Dame Olivia Newton-John AC DBE (born 26 September 1948) is an English–Australian singer, songwriter, actress, dancer, entrepreneur and activist. She is a four-time Grammy Award winner who has amassed five number-one and ten other top-ten Billboard Hot 100 singles, and two number-one Billboard 200 albums. Eleven of her singles (including two Platinum) and 14 of her albums (including two Platinum and four 2× Platinum) have been certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). She has sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide, making her one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time. She starred in the 1978 musical film Grease and its soundtrack is one of the most successful in history, with the single “You’re the One That I Want”, with co-star John Travolta, one of the best-selling singles of all time.
At 14, Newton-John formed a short-lived all-girl group, Sol Four, with three classmates often performing in a coffee shop owned by her brother-in-law. She became a regular on local Australian radio and television shows including HSV-7’s The Happy Show where she performed as “Lovely Livvy”. She also appeared on The Go!! Show where she met future duet partner, singer Pat Carroll, and future music producer, John Farrar (Carroll and Farrar would later marry). She entered and won a talent contest on the television program Sing, Sing, Sing, hosted by 1960s Australian icon Johnny O’Keefe, performing the songs “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”. She was initially reluctant to use the prize she had won, a trip to Great Britain, but travelled there nearly a year later after her mother encouraged her to broaden her horizons.
Newton-John’s outlook changed when Pat Carroll moved to the UK. The two formed a duo called “Pat and Olivia” and toured nightclubs in Europe. (In one incident, they were booked at Paul Raymond’s Revue in Soho, London. Dressed primly in frilly, high-collared dresses, they were unaware that this was a strip club until they began to perform onstage.) After Carroll’s visa expired, forcing her to return to Australia, Newton-John remained in Britain to pursue solo work until 1975.
Newton-John released her first solo album, If Not for You (US No. 158 Pop), in 1971. (In the UK, the album was known as Olivia Newton-John.) The title track, written by Bob Dylan and previously recorded by former Beatle George Harrison for his 1970 album All Things Must Pass, was her first international hit (US No. 25 Pop, No. 1 Adult Contemporary/”AC”). Her follow-up single, “Banks of the Ohio”, was a top 10 hit in the UK and Australia. She was voted Best British Female Vocalist two years in a row by the magazine Record Mirror. She made frequent appearances on Cliff Richard’s weekly show, It’s Cliff Richard, and starred with him in the telefilm The Case.
In 1972, Newton-John’s second UK album, Olivia, was released but never formally issued in the United States, where her career floundered after If Not for You. Subsequent singles including “Banks of the Ohio” (No. 94 Pop, No. 34 AC) and remakes of George Harrison’s “What Is Life” (No. 34 AC) and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (No. 119 Pop) made minimal impact on the Hot 100. However, her fortune changed with the release of “Let Me Be There” in 1973. The song reached the American top 10 on the Pop (No. 6), Country (No. 7), and AC (No. 3) charts and earned her a Grammy for Best Country Female and an Academy of Country Music award for Most Promising Female Vocalist.
Her second American album, named Let Me Be There after the hit single, was actually her third in Britain, where the LP was known as Music Makes My Day. The record was also called Let Me Be There in Australia; however, the US and Canadian versions featured an alternate track list that mixed new cuts with selections from Olivia and also recycled six songs from If Not for You, which was going out of print.
In 1974, Newton-John represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Long Live Love”. The song was chosen for Newton-John by the British public out of six possible entries. (Newton-John later admitted that she disliked the song.) Newton-John finished fourth at the contest held in Brighton behind ABBA’s winning Swedish entry, “Waterloo”. All six Eurovision contest song candidates—”Have Love, Will Travel”, “Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy”, “Long Live Love”, “Someday”, “Angel Eyes” and “Hands Across the Sea”—were recorded by Newton-John and included on her Long Live Love album, her first for the EMI Records label.
The Long Live Love album was released in the US and Canada as If You Love Me, Let Me Know. All the Eurovision entries were dropped for different and more country-flavoured tunes intended to capitalise on the success of “Let Me Be There”; the North American outing not only used selections from Long Live Love but also Olivia and Music Makes My Day, and only the titular cut was new. If You Love Me, Let Me Know’s title track was in fact its first single and reached No. 5 Pop, No. 2 Country (her best country position to date) and No. 2 AC. The next single, “I Honestly Love You”, became Newton-John’s signature song. Written and composed by Jeff Barry and Peter Allen, the ballad became her first Pop number-one (staying there for two weeks), second AC number-one (for three weeks) and third top 10 Country (No. 6) hit and earned Newton-John two more Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female. The success of both singles helped the album reach No. 1 on both the Pop (one week) and Country (eight weeks) albums charts.
In America, Newton-John’s country success sparked a debate among purists, who took issue with a foreigner singing country-flavoured pop music being equated with native Nashville artists. In addition to her Grammy for “Let Me Be There”, Newton-John was also named the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974, defeating more established Nashville-based nominees Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker, as well as Canadian artist Anne Murray.
This protest, in part, led to the formation of the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers (ACE). Newton-John was eventually supported by the country music community. Stella Parton, Dolly’s sister, recorded Ode to Olivia and Newton-John recorded her 1976 album, Don’t Stop Believin’, in Nashville.
Encouraged by expatriate Australian singer Helen Reddy, Newton-John left the UK and moved to the US. Newton-John topped the Pop (one week) and Country (six weeks) albums charts with her next album, Have You Never Been Mellow. The album generated two singles – the John Farrar-penned title track (No. 1 Pop, No. 3 Country, No. 1 AC) and “Please Mr. Please” (No. 3 Pop, No. 5 Country, No. 1 AC). However, her pop career cooled with the release of her next album, Clearly Love. Her streak of five consecutive gold top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 ended when the album’s first single, “Something Better to Do”, stopped at No. 13 (also No. 19 Country and No. 1 AC). Although her albums still achieved gold status, she did not return to the top 10 on the Hot 100 or Billboard 200 charts again until 1978.
Newton-John was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1979 New Year Honours and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2020 New Year Honours for services to charity, cancer research and entertainment.
Newton-John’s career soared after she starred in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Grease in 1978. She was offered the lead role of Sandy after meeting producer Allan Carr at a dinner party at Helen Reddy’s home. The film accommodated Newton-John’s Australian accent by recasting her character from the play’s original American Sandy Dumbrowski to Sandy Olsson, an Australian who holidays and then moves with her family to the US.
Grease became the biggest box-office hit of 1978. The soundtrack album spent 12 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 and yielded three Top 5 singles for Newton-John: the platinum “You’re the One That I Want” (No. 1 Pop, No. 23 AC) with John Travolta, the gold “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (No. 3 Pop, No. 20 Country, No. 7 AC) and the gold “Summer Nights” (No. 5 Pop, No. 21 AC) with John Travolta and the film’s cast. “Summer Nights” was from the original play written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, but the former two songs were written and composed by her long-time music producer, John Farrar, specifically for the film.
Newton-John’s performance earned her a People’s Choice Award for Favourite Film Actress. She was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Musical and performed the Oscar-nominated “Hopelessly Devoted to You” at the 1979 Academy Awards.
The film’s popularity has endured through the years. It was re-released for its 20th anniversary in 1998 and ranked as the second highest-grossing film behind Titanic in its opening weekend. It was most recently re-released in July 2010 as a sing-along version in select American theatres. The soundtrack is one of the top ten best-selling soundtracks of all time.
Newton-John contends: “I think the songs are timeless. They’re fun and have great energy. The ’50s-feel music has always been popular, and it’s nostalgic for my generation, and then the young kids are rediscovering it every 10 years or so, it seems. People buying the album was a way for them to remember those feelings of watching the movie and feelings of that time period. I feel very grateful to be a part of this movie that’s still loved so much.”
Newton-John began 1980 by releasing “I Can’t Help It” a duet with Andy Gibb from his After Dark album. Later that year, she appeared in her first film since Grease, starring in the musical Xanadu with Gene Kelly and Michael Beck. Although the film was a critical failure, its soundtrack (No. 4 Pop) was certified double platinum and scored five top 20 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Newton-John charted with “Magic” (No. 1 Pop, No. 1 AC), “Suddenly” with Cliff Richard (No. 20 Pop, No. 4 AC) and the title song Xanadu with the Electric Light Orchestra (No. 8 Pop, No. 2 AC). (ELO also charted with “I’m Alive” (No. 16 Pop, No. 48 AC) and “All Over the World” (No. 13 Pop, No. 46 AC).
“Magic” was Newton-John’s biggest Pop hit to that point (four weeks at No. 1) and still ranks as the biggest AC hit of her career (five weeks at No. 1). The film has since become a cult classic and the basis for a Broadway show that ran for more than 500 performances beginning in 2007 and was nominated for four Tony Awards including Best Musical. (A successful international tour of the show followed.)
In 1981, Newton-John released her most successful studio album, the double platinum Physical, which strongly reinforced her image change by showcasing risqué, rock-oriented material. Newton-John explains: “I just wasn’t in the mood for tender ballads. I wanted peppy stuff because that’s how I’m feeling.” Of the titular cut, Newton-John says: “Roger Davies was my manager at the time; he played it for me and I knew it was a very catchy song.” In fact, the title track, written by Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, spent ten weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, matching the record at that time for most weeks spent at No. 1 in the rock era held by Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”. The single was certified platinum and it ultimately ranked as the biggest song of the decade. (In 2008, Billboard ranked the song No. 6 among all songs that charted in the 50-year history of the Hot 100.)
The provocative lyrics of the “Physical” title track prompted two Utah radio stations to ban the single from their playlists. (In 2010, Billboard magazine ranked this as the most popular single ever about sex.) To counter its overtly suggestive tone, Newton-John filmed an exercise-themed video that turned the song into an aerobics anthem and made headbands a fashion accessory outside the gym.
The success of Physical led to an international tour and the release of her second hits collection, the double platinum Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (No. 16 Pop), which yielded two more top 40 singles: “Heart Attack” and “Tied Up”. The tour was filmed for her Olivia in Concert television special, which premiered on HBO in January 1983. The special was subsequently released to video, earning Newton-John another Grammy nomination.
Newton-John, a Carlton Football Club fan, performed the Australian national anthem at the 1986 VFL Grand Final between Carlton and Hawthorn.
Olivia Newton-John songs you’ll hear on Coast FM:
Long Live Love, Magic. Let Me Be There, Make a Move on Me, Don’t Stop Believing, Hopelessly Devoted to You, Little More Love, Please Mr Please, If Not For You, Have You Ever Been Mellow, Physical, I Honestly Love You, If You Love Me Let Me Know, Xanadu, You’re the One That I Want and Summer Nights.