Olivia Newton-John, the singer and ‘Grease’ star, dead at 73

Olivia Newton-John, the singer and 'Grease' star, dead at 73

Dame Olivia Newton-John, born on 26 September 1948, was a British-Australian singer, songwriter, actress, entrepreneur, and activist. She was a four-time Grammy Award winner whose music career included five number one hits and another ten Top Ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and two Billboard 200 number one albums If You Love Me, Let Me Know in 1974 and Have You Never Been Mellow 1975. Newton-John died on 8 August 2022, peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California” on Monday morning, “surrounded by family and friends.” 

The singer and actor were first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and underwent chemotherapy and a partial mastectomy. In 2013, cancer was found in her shoulder.

In September 2018, Newton-John revealed that her cancer had returned the previous year and had spread to her lower back.

The statement announcing her death highlighted her advocacy work for cancer research and asked fans to make donations to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer instead of flowers.

One of the best-selling artists of the 1970s and 1980s, Newton-John had a string of No. 1 singles, including “You’re the One That I Want,” the catchy duet she sang with John Travolta in the 1978 musical sensation Grease.

Her starring role in that film catapulted the Australian native into superstardom, as did her appearance with Gene Kelly in 1980s Xanadu. Her performance of the title track also topped the charts.

Her 1981 smash hit “Physical” further cemented her superstardom, spending ten weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, while its suggestive lyrics and fitness-themed music video reinvented her image for the rest of the 1980s.

“I recorded it and then suddenly thought, `Goodness, maybe I’ve gone too far!'” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2017, recalling how manager Roger Davies had suggested the song. “I called Roger and said, `We’ve got to pull this song!’ He said, `It’s too late. It’s already gone to radio, and it’s running up the charts.’ I was horrified!”

From 1973 to 1983, Newton-John had 14 top 10 singles just in the U.S. and won four Grammys. She sold over 100 million records throughout her career.

Newton-John was the daughter of German literature professor Brin Newton-John and Irene Bron, whose father was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Bron. The Newton-Johns moved to Australia when Olivia was 5, but she returned to England in her teens and lived with her mother after her parents broke up.

She had early dreams of becoming a veterinarian but was winning singing contests in high school and, before age 20, had toured army bases and clubs and recorded her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine.” In 1971, she covered Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” and began a close partnership with a friend from Australia, John Farrar, who produced the song and later wrote “You’re the One That I Want,” “Magic,” and several other hits for her.

She had loved country music, especially the records of “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, since childhood, but her early success didn’t impress critics or some fellow musicians. A Village Voice review likened her to a geisha who “makes her voice smaller than it is just to please men.” When Newton-John beat out Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn for the Country Music Association’s top artist of 1973, Tammy Wynette helped founded the Association of Country Entertainers, a club designed to exclude Newton-John and other crossover performers.

But Newton-John had a show business admirer who with her became one of the movies’ most special teams. Travolta had starred in the stage version of “Grease” and, for the planned film, thought Newton-John would be the “ultimate” Sandy, the nice girl who gets tough in the final act and gets her man.

“I worried that at 29, I was too old to play a high school girl,” Newton-John, who insisted on taking a screen test before accepting the part, told The Telegraph in 2017.

“Everything about making the film was fun, but if I had to pick a favourite moment, it was the transformation from what I call Sandy 1 to Sandy 2. I got to play a different character and wear different clothes, and when I put on that tight black outfit to sing `You’re the One That I Want,’ I got a very different reaction from the guys on the set.”

Until that decisive moment, Newton-John had favoured mild pop-country songs such as “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” and soft-breathing ballads like “I Honestly Love You,” which in 1975 won Grammys for best female pop vocal and record of the year.

She had a few hits after “Physical,” but her career declined, and Newton-John became more likely to make the news because of her private life. In 1992, as she was preparing for a concert tour, her father died, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Her marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi, with whom she had a daughter, actor-singer Chloe Lattanzi, broke up in 1995, and a years-long relationship with cameraman Patrick McDermott ended mysteriously. McDermott went missing during a 2005 fishing trip in California, and his fate remained unknown years later. Numerous reports alleged that he was living in Mexico with a new girlfriend.

“He was lost at sea, and nobody knows what happened,” Newton-John told Australia’s “60 Minutes” in 2016. “It’s human to wonder. But you know, those are the things in life you have to accept and let go of. Because whenever you go through difficult times, there’s always those concerns.”

Newton-John’s recent albums included “Stronger Than Before,” a holiday collaboration with Travolta, “This Christmas,” and the autobiographical “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey,” inspired by her battle with cancer and by the loss of her father.

Newton-John married John Easterling, founder of the Amazon Herb Company, in 2008. She was involved in numerous charitable causes, serving as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme and as a national spokeswoman for the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition. She founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

She is survived by her husband, daughter Chloe Lattanzi; sister Sarah Newton-John; brother Toby Newton-John; and several nieces and nephews.

Travolta was among the co-stars, collaborators and other celebrities who paid tribute to Newton-John on Monday after her death was announced.

“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” Travolta wrote in an online post. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road, and all be together again. Yours from the moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”

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