her 1982 collection “Olivia Physical.” She was only the second artist to win a Grammy for video, following Michael Nesmith for “Michael Nesmith in Elephant Parts.”
Newton-John amassed five No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Physical,” which was only the second song in Hot 100 history (following Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”) to log 10 weeks at No. 1.
She had back-to-back No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200: If You Love Me, Let Me Know (1974) and Have You Never Been Mellow (1975). She also starred with John Travolta in the blockbuster Grease, which was the top-grossing film of 1978. The film soundtrack spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard 200 and wound up with a Grammy nomination for album of the year.
Newton-John was born Sept. 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England, but was raised in Melbourne, Australia. At age 16, she won a talent contest trip to England. She sang with Pat Carroll as Pat & Olivia. She also sang with the group Toomorrow in a British movie of the same name.
Newton-John landed her first hit in 1971 with a wistful cover version of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You.” The song reached No. 25 on the Hot 100 in September 1971. But her immediate follow-ups fell short. She made her first sustained impression on the charts starting in 1973 as a pop-country singer. She had seven top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, climbing as high as No. 2 on that chart with the jaunty “If You Love Me (Let Me Know).”
She won several major awards for country — a Grammy for best country vocal performance, female for “Let Me Be There,” an ACM Award for most promising female vocalist of 1973 and a CMA Award for female vocalist of the year for 1974. (She also received CMA nominations that year for entertainer of the year, album of the year and single of the year.) But there were detractors too who felt that she and John Denver were pop artists who were invading their space.
In 1974, her elegant (critics invariably said “melodramatic”) recording of “I Honestly Love You” became her first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100. It went on to win Grammys for record of the year and best pop vocal performance, female. Newton-John was the first female vocalist to win Grammys for both country and pop. Three other women — Anne Murray, Linda Ronstadt and k.d. lang — have since followed her lead.
Newton-John’s follow-up single, “Have You Never Been Mellow,” also topped the Hot 100. It was written, as were many of her hits, by John Farrar, an underrated songwriter who perfectly understood Newton-John’s voice and appeal. He singlehandedly wrote five of Newton-John’s 15 top 10 hits: “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “A Little More Love” and “Magic.” He also teamed with Tom Snow to write a sixth, “Make a Move on Me.”
In addition to her four Grammy Awards, Newton-John set records at the American Music Awards. She was the first woman to win favorite female pop vocalist four times. That stood as the record until Whitney Houston tied it in 1993. Taylor Swift made it a three-way tie when she won her fourth award in the category in 2019. Swift has since won twice more to set a new record.
Few remember now, but Newton-John’s pop recording career had cooled just a bit in 1976 and 1977. Grease, released in 1978, took her to a new level of stardom. The album gave her three top five hits, “You’re the One That I Want,” an exhilarating collab with Travolta that reached No. 1; “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” a sublime solo ballad that climbed to No. 3; and “Summer Nights,” another collab with Travolta (joined this time by the Grease cast), which reached No. 5.
“Hopelessly Devoted to You” received an Oscar nomination for best original song. In April 1979, Newton-John performed the song on the Oscar telecast.
In 1980, she starred in another film, Xanadu, which was not a box-office hit, though it spawned a hit soundtrack album (No. 4 on the Billboard 200) and gave Newton-John two more top 10 hits, “Magic,” a lovely, midtempo ballad that spent four weeks at No. 1, and “Xanadu,” a spirited collab with Electric Light Orchestra that reached No. 8.
Grease probably extended the peak of Newton-John’s career by at least five years. Like her character in Grease, Newton-John shed her sweet, rather bland image and adopted a sexier, more contemporary persona and recorded rhythmic, midtempo tracks that were miles away from “Have You Never Been Mellow.”
The most obvious result was “Physical,” which was rather risqué for its time. The twist ending in the music video, in which two gay guys hold hands, was progressive for its time when it was released in 1981. (The video for Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” more than 30 years later, used a similar “surprise” twist ending.)
Several of Newton-John’s Hot 100 hits were collaborations. In addition to her aforementioned team-ups with Travolta and ELO, she teamed with Andy Gibb for the Barry Gibb-written ballad “I Can’t Help It” (1980), Cliff Richard for “Suddenly” (also from Xanadu) and David Foster for “The Best of Me,” which Foster co-wrote with Jeremy Lubbock and a pre-fame Richard Marx. She also sang an uncredited backing vocal on John Denver’s “Fly Away,” a lovely 1975 ballad from Denver’s Windsong, a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200.
Newton-John also headlined a series of TV specials for ABC, including A Special Olivia Newton-John, Olivia Newton John–Hollywood Nights and Olivia Newton John: Let’s Get Physical. All three received Emmy nominations in technical categories.
Newton-John landed her 15th and final top 10 hit on the Hot 100 in January 1984 with “Twist of Fate,” from the film Two of a Kind, in which she reunited with Travolta. But then, rather suddenly, her run was over. Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Houston and a new generation of female stars took over.
Newton-John’s last three hits on the Hot 100 (or the Hot 100 Airplay chart) were new twists on her old hits. In 1996, she and Travolta scored an airplay hit with “The Grease Megamix.” In 1998, she scored with a new, country-edged version of “I Honestly Love You,” co-produced by Foster and Tony Brown. In 2010, she joined the Glee Cast for a revival of “Physical.”
Newton-John is survived by her husband John Easterling; daughter Chloe Lattanzi; sister Sarah Newton-John; brother Toby Newton-John; nieces and nephews Tottie, Fiona and Brett Goldsmith; Emerson, Charlie, Zac, Jeremy, Randall, and Pierz Newton-John; Jude Newton-Stock, Layla Lee; Kira and Tasha Edelstein; and Brin and Valerie Hall.
Within hours of her death, her old co-star and friend John Travolta posted on Instagram: “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever!” He signed it “Your Danny, your John!”