Olivia Newton-John, the top female pop vocalist of the 1970s who starred in movies including “Grease” and “Xanadu,” died Monday. She was 73.
Her husband, John Easterling, posted the news on her official Facebook page: “Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”
A cause of death was not given, but Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer that surfaced for the third time in 2017. “Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years, sharing her journey with breast cancer,” her husband wrote. “Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Her “Grease” costar and hit duet partner John Travolta was quick to weigh in with a tribute on social media. “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” he wrote. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road, and we will all be together again. Yours from the moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”
Chart historian Joel Whitburn ranked the warm-voiced Australia-bred singer as the No. 1 female soloist of the ‘70s. Her nine top-10 pop singles of the decade included three chart-topping 45s; the biggest of them, “You’re the One That I Want,” a duet with Travolta drawn from the smash 1978 soundtrack of the musical “Grease,” spent nearly six months on the U.S. lists.
Newton-John remained a potent commercial force into the ‘80s; she logged the biggest hit of her career, “Physical,” in 1981. Though her other prominent toplining musical feature “Xanadu” was a costly 1980 flop, its double-platinum soundtrack spawned three hit singles, including the No. 1 radio ubiquity “Magic.”
Slotted initially as a country vocalist, she quickly conquered the pop charts with a succession of well-scrubbed tunes. Though the hits dried up in the early ’90s, she remained a cherished performer into the new millennium, with a durable fan base sustained by the continuing popularity of “Grease” as a cable TV staple and sing-along theatrical screenings.
In recent years, she spoke about her seemingly upbeat attitude even as cancer returned after she had been diagnosed as cancer-free. “I’m happy. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I have much to live for. And I intend to keep living it,” she told Gayle King in an interview for “CBS This Morning” conducted at her California ranch in 2019. “‘Why me’ has never been a part of it.”
In one of her last interviews, which aired on the “Today” show in October, she commiserated with host Hoda Kotb, who shared her own experience with cancer. Said Newton-John: “We’re sisters. Anyone that has gone on this journey with cancer, its unknown destinations and surprises, and turns.” The broadcast noted that the singer-actor was dealing with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, almost 30 years after her initial diagnosis. She credited the cannabis being grown by her husband with helping her through painful moments in her illness.
Newton-John was born September 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England. Her grandfather was the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. When she was 6, her family moved to Melbourne.
Active in music from high school, Newton-John went pro in her teens, appearing on Australian TV. She returned to Britain on a plane ticket she won competing on the Aussie talent show “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Though she recorded for British Decca during her stay, she grew homesick and returned to the Antipodes, but moved back to England to perform with her music partner Pat Carroll.
She made her movie debut with two very obscure film musicals — “Funny Things Happen Down Under” in 1965, followed in 1970 by “Tomorrow,” a sci-fi musical starring a group of the same name that included Newton-John as lead singer, remembered as producer Don Kirshner’s attempt to formulate a U.K. equivalent of the Monkees. Following that all-but-buried motion picture and its equally little-known soundtrack album, her solo career took off with “If Not for You,” a cover of the countrified Bob Dylan-George Harrison song. The executive who signed Newton-John to MCA Records in the U.S. had a good feeling he had about her prospects — but that wasn’t shared by everyone at the time. “I heard her version [of “If Not for You”] on an acetate,” veteran A&R exec Russ Regan recalled in a 2014 interview with author Harvey Kubernik. “I heard it and made the deal. I paid $25,000 for that record and was second-guessed. That’s a whole other story. I loved it, and I was put down for buying it. ‘She’s too plastic, beautiful, and will never happen.’ So, I said, ‘She’s beautiful, she’s not plastic, and it’s gonna happen big time.’”
Both “If Not for You” and her version of the folk standard “Banks of the Ohio” managed to chart in the U.S. in 1971, but she had to wait two years before making a significant impact in the States. Her MCA singles “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” reached the top 10 of both the country and pop charts. The former number garnered a Grammy Award for best female country vocal performance, and Newton-John additionally scored an Academy of Country Music Award as the most promising female vocalist.
Her early career peaked in 1974 with the ballad “I Honestly Love You,” which topped the pop chart and peaked at No. 6 in country; the song earned Newton-John female vocalist of the year kudos at the Country Music Assn. Awards in 1974. A second pop No. 1, “Have You Never Been Mellow,” arrived in 1975. Though she would tally three more top-five country singles and reliably cross over to the adult contemporary charts, she was firmly entrenched as a pop star in the U.S.
Newton-John’s career sizzled with the mega-hit “Grease.” Though the 29-year-old singer worried she was too old for her role, she turned in a confident performance in the ’50s-themed musical as virginal high schooler Sandy Olsson, and displayed impressive chemistry opposite Travolta, coming off his “Saturday Night Fever” breakthrough and cast as bad boy Danny Zuko.
The Paramount release was an immediate hit, spawning a hugely successful soundtrack album. The Newton-John/Travolta duet “You’re the One That I Want” was succeeded by two more top-five singles, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights,” also drawn from the picture. The soundtrack LP sat at No. 1 for 10 weeks and spent 77 weeks on the charts.
Following the double-platinum 1978 album “Totally Hot,” Newton-John returned to the screen for the ill-starred “Xanadu.” The creaky roller disco-themed plot incongruously cast the singer as a Greek muse, opposite 68-year-old Gene Kelly. Greeted with dismal reviews, the picture was an instant flop. Its primary beneficiary was Newton-John: the singles “Magic,” “Xanadu” (with the Electric Light Orchestra), and “Suddenly” (with Cliff Richard) pushed the No. 5 soundtrack album to double-platinum status.
Newton-John’s film career never really recovered from “Xanadu.” A re-teaming with Travolta in the 1983 rom-com “Two of a Kind” also stiffed at the box office, and her leading roles were thereafter restricted to TV movies.
Having successfully messed with her squeaky-clean image with her good-girl-gone-naughty turn in “Grease” and her album “Totally Hot,” Newton-John upped the ante with 1981’s single “Physical.” The sexed-up single’s lyrics were softened by a coy video implying that the song was about … working out.
The singer recalled in 2017, “I was having a panic attack when it came out because I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve gone too far! We just need to do a video about exercise.’ And that made it even bigger!” The single, her last No. 1, held the top of the chart for 10 weeks, shifting more than 1 million copies.
Of the chart-topper she once considered “risqué,” Newton-John told King in 2019, “Now, compared to what’s on the radio, it’s kind of like a lullaby.”
After the double-platinum, “Physical” album of 1981 and the top-five singles “Make a Move On Me” (No. 5, 1982) and “Heart Attack” (No. 3, 1982), Newton-John’s pop career stuttered. She took a protracted hiatus from performing after the 1986 birth of her daughter Chloe (from her marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi, whom she divorced in 1995).
She experienced business and personal setbacks in 1992. Koala Blue, a chain of boutique shops she operated with her onetime singing partner Pat Carroll, folded amid bankruptcy. She experienced a severe health scare when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; following a mastectomy, she became a high-profile spokesperson for cancer awareness and established the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Victoria, Australia.
Following her Nashville return “Back With a Heart” (1998), Newton-John’s albums sold principally Down Under; a late exception was the 2012 Yuletide album “This Christmas,” a pairing with Travolta that reached No. 81 domestically.
She toured successfully with Aussie star John Farnham and dueted with him at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She continued to act, taking an unusual turn as a gay ex-con country singer in the feature “Sordid Lives” and its cable TV spinoff. After guesting as herself in 2010 on Fox’s hit “Glee,” a remake of “Physical” with the cast reached No. 89, becoming her first pop single to reach the chart in 12 years.
She returned to the road in the U.S. for a well-received 2017 trek.
Her family has requested donations be made in her memory to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund.
She is survived by her husband, John Easterling; daughter Chloe Lattanzi; sister Sarah Newton-John; brother Toby Newton-John; nieces and nephews Tottie, Fiona, and Brett Goldsmith; Emerson, Charlie, Zac, Jeremy, Randall, and Pierz Newton-John; Jude Newton-Stock, Layla Lee; Kira and Tasha Edelstein; and Brin and Valerie Hall.