In Memoriam: Olivia Newton-John (1948-2022)

Legendary singer and actress Olivia Newton-John has passed away at the age of 73.

NPR reports:

Olivia Newton-John, one of the biggest pop stars in the 1970s and early 1980s, has died at the age of 73. She died on Monday at her ranch in southern California, according to her husband, John Easterling, in a post on her official Facebook page.

“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” it reads in part.

Newton-John was born in England in 1948. She grew up in Australia, and started her performing career as a teenager. A regular on local radio and TV shows, she won a talent contest and ended up recording country-pop songs in the U.S.

For “Let me Be There,” she won her first Grammy award in 1973. The following year, she earned two Grammys for “I Honestly Love You.” Mellow pop songs became Newton-John’s stock in trade, but she won her fourth Grammy in 1982 for the suggestive single “Let’s Get Physical.”

The song made her uncomfortable, Newton-John told NPR in 2012. “I thought it was a great song, but then had a panic attack and called my manager and said, ‘You can’t put this out, it’s too over the top and it’s too risque,’ ” she said, only to learn it had already gone to the radio.

It was Newton-John’s idea to make the video for the song about exercise, she said, and she wore a sweatband, leotards and legwarmers.

After her other hits – such as “Magic” — and other movies, such as Xanadu, Newton-John dropped out of the spotlight to raise her daughter, and promote causes such as environmentalism and breast cancer awareness, after she was diagnosed with the disease. She treated it, she said, with alternative therapies, medical marijuana, humor and optimism.

Olivia Newton-John was a Country Universe favorite, and the first artist to be featured in our career-spanning retrospective series:

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

She was included in both of our 100 Greatest Women countdowns, ranking at #55 in the most recent list:

One of the biggest female country stars of the seventies became one quite accidentally. Her mere presence in country music infuriated traditionalists, but her pop-flavored country foreshadowed the boundary blurring recordings of future genre-straddling stars like Dolly Parton, Shania Twain and Taylor Swift.

Her career was astonishing and her talent ran deep.

On a personal note, this is the deepest feeling of loss that I’ve ever felt when an artist passed away.

Olivia Newton-John was the first artist that I ever fell in love with, and in turn, she was the reason I fell in love with music, which has been a source of inspiration, strength, and solace throughout my entire life.

I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was young, but I had a VHS tape of Olivia in Concert, copied from HBO by one of my parents.  I watched it every day. I rented the Twist of Fate video collection from the local rental shop.  Every few weeks, I bought another one of her old albums from the music sections at Alexander’s and Woolworth’s and other department stores of days gone by.  She was the soundtrack to my childhood. I was often lonely but never truly alone because I had her music.  What a tremendous gift that was.

Because of Olivia, it made total sense to me that someone could do country and pop.  To this day, I love both pop music and country music and could care less about any lines artificially drawn between them.  My favorite artists are the ones that change their style from album to album, always trying out new sounds and following their muse wherever it takes them.  I can’t be bothered with debates about authenticity.  I want sincerity. That’s why I loved her music, and what I still look for today when discovering artists.  It’s hard to find.

By all accounts, Olivia Newton-John was a kind, warm, and generous human being.  She saw her true life’s work as her cancer center, and her musical career as the gift God gave her so that she could help others.  Her priorities were correctly ordered, even if it has meant her musical legacy hasn’t been fully appreciated.  She really was one of the all-time greats: a fantastically gifted singer, a captivating live performer, and a criminally underrated songwriter.

The retrospective linked above has several parts, all with their own playlists, so instead of creating a new one for this thread,  I’m just going to share the HBO concert below.  When you have the time, enjoy watching a brilliant artist at the peak of her fame, radiating joy as she sings hit after hit after hit.

We send our deepest condolences to her family, friends, and fans.

7 Comments

  1. It’s definitely a terrible day for fans of ‘Livvy, because she was truly a great singer.

    What is truly weird is that, when she first hit the U.S. big-time in 1973-74, her very presence on the country singles charts (with “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me [Let Me Know]”) made her a large target of Nashville’s ire because somehow these pop/crossover hits were diluting the “purity” of the genre. And yet, when you break it down, how much actual “damage” did ‘Livvy actually do to the genre back then, when contrasted to the cancerous “Bro Country” that has been inflicted on country for the last twelve years?

    Now that she has passed on to a better place, however, it’s the best thing to remember her for what she brought to the music table, which was often quite good. She will be missed, but, oh boy, will she ever be remembered.

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  2. Quote: On a personal note, this is the deepest feeling of loss that I’ve ever felt when an artist passed away.

    Kevin, you said it all in this sentence for me. It’s something that has been expected for a while, but waking up to find it this morning was an unexpectedly deep and powerful feeling of loss.

    Thank you for the inspiration, musical and otherwise, Olivia – you were wonderful and your music will live forever.

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  3. She was a household name when I was growing up. We kids loved Greece and my dad loved Xanadu. I’ve always loved her unique/sweet effortless voice. RIP to a wonderful talent.

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  4. …life’s so funny sometimes. when you can find directly beneath the “in memoriam” for the wonderful olivia newton-john the, quite appropriate, title “today my world slipped away”, one might think that some of the gods must have been mourning too yesterday. one of the unforgettables – the “sandy” of all sandy girls – has gone and “danny” found the perfect words to say “adieu” yesterday.

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  5. As I’ve mentioned previously on this site, I’ve been a hopelessly devoted fan of Olivia’s ever since “Let Me Be There” climbed all the radio-airplay charts. My crush on her has never abated.

    In March 1976, I — a shy, 14-year-old, pimple-faced kid at the time — got to see Olivia, the girl of my fantasies, perform all of her country-flavored hits at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. She was the headline performer at the event on that particular weekend and drew a packed house to the Astrodome. (And, mind you, this was well-before her stratospheric fame from Grease.) What I remember most from her concert was uncontrollably shaking in my seat throughout her entire performance. No other encounter with a celebrity/artist in my lifetime has ever had such an effect, though there have been many.

    I understand your sorrow, KJC, and share in it.

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  6. The relationships we develop with musicians and their music have real significance and emotional resonance. As unnatural, artificial, and imaginary as the bonds may sometimes seem,they are, nonetheless, inescapably real, often in ways difficult to articulate or share. What’s most interesting to me is how the most meaningful of these relationships with music and songs age with us, we carry them though life like old friends. We reach for them when lonely, we turn to them when lost. They comfort us.

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  7. My mom and I have been very sad about this one ever since we heard about it. :( Like Leann mentioned above, Olivia Newton-John was also a household name with my parents ever since I was little.

    Olivia was especially always one of Mom’s favorites and she still remembers the first time she heard “I Honestly Love You” back in 1974. She always loved that song, and she even bought her If You Love Me, Let Me Know record at the store because she loved it so much and would listen to it over and over on the turntable. That album is still in my mom’s record collection in our basement, along with a couple more of her albums that she bought back then.

    When I was little in the early 90’s, my first exposure to Olivia Newton-John was also the If You Love Me, Let Me Know album, which my parents had recorded on to a TDK tape in the early 80’s before I was even born. Olivia’s album was recorded on to the A side of the tape with her name written in a baby blue color on the label. The B-side was a Willie Nelson album with his name written in a pinkish shade of red. Anyway, whenever we played Olivia’s side of the tape on our stereo, I remember always getting excited as soon as “If You Love Me, Let Me Know” came on, and to this day, that’s the song that immediately comes to mind whenever her name comes up. I also still have memories of hearing and enjoying other songs on the album like “Mary Skeffington,” “Country Girl,” “The River’s Too Wide,” “Home Ain’t Home Anymore,” “God Only Knows,” “Changes,” and “You Ain’t Got The Right.” And of course I’ve also grown to love and appreciate “I Honestly Love You.” Both my dad and step dad were also fans of Olivia, and I remember certain times in which one of them would occasionally be listening to the tape along with me by the stereo. That album just brings back many great early childhood memories of hearing it on that tape at ages five to seven, and it will always have a special place in my heart. :) I was so thrilled to finally see it available on Spotify a while ago, and have been enjoying it all over again!

    My other big exposure to her as a little kid was when 93.3 WFLS actually played “If Not For You” as a recurrent while I was recording one of my tapes in the Fall of 1991. As a six year old, what always really stood out to me about it was the unique sound of that slide guitar, coupled with its unforgettable melody. Not long after I recorded that tape and was playing it back on the stereo one afternoon with Olivia’s song having just played, Mom told me about my step dad’s mother having passed away, which made me both sad and freaked out, since I had met her in person not long ago. That’s one of the main memories that “If Not For You” still reminds me of, but it does also bring back happier memories from late 1991 like my step dad being downstairs with me while I was recording that tape. Earlier that night, I had also recorded Barbara Mandrell’s “Married, But Not To Each Other,” and I remember him getting mad at the station because he thought they cut off the ending of her song too quick as Mark Collie’s “Calloused Hands” was suddenly starting. I remember him then being pleasantly surprised and excited to hear Olivia’s song come on next. :) “If Not For You” is still one of my favorite songs of hers today, and I even have it included on my main 80’s and early 90’s country playlist since it always reminds me of the Fall of 1991.

    More recently, whenever I have been in a late 90’s country mood, which is like now, many cuts from her 1998 album, Back With A Heart, have been a regular part of my rotation. It’s such a great album, and I still can’t believe it didn’t launch a big country comeback for her in ’98, especially since more pop influenced country was growing in popularity by then. I actually didn’t know that album existed until many years after it came out. My favorite cuts on it are: “I Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight,” “Closer To Me,” “Don’t Say That,” “Attention,” “Spinning His Wheels,” “Precious Love,” and “Fight For Our Love.” I even really enjoy the remake of “I Honestly Love You” featuring Babyface. The contemporary country production is very solid throughout (with even a couple more traditional sounding moments included), and Olivia’s vocals were as sweet and beautiful as ever.

    Also in more recent years, some of her other 70’s hits like “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Have You Ever Been Mellow,” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You” have also become all time favorites of mine when exploring the more contemporary country sounds from that decade. “Don’t Stop Believing” especially always puts a smile on my face and never fails to get me in a better mood. :)

    What makes her passing even more sad for me is that only did she have a beautiful, angelic voice, but she also seemed to have just as beautiful of a personality and a sweet and kind soul, as well. She will indeed be missed by many!

    May she rest in peace and condolences to all her family and friends.

    And Kevin, I feel your pain and sorrow on this one. These artists really do tend to feel like family and/or friends to many of us, especially if we grew up listening to them regularly.

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