Part One: 1966-1971
Olivia Newton-John was born in England in 1948, into a family of academics with a deep appreciation for music. Her grandfather was a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and her father an aspiring opera singer who settled on a career as an educator, first as a headmaster and later as a college professor.
Newton-John is the youngest of three children, and was only six when the family moved from England to Australia. She was still in grammar school when her parents divorced, an event that had a devastating impact on her, one that she would later draw upon for her one of her earliest successes as a songwriter. She was twelve when her older sister entered her into a Hayley Mills lookalike contest. Her victory led to work in local theater, but she was much more interested in music than in acting. After her mother bought her an acoustic guitar at age thirteen, she taught herself some chords and soon formed her own folk group with three girls from school.
Her mother disbanded the group when she felt it was distracting from Olivia’s schoolwork, but continued to encourage her musically, even getting her short-lived singing lessons that Olivia chose to end because she didn’t like the way the teacher wanted to change her natural style to one more suited for opera. Instead, she auditioned for a television talent show called Kevin Dennis Auditions, and her successful appearance led to regular appearances on the Australian television variety shows Sunny Side Up and The Go!! Show. When Lovely Anne of the children’s hit, The Happy Show, needed to take a leave of absence, she joined the cast as Lovely Livvy, which eventually led to her first film work, Funny Things Happen Down Under.
Another talent competition, Sing, Sing, Sing, further raised her profile. She won singing the Dionne Warwick/Cilla Black hit, “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” and the prize was a trip to England. Olivia made the difficult decision to drop out of school and pursue her career full time, moving to England with her in early 1966. The prize also included a one single deal with Decca Records, which became her first official release.
Till You Say You’ll Be Mine
Written by Jackie DeShannon
“Till You Say You’ll Be Mine” is almost unrecognizable as an Olivia Newton-John recording, with its weak attempt at Wall of Sound drowning out her tinny vocals. The release sank quietly into oblivion, but Newton-John stayed in England, buoyed by the arrival of her good friend, Pat Carroll. They worked up a double act and played local clubs until Carroll’s visa ran out, an issue Newton-John was protected from, given her birthright as an English citizen. She soon connected with the Shadows, a popular instrumental group that backed Cliff Richard and featured Bruce Welch, two men who would have a impact on Newton-John’s career.
Newton-John returned to Australia when the Shadows went their to tour, and the band hooked up with John Farrar, who would later join them as a musician and work alongside Welch as Newton-John’s producer. Farrar married Pat Carroll, and the married couple eventually returned to England. Meanwhile, Newton-John was signed by Cliff Richard’s manager, Peter Gormley, who scored an audition for Olivia with Don Kirshner, who was planning a futuristic new take on the Monkees. Newton-John was signed as the manufactured band’s lead singer.
Did Not Chart
What looked like her big break ended up a dead end, as the band’s eponymous film and soundtrack debut, Toomorrow, was a critical and commercial disaster. Although Newton-John’s appearances in the film are limited, and her vocals are primarily of the backing variety, her eventual superstardom brought both the film and its soundtrack back into circulation.
Undaunted, Newton-John resumed her solo career, becoming a featured player on Cliff Richard’s popular television show. The visibility of her appearances led to an international recording contract. Choosing Farrar and Welch as her co-producers, Newton-John gave them significant input in choosing material. This included going along with recording Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You,” which she didn’t care for but, trusting their judgment, recorded it anyway, and it became her breakthrough hit.
If Not For You
Written by Bob Dylan
Pop #25 | AC #1 (3 weeks)
Australia #7 | Belgium #29 | Canada #18 | Ireland #6 | New Zealand #8 | Norway #6 | UK #7
“If Not For You” succeeds as a record because it is based on George Harrison’s arrangement of the song, which had been featured on his landmark album, All Things Must Pass. Newton-John’s breathy vocal contrasts nicely with the song’s sentiment, and the instrumental hook is quite the earworm. It doesn’t showcase Newton-John’s talent as a vocalist or song interpreter the way the best tracks on her debut album do, but it’s a solid record nonetheless. It was also an international hit, laying the groundwork for her debut album of the same name.
If Not For You (U.S., International) / Olivia Newton-John (UK)
United States: Pop #158 | Australia #14
Me and Bobby McGee/If/Banks of the Ohio/In a Station/Love Song/Help Me Make it Through the Night/
If Not For You/Where are You Going to My Love/Lullaby/If You Could Read My Mind/
If I Gotta Leave/No Regrets
Newton-John’s debut album is an interesting hodgepodge of contemporary covers, mostly ones that had been popularized by male artists. Her eclecticism is already on showcase, as she draws from singer-songwriters across the musical spectrum, including Nashville writer Kris Kristofferson. The album wasn’t as commercially successful as its two big singles, and “Love Song,” arguably her strongest performance here, did not get the wide release that it deserved. It’s an album worth checking out if you can find it, as it was never issued on CD in America and is only available as an import.
Banks of the Ohio
Traditional; Arranged by Bruce Welch and John Farrar
Pop #94 | AC #34
Australia #1 (5 weeks) | Canada #66 | Germany #13 | Ireland #9 | New Zealand #3 | UK #6
Newton-John’s follow up to “If Not For You” was an even bigger hit in many markets around the world. It was her first #1 in her adopted home of Australia, and its #6 showing on the UK chart would remain her high watermark there until Grease. Many women have covered “Banks of the Ohio” before, but few have dared to rewrite it so that it is the woman who does the killing. It’s a dark number that her surface innocence makes more effective.
Up next will be Newton-John’s first country hits in America, which coincided with a downturn of fortunes in Europe.
Next: Part Two, 1972-1973