March 2004
By Steven M. Housman

Olivia Newton-John: We Honestly Love Her

Olivia Newton-John has just entered her fourth decade as a world-renowned, first-class singer. Always a favorite on the tour circuit, Olivia kicked off her 2004 tour on February 6 in Reno and will travel the U.S. in upcoming dates TBA.

Olivia returns to the stage, a place where she experienced her first success in a career that has included Grammy’s, Country Music Association Awards, American Music Awards and People’s Choice Awards. As a matter of fact, recently on the 30th anniversary of the People’s Choice Awards, there was a clip shown from the first broadcast in 1975 of Olivia receiving the first of many awards as Favorite Female Vocalist. In addition to her countless awards, she has earned five #1 pop hits, 15 top ten singles (twelve of which have been certified gold and two platinum) and a starring role in Grease, one of the most successful movie musicals in history.

Olivia was born in Cambridge, England on September 26, 1948 and moved to Melbourne, Australia when she was five. When she was fifteen, she had formed an all-girl group with friends called the Sol Four and won a talent contest which earned her a trip to London. By 1963, she was appearing on both a local daytime TV show and a weekly pop music program in Australia. The following year, she headed back to London, and formed a duo with Pat Farrar that toured Europe and played nightclubs and American armed service bases. In 1971, she was signed to Uni Records and cut her first single and album, If Not For You, a cover of the Bob Dylan classic. It was also the first pairing of Olivia and her friend, producer/songwriter John Farrar. Olivia and John have had a long and fruitful friendship and partnership, and still continue to work together to this day. The single made her a star in the US, making it her first Top 40 hit and also a favorite on the Country radio circuit. The single and its success brought her to the attention of MCA Records, where she was immediately signed.

In 1973, MCA released her first album and single for the label, Let Me Be There, which earned Olivia her first Top 10 single. Both album and single were quickly certified gold. The record also got Olivia honored by the Academy of Country Music as Most Promising Female Vocalist and her first Grammy as Best Country Vocalist Female. Her album, If You Love Me (Let Me Know), became her first #1 album and again was certified gold and spawned two hit singles. The first was the title cut, and the second was her first #1 smash, the Peter Allen-penned “I Honestly Love You,” which earned the highest Grammy honor of Record of the Year and another for Best Pop Vocal Performance Female. Olivia was well on her way. Her 1975 album, Have You Never Been Mellow, also went to #1 and yielded two more smash gold hits; the title cut, which again reached #1, and the follow-up single, the #3 hit, “Please Mr. Please.”

By 1976, there was a search on for a popular and beautiful girl to play the part of “Sandy” for the film version of Grease, which was adapted from the hit Broadway musical. Olivia was a natural. In the summer of 1978, Olivia Newton-John starred opposite the new king of Hollywood, John Travolta (fresh off of his Best Actor Oscar Nomination for the mega-hit Saturday Night Fever) and Grease WAS the word. It became the most successful movie musical of all time, and made Olivia an international superstar. She also earned a new title; not just America’s sweetheart, but the world’s as well. If you think Madonna cornered the market for teenage girls in the mid-80’s, Olivia had a head start with every teenage girl wanting to be her, and every boy’s fantasy. Men wanted to marry her and women wanted to be just like her. Not since the days of Doris Day has a woman had such mass appeal. The soundtrack also went through the roof, spending twelve weeks at #1 and earning Olivia three more multi-smash singles; the #1 platinum “You’re The One That I Want,” one of two duets with co-star Travolta, “Summer Nights,” the other duet, and her solo smash, “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” Just six months prior to her film debut, Olivia Newton John’s Greatest Hits was released and was certified platinum and double platinum.

After the immense success of Grease, Olivia’s image took a change. People were clamoring for her at the end of the film when she was dressed head to toe in her skin-tight black top and pants, black stiletto heels and an attitude that met the famous line “Tell me about it, stud.” The finale completely blew away her down-home country good-girl persona. She was exactly what her next album was titled, Totally Hot. The album scored big, became her third consecutive platinum disc, with four hit singles, including the title cut “Deeper Than The Night,” and another gold single, “A Little More Love.” At the close of the 1970’s, the Recording Association of America released their figures: Olivia Newton-John went down in history as the #1 female solo vocalist of the decade, topping such artists as Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand.

In the summer of 1980, Olivia was riding high. Her second film, Xanadu, under the direction of Gene Kelly, was released to mixed reviews. The film has become a cult classic and the album scored big with three hit singles The first, “Magic,” remained at #1 for one month and her follow-ups, the title cut, and the duet “Suddenly,” kept Olivia crowned as the reigning queen of pop music.

1981 was the beginning of the exercise phenomena. Jane Fonda was sporting belted leotards and headbands in her first of several “Workout” videos, and health clubs were popping up faster than corn at the movies. With that, Olivia’s next album, Physical, was released October 20, 1981, simultaneously with the single of the same name. MTV was in its infancy, less than three months old, and the “Physical” video was released. If you were of age at the dawn of video, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to remember the gay-friendly groundbreaking song and video. Not only did the single spend an astonishing ten weeks at #1, it also earned Olivia her third Grammy in the Long Form Video category. The album “Physical” was certified platinum and double platinum, as was the single. It was also the #1 single of the 1980’s, and put Olivia back into the record books at the end of the decade. The album had released two more singles, the gold certified, “Make A Move On Me” and the sexy seductive “Landslide.”

What comes after another slew of hit singles? Olivia’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, of course. With two new singles added to the mix of gold and platinum gems, “Heart Attack” reached #3 on the charts, while the album earned another platinum and double platinum status. Late in 1983, the film Two of a Kind was released, once again pairing her with her co-star and very close friend, John Travolta. Although the film received mixed reviews, there was no slowing down Olivia on the music charts. Two singles were released, the first single, “Twist Of Fate” was a raucous mix of disco and rock and reached Top 5 status on the pop charts. The video was so indelible, with its shots of a glamorous, evening-gloved Olivia on a purple-hazed platform in a quiet sea of water and lights; it still lingers in my mind. The second single, “Livin’ In Desperate Times,” released in February 1984, was a great dance tune and continued her string of Top 40 hits.

1984 was also a year of change for Olivia. Her chain of stores, Koala Blue, a mix of clothes and treats from down under, was thriving, and tongues were wagging when it was reported that she married actor Matt Lattanzi, more than ten years her junior. Ironically, Lattanzi was in the 1982 film Grease 2, the sequel to Grease that Travolta and Newton-John turned down. The lead roles went to Maxwell Caulfied and a budding actress named Michelle Pfeiffer. The following year Olivia released the album Soul Kiss, which was once again certified gold, and the single of the same name hit the Top 20.

In 1986, Olivia and Matt gave birth to their first and only child, Chloe Rose. Olivia has said, “This was the most important event to happen to me.” Olivia took a couple of years off to dwell into motherhood, then in 1988 went back to work to record her first album of new material in three years. The single “The Rumour” was written and produced by Olivia’s dear friend Elton John. The single made its chart debut on August 20, 1988 and the album of the same name made its chart debut when it was released two weeks later.

1992 was what Olivia has called a year of “ups and downs.” Back To Basics - The Essential Collection 1971-1992 was released, containing all of the hits on one collection with four new songs. One of the new songs was “I Need Love,” a dance-fueled number produced by Donna Summer’s longtime collaborator, Giorgio Moroder. The single burned up the dance chart and was once again another hit record for what seemed to be the unstoppable Olivia. But something did slow Olivia down. That same year, 44-year-old Olivia Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer. In true Newton-John style, she met this devastating disease head on, and ultimately won the battle. For the next five years Olivia chose to live her life in a low profile manner. Unfortunately, when her marriage to Matt Lattanzi broke up after a decade, it was hard keeping her “low-profile” lifestyle, with the tabloids invading every inch of her space. But she succeeded to do so, privately and with dignity.

In 1998, the 20th anniversary of the film Grease was celebrated with a re-release in theaters. Even though everybody on the planet over six years old had seen the film, it was released with full fanfare and to the delight of fans around the world. I recall attending the film in Boston and LA at the time, and the fans were out in huge numbers with lines to get into the theatre. Once in the theatre, the fans spoke the lines and sang every tune. It was very reminiscent of attending a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Wizard Of Oz. The film still holds up and remains one of the most beloved movies of all time. It was hard to ignore when the stars of the film, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, attended the LA premiere of the re-release. After a few years out of the spotlight, Olivia re-emerged more beautiful than ever. It was easy for newer fans to see why she had been loved for so many years. In the midst of Grease mania, the “Grease Megamix” was released as a medley with “Greased Lightning,” “You’re The One That I Want” and “Summer Nights.” The release was another smash and reached Top 25 status on radio and topped the chart in sales. That same summer, the single “One Heart At A Time” was released by Olivia, sharing vocals with Garth Brooks, Michael McDonald and Faith Hill, and was a pop and country success. Released at the same time was a newly recorded version of “I Honestly Love You,” with Babyface on backup vocals. The song had endured almost 25 years to make the sales and radio charts all over again. Her new album contained the new version along with several other beautiful ballads, seven of which Olivia wrote. At the time Olivia had said, “I see this as a new start, though as the public is concerned, I guess it’s a comeback. I really had no intention of returning, but mentally and emotionally, I’m strong and more ready than I’ve ever been before.”

By the time the new millennium rolled around, Olivia was back to work in film and loving it more than ever before. She had a role in the newest cult classic to add to her filmography, Sordid Lives. In the Del Shores film she plays a Texas white trash singing diva named Bitsy Mae Harling. Although the DVD has been available for some time now, the film continues its record-long run at the Camelot Theatre here in Palm Springs. The film’s costars include Delta Burke, Bonnie Bedelia, Beau Bridges and the inimitable Leslie Jordan.

In 2002, Olivia teamed with her 16 year-old daughter for the Showtime Original Movie The Wilde Girls. Chloe Lattanzi was now becoming an actress and singer in her own right. In the mid-nineties Olivia made a Christmas TV movie with her daughter. This was the first time Olivia and her daughter sang together professionally. Olivia wrote the song "Loved Me Into It" practically overnight. It was filmed on location at Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. Other songs featured are “Rockin' Robin” and “I Want To Be Your Everything” sung by Chloe Lattanzi. A highlight is “Bye Bye Blackbird” sung by Olivia in the opening credits.

The summer of 2003 brought Olivia back to the stage where she was met by fans old and new. The tour was such a success that she now returns in 2004, and her voice is better than ever, and she’s never been more gorgeous, inside and out!

Olivia sums it up beautifully: “It’s such a different time in my life, I’m a mother first now. I like peace in my life. When you’re younger, you deal with all the crazy stuff. But I love where I am. And that’s an important thing to learn in life…to be happy where you are now and not wish you were somewhere else.”

© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.