(Pictured: Frankie Valli and Olivia Newton-John at the Grease premiere, 1978.)
The date is June 17, 1978. “You’re the One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, from the Grease soundtrack, falls from #1 to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Grease” by Frankie Valli debuts in the Top 40. That’s one day after the movie opens in theaters and grosses $16 million the first weekend on the way to its 1978-leading gross of $150 million.
On August 26, 1978, “Grease” hits #1 on the Hot 100. Three other Grease songs are on the big chart: “Hopelessly Devoted to You” by ONJ is #7 and “Summer Nights” by Travolta and ONJ is #20. “You’re the One That I Want” spends a second consecutive week at #60 in its 22nd week on the chart.
On September 9, 1978, America reaches peak Grease. After two weeks at the top, “Grease” falls from #1 to #6 on the Hot 100 and two more Grease hits are sandwiched around it, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” at #4 and “Summer Nights” at #8. “You’re the One That I Want” is in a second week at #83 in its last of 24 weeks on the Hot 100.
On September 30, 1978, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights” reach their peak positions at #3 and #5, while “Grease” drops from #23 to #45. A fifth Grease hit, “Greased Lightnin’,” credited to Travolta alone, debuts at #73 on the way to a peak position of #47 in late October.
Three of the five Grease hits did not appear in the original Broadway musical. “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” were written and produced by Newton-John’s longtime collaborator John Farrar. “Grease” was written and produced by Barry Gibb. The film’s director, Randal Kleiser, didn’t like the new songs, but the musical’s original writers, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey (who never wrote another Broadway show), were probably too busy cashing royalty checks to worry much about them.
(When Grease is performed on stage today, some productions use “Grease” near the beginning and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” either before or after the act break. “You’re the One That I Want” often replaces “All Choked Up” near the end of the show.)
Getting a Barry Gibb song into the movie was good business for the movie’s co-producer, the Robert Stigwood Organisation, which was releasing the soundtrack. The Brothers Gibb and RSO had dominated the pop charts through all of 1978, and not just with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. On June 17, “Shadow Dancing,” written by the Bee Gees and recorded by Andy Gibb, was in its first of seven weeks at #1; “Night Fever” was in its final week on the Hot 100 at #95; and oddest of all, Rare Earth was back in the Top 40 for the first time since 1972 with the Bee Gees-written “Warm Ride.” A Gibb-written/produced record from a movie as hyped as Grease couldn’t miss no matter who was singing it, and it didn’t. No matter that it has nothing to do with the movie, or that the lyrics make no sense at all.
Tom Breihan’s article about “Grease” at Stereogum is highly worth your time, as is the entire series on The Number Ones. Breihan is boggled by the fact that Valli does not use his famous Four Seasons falsetto:
So you’d think that a team-up from Frankie Valli and Barry Gibb would be an all-time scream-off, a psychedelic kaleidoscope of inexplicably confident helium squeals. Instead, Frankie Valli sings the song in what passes for a normal voice. It’s just weird. Imagine if Al Pacino and Robert De Niro got together in 1995—not to make an all-time-great cops-and-robbers film but to start a juggling act. But that’s “Grease.”
“Grease” ended up with Valli in a roundabout way. Breihan says the producers offered him a choice: appear in the movie and sing “Beauty School Dropout” or don’t appear in the movie but do the new title song. He opted for the latter (and Frankie Avalon ended up with the former). Valli didn’t even have a record deal in 1978, despite his mid-decade success with the revitalized Four Seasons and solo, but he soon got one.
The radio reach of the singles from Grease was vast. “You’re the One That I Want” first hit the radio in mid-March 1978, “Grease” in mid-May, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights” in early July. All of them remained in current or recurrent rotations through the end of the year. As inescapable as the Bee Gees had been during the first half of 1978, songs from Grease were just as pervasive during the last half.