(Pictured: Olivia Newton-John, 1976.)
For all of my most important time as a listener, Olivia Newton-John was there, from “If Not for You,” which I first heard during my long ride on the school bus in the fall of 1971, to “Let Me Be There,” which I bought on a 45 just before I stopped buying 45s, to “Soul Kiss,” which I played on the radio as a Top 40 DJ in 1985.
I’m not gonna tell you I liked all of her records. A 15-year-old boy was more likely to make fun of the corny lyrics of “Please Mr. Please” or her breathy-to-squeaky delivery on “I Honestly Love You,” and I did. I knew enough about radio in 1981 to understand the appeal of “Physical” and why it stayed #1 for so long, but it was never going to capture any of my jukebox money. Most of the hits from her imperial phase, post-Grease/early 80s, didn’t do much for me one way or the other—at the time.
But I go back and listen to that stuff now and I’m like, damn, she was really good. And she was. Nothing else sounds quite like “Magic.” “You’re the One That I Want” is pure joy (and the joy is thanks to her, since John Travolta mostly yodels the whole time). I saw somebody online call “A Little More Love” a new-wave record, and it’s worthwhile to listen to it again with that thought in mind. I am not sure she ever sounded better than on her version of the Bee Gees’ “Come on Over,” which came out at the height of her country-crossover period. (Bonus points for the album cover photo, which you can admire for three minutes and 45 seconds if you click that link.) And I find “Sam” to be pretty great, too, and I did so even when I was 17 and could never have admitted it to anybody.
“Sam” is a Hollywood pop production, not the sort of thing ONJ was known for, really. Although her 70s records were plenty slick, there was a straightforwardness to them also: what you see is what you get. As the 70s got further along and the going got weirder, her girl-next-door appeal is easy to understand. Between 1974 and 1976 she scored seven straight #1 hits on Billboard‘s adult-contemporary chart. All of them crossed over to the country chart, and six of them made the Top 10 there. For 1974 she won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award—the year of “Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” and “I Honestly Love You,” which won Record of the Year at the Grammys for the same year, and was #1 on the Hot 100.
ONJ was never off the radio in 1976 and 1977, although she didn’t make much noise on the Hot 100. (“Sam” got to #20.) Then came Grease. After “You’re the One That I Want,” which was #1 quite literally all over the world, she hit #1 two more times in America and made the Top 10 seven times beyond that by 1984. Her last Billboard Top 40 hit was “Soul Kiss,” although “The Best of Me” was an AC Top 10 in 1986. In 1988, she got to #62 on the Hot 100 with “The Rumour,” written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, co-produced by Elton, with Elton on piano and vocals, and Davey Johnstone on guitar. (“The Rumour” is an absolute banger loaded with radio hooks, but it came along several years too late; on the video for “Soul Kiss,” she achieves levels of smokin’ hotness only hinted at by the likes of “Physical.”)
We have occasionally pondered here why Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy, two stars of unsurpassed magnitude in the 70s, did not find a place on good-times/great-oldies radio in the 80s and 90s. Hits by female rock and disco stars had more staying power than those by straight-up pop singers. Also, their biggest hits sounded fairly dated as soon as disco came to town, if not before. ONJ’s reinvention in Grease came at precisely the right time.
I am a bit surprised and more than a little pleased at the outpouring of affection and respect for ONJ on social media in the last 24 hours. Once again, history knows what we did not always recognize in the moment.
And Also: Lamont Dozier’s passing at age 81 won’t get the notice of ONJ’s, but as The 60s at 60 pointed out this morning, Motown as we know it would not exist without Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland. The songs they wrote are as vital to our lives as oxygen.
7 thoughts on “Let Me Be There”
Being a few years older than you, JB, the puberty hormones were already well-established when Olivia first arrived in 1971. Anytime she wanted to lip-sync on American TV, I wanted to watch.
Starting my radio career a few months before “If Not For You” dropped, and moving on to TV news shortly after “Physical” left the chart, there were songs I liked and songs that didn’t quite do as much for me. At some point (probably 10 weeks into power rotation) I honestly hated “I Honestly Love You”.
And yeah—“Please Mr. Please” was a bit too cheesy, though “some button-pushin’ cowboy plays that love song” is a pretty great line. For my money, though, she got the whole lovesick country thing right with the flip side of “Totally Hot”:
I’d credit part of Livvy’s success to her work with longtime collaborator John Farrar, who knew how to tailor and optimize his music and lyrics to her breathy delivery on Have You Never Been Mellow, You’re the One That I Want, Magic and more. Imagine her contemporaries like Marie Osmond, Cher, Carly Simon and so on doing this material, and they would’ve been just wrong for it, whereas for ONJ it fit her like a glove.
One other note: Olivia is among the very few musical superstars about whom I’ve heard no ill words spoken by crews who worked her concerts and other performances. Which impresses me a lot.
I legitimately think that, if a Muse appeared and sang me a song, it might in fact sound like “Magic.”
Also forgot to mention: I find it interesting that both “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” ended up in the mid-’70s onstage repertoire of Elvis Presley.
I’m fairly certain this happened after they were hits for ONJ and the King heard them on the radio … unfortunately, my son stole my copy of the Guralnick autobiography so I can’t go verify that.
Regrettably, the King (AFAIK) never tackled “I Honestly Love You;” that would have been interesting.
(Now I am imagining Elvis loosing himself on “You’re The One That I Want” — first a paunchy, out-of-breath Elvis, then a mythical, slimmed-down, back-in-control-of-himself middle-aged Elvis. It’s more fun than doing my work.)
Been waiting for your take, JB and as usual you don’t disappoint.
Though a rocker back then I still listened to Top 40 and can remember exactly where I was when “You’re the One That I Want” came out of the car speaker :Senior Skip Day (do they still have those?), on the way to a state park with my best high school friend. That song jumped out of the speaker and had a crazy energy I hadn’t heard on AM radio in some time.
Re: Lamont Dozier, I remember it being pointed out Motown had bulging shelves of amazing unreleased material, much of which was not released until The Big Chill proved there may be a market for it. Motown at its peak was churning out more quality tunes than the public could handle at the time.
Thank you for the kind words about this post, although as so often happens, I read tributes by other writers and mine starts to seem quite inadequate. I recommend this one from Billboard, which focuses on “I Honestly Love You”: https://www.billboard.com/music/chart-beat/olivia-newton-john-i-honestly-love-you-forever-number-one-1235124389/ Also this one from The Musical Divide, which discusses ONJ’s brief foray into country stardom: https://themusicaldivide.com/2022/08/10/olivia-newton-john-and-the-everlasting-pop-country-musical-divide/.
I will be doing a brief ONJ thing on my radio show Saturday night at 9PM US Central. Stream it at https://www.magic98.com/
“Magic” was really sublime, and it holds up remarkably well.
“A Little More Love” is a tough, legitimate rocker, and she handles that vocal as well as she would delicate mid-’70s ballads like “Please Mister Please.”
But my favorite Olivia Newton-John recording might be “Don’t Stop Believin'”–not THAT one, but an altogether different composition that came out five years before Journey’s world’s-most-well-known-song. Her phrasing on the chorus of “Don’t Stop Believin'” is poignant and inspired.