An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective: Introduction

As we mentioned in our introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of 100 Greatest Women, Country Universe will have a greater focus on historical content moving forward. One way we will be doing this is with artist retrospectives. We are kicking off this new series with an in-depth look at an artist who is one of the most commercially successful and critically underappreciated female singers of all-time: Olivia Newton-John.

Her success is well documented, so how is she so easily overlooked as an artist?

She was a global superstar in an era of regional hits.

Olivia Newton-John was consistently successful around the world, racking up a string of hits from 1971 through 1985. However, his was before there was a truly global marketplace for music.  Newton-John’s big early hits in Australia and the United Kingdom made little impact in the United States and Japan. Her string of five gold singles in the United States often failed to chart in the United Kingdom.  Just when pop radio completely cooled to her in the mid-seventies, she started having big hits in Japan and her albums started topping the charts in continental Europe. It wasn’t until Grease that she had singles that were successful everywhere.  Speaking of Grease

Her biggest hits are associated with film soundtracks.

Yes, she had many gold and platinum studio albums and hits collections, but her biggest hits are inextricably linked to two of the films that she starred in: Grease and Xanadu. Her music career was tremendously successful, but with the possible exceptions of “I Honestly Love You” and “Physical,” which were both much bigger hits in the U.S. then they were in the rest of the world, Newton-John is best known today for the songs she sang on film. It’s an odd reality for someone who was more commercially successful as a singer than an actress. Grease was her only hit movie, although Xanadu eventually became a cult classic. Newton-John’s signature films, and the songs from them, have had a much longer shelf life than the rest of her radio hits.

She never had a musical home base that claimed her as their own.

Further complicating her legacy as an artist is that while she had many pop, country, and even rock hits, none of those fields championed her work. Her seventies albums are eerily similar in structure to the eclectic collections that made stars out of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, but Ronstadt was enthusiastically embraced as the leading female rocker and Harris as a country crooner, despite both ladies dabbling in all three genres on their seminal albums.  Newton-John was a country star from overseas at the height of that genre’s xenophobia, and she was a pop star before being primarily a pop star was taken seriously by the white male-dominated music press.  Then again…

She never stood still long enough to claim a musical home of her own.

Newton-John’s own eclecticism has further complicated where to place her. This retrospective is taking place on a country music website, a genre she didn’t know existed when she started recording country songs and that she now only revisits every decade or so.  Her early pop hits were also grounded in folk music, before she went full Adult Contemporary for a few years. From Grease through 1988’s The Rumour, she kept up with current pop trends, and every once in a while, she revisits the rock and dance styles that dominated her late seventies work and pretty much all of her eighties recordings.  Since her 1992 cancer battle, she’s regularly recorded New Age and healing music, and has written most of her own material. The goal of this feature is to show how she’s been consistently good no matter what she was doing. In her fifty year recording career, her talent as a singer has been the strongest common thread.

This retrospective will take a chronological journey through her catalog, rating the albums and singles while also providing some historical information along the way.  First up: her debut single from 1966, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine,” the 1970 Toomorrow soundtrack, and her debut album from 1971, If Not For You.

Up Next: 1966-1971

18 Comments

  1. I may be wrong about this, but I think some of the invective that was hurled against her in the country music community was started by her coming to Nashville sometime around 1973 and saying that she wanted to meet Hank Williams, who by that time had been dead twenty years–something that seemed to rub the Nashville establishment the wrong way. And then her very presence on the country singles charts for that period from 1974 to 1978 really caused a firestorm among the country music crowd, even though some of those hits sound far more country than your average Taylor Swift hits of recent vintage.

    In certain ways, I do think that the stylistic diversity Olivia showed during that period did resemble Linda and Emmylou. That said, though, I think it’s a bit of a stretch (and a bit unfair to Olivia herself) when it comes to the material she does vis-à-vis the other two. Olivia, at least until after Grease, didn’t do some of the kinds of ultra-male stuff that Linda did, like covering Lowell George (“Willing”; “Roll ‘Um Easy”) or Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”); nor did her approach to country ever go as ultra-traditional as Emmylou.

    But one should not take this as a criticism of Olivia. She is definitely underappreciated, if not downright unappreciated,/I>, these days, simply because now people perceive her as a middle-of-the-road artist…without, of course, having looked at the total span of her career or her albums.

  2. I purchased her first two albums on MCA in 1973 (LET ME BE THERE) and 1974 (IF YOU LOVE ME LET ME KNOW) but I think I enjoyed the arrangements and production much more than I enjoyed her voice, which struck me then (as it still does) has not having much substance or character.

    Olivia was extremely attractive and benefitted greatly from that. If she had looked like Bette Midler or Bonnie Raitt, I doubt she would have had anywhere near the success that Bette or Bonnie achieved – she’s just not on that level talent-wise.

    I regard her as a ‘fellow traveler’ rather than a country artist but as I noted in an article several years ago for another weblog:

    “During her brief run as a country artist Olivia Newton-John won the 1974 CMA Female Vocalist of The Year and the 1973 NARAS Grammy for “Let Me Be There”. Both choices were highly controversial and remain so to this day as she never more than dabbled in country music and didn’t normally play the venues frequented by country fans. Still she did have a total of fifteen songs chart on Billboard’s Country Charts from 1973 to 1979 (Cashbox had a sixteenth song “Making A Good Thing Better” chart in 1977) and that’s more than Ray Charles or most of our other Fellow Travelers charted and more than many career country acts managed to chart.”

    p.s. There is nothing wrong with being a “middle of the road” artist if you do it well. One of my favorite female singers, Anne Murray, definitely falls in that category and she excelled at it.

  3. @Erik:

    Olivia, at least until after Grease, didn’t do some of the kinds of ultra-male stuff that Linda did, like covering Lowell George (“Willing”; “Roll ‘Um Easy”) or Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”); nor did her approach to country ever go as ultra-traditional as Emmylou.

    Olivia’s first album featured covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Tom Rush, and Gordon Lightfoot. I don’t know that there’s anything more quintessentially male and ultra-traditional as the standard “Banks of the Ohio.” Olivia not only cut it on her first album, she switched the gender, making the woman the murderer instead of the victim.

    She was a star in the U.K. and Australia first, and she did it on the strength of covering songs associated with men: “If Not For You” (Bob Dylan), “Banks of the Ohio” (Traditional), “What is Life” (George Harrison), and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (John Denver.)

    One of the most interesting things about Olivia Newton-John is how the regional nature of her success made her work seem much less varied than it was. Those big country records she had in the States bombed in England, where she would primarily be known as a covers artist until Grease. They’d have been more likely to note that she was incapable of having a hit with original material, even though it was original material that made her a star in the U.S.

    @Paul:

    “Olivia was extremely attractive and benefitted greatly from that. If she had looked like Bette Midler or Bonnie Raitt, I doubt she would have had anywhere near the success that Bette or Bonnie achieved – she’s just not on that level talent-wise.”

    This is the kind of casual misogyny from the male-dominated press that minimized her talents both in the U.K. and the U.S. Her records broke big in America before anyone knew what she looked like. I’m going to cover that a bit later, but here’s a great quote from Olivia about it:

    Not so long ago, Olivia Newton-John hated to be asked about being so wholesome and pretty, the implication being that she was successful because of beauty more than talent.

    “I find the whole question embarrassing,” she said in an earlier talk. “I don’t think of myself as pretty–that sounds maybe stupid, but I mean, if someone said to you, ‘Do you think you’re successful because you’re handsome?’ would you feel uncomfortable? It’s half a compliment and it isn’t.

    “The one great thrill I had in America was that my music was accepted before I was ever seen, before I was on television, before I did live appearances; therefore I had to hope it was my music and not my face, you know.”

    I love the way she flips the gender in her response, revealing just how colossally stupid the line of argument is. People listen to music. They don’t look at it. Music video wasn’t even a thing during her breakthrough years.

    Dismissing talented women because of their looks is as timeless as misogyny itself, as is making sure that you still make a comment on looks even when praising a woman’s talent, as you did with Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt. I’m sure they’d deeply appreciate being told that they clearly made it on their talent because they couldn’t have done so on their looks.

  4. While I agree that Paul’s statements are out of date and a bit tasteless, let’s not get overly politically correct. Looks shouldn’t matter in music but it’s a fact that they do. And it matters MUCH more in 2018 than in the 70’s for both men and women. Again, I agree it SHOULD NOT MATTER, but radio does care. No way people like Willie, Waylon, and Loretta would make it today, and that is ashame, but I would blame the younger generation for this. We used to not look at image to the extent we do now. I 100% do think its wrong but it is so. Thanks for letting me vent a bit.

  5. Loved, loved, loved ONJ. I would give most anything if some label would re-master her early cds of Let Me Be There, If You Love Me Let Me Know, and Have You Never Been Mellow. I wore those vinyl album out playing them as a child.

    She did a lot of remakes in those days. My personal favorites were God Only Knows, If You Could Read My Mind, and If Not For You.

    I loved her pop music as well. Magic, A Little More Love, Make A Move On Me, You’re The One That I Want, and the Cliff Richard duet Suddenly were all huge favorites of min. Not really sure why she lost her popularity in the mid 80s unless she just couldn’t compete with Madonna and Whitney Houston.

    And it wasn’t just the music – I loved her voice as well. She was a hit-making machine back then. I was so glad when she tied Debby Boone for most weeks at #1 by a female when Physical logged 10 weeks at #1 in 1981/82.

    Definitely looking forward to this retrospective. Nice choice.

  6. Vinyl records – heck, I was getting Olivia Newton-John’s 8 track tapes back in the day! ONJ was one of the voices I remember hearing on AM radio when waking up for school. Nostalgia always sweetens things, yet Olivia Newton John had such a beautiful voice and a wonderful song selection. (Yes, she was beautiful also, yet I will not hold that for or against her!) She did disappear from my radar at some point, not to resurface again until the BeeGees- yes, the BeeGees – did a retrospective in Las Vegas and shown on PBS in the late 90s, and they introduced her in the audience. That was a great moment. Tonight, I think I will ask Alexa (on my Amazon Echo) to play some Olivia Newton John! (Maybe I’ll add in to another Australian voice from the 70s, Helen Reddy, although I hardly would put her in the country category.)

  7. Oh, since Bonnie Raitt came up, – man, have I discovered her in recent times. I have been listening to her music, including her most recent album. She has to rank as one of the world’s greatest guitarists. While I always enjoyed her music, she appeared on the Saturday CBS News program to play some selections from her most recent album. (Maybe a year or so ago?) After ten minutes, I was surely hooked forever and reently have been listening to her gems from over the years. Now, we overuse the term I think, yet Bonnie Raitt is an artist!

  8. I always been a fan of Olivia Newton-John. I always felt she never gets the full credit she deserved. I’m about to love this retrospective!

  9. @Tom P,
    Some people may scoff at being “politically correct”, but we at Country Universe believe in being aware of and sensitive to people in society who have a disadvantage, or who have been treated differently because of their sex, race or disability. This always has been and will continue to be an important tennet of Country Universe.

  10. I lived in England in 1969, 1970 and part of 1971 and happened to see her twice during that period. My thought at the time was that she might make it.

    The problem for her was that during the late 1960s and early 1970s (the post-British invasion period) there were a substantial number of fine female vocalists vying for position on the British pop charts. While groups still remained dominant (and some were headed by strong female lead vocalists such as Polly Browne and Eve Graham), artists such as Cilla Black, Lulu, Clodagh Rodgers, Karen Young, Dana, Dusty Springfield, Sandy Shaw and Mary Hopkin were all having success and the immediate prior generation (Lita Roza, Helen Shapiro, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey) were soaking up a lot of the club/concert dates. It was a very tough market to break into.

  11. @Leann, As a gay man myself I appreciate the sensitivity of Country Universe, but my overall point was that in 2018 looks actually matter much more to country radio, fans, etc then they did years ago. I personally hate that this is how we are right now. His point may have been less than tasteful but that does not mean there wasn’t some truth. Being politically correct has it’s pros and cons. NONE of us should assume what is in someone’s heart. WORDS DO MATTER, but there will never be a perfect person a long as their is life. I know that EVERYONE on this site and every site for that matter has one time or another said something they should not have said. I think everyone can work at being a better person but we must always realize that NONE of us are any better than anyone else. I often think when it comes to diversity that sometimes we take 3 steps forward and 2 steps back. Sure, men aren’t allowed to say what they did decades ago (good thing), but somehow the way you look now is MUCH more important than years ago. Not necessarily any improvement there. Thanks for letting me have my 2 cents.

  12. Looking forward to this retrospective. Hoping that it will be reviewing her musical output through her most recent releases. Many are not aware of her post 2000 releases, of which there are many. She has remained a prolific artist.

  13. Tom,
    I’m a little confused by your explanation. Paul was talking about ONJ back then not now. I agree that looks matter more than they once did, but he suggested that she largely got her success based on her appearance back then:

    “Olivia was extremely attractive and benefitted greatly from that. If she had looked like Bette Midler or Bonnie Raitt, I doubt she would have had anywhere near the success that Bette or Bonnie achieved – she’s just not on that level talent-wise.”

    It’s that comment that caused Kevin to, as you put it, get “overly politically correct.”

  14. If you’re an ONJ fan and you’d like some soothing nostalgia, go on Youtube and pull up these five songs: Mary Skeffington, Country Girl, Lifestream, Changes, and Home Ain’t Home Anymore. I think you’ll absolutely enjoy them all. Brings back incredible memories of my youth.

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