(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.