Olivia Newton-John, the multiple-Grammy-winning “Physical” and “I Honestly Love You” singer who went on to star in the beloved film musical Grease and later Xanadu, died today at her Southern California ranch, according to her official Facebook page. She was 73.
No cause of death was given, but Newton-John had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. She later recovered, but the cancer recurred in 2013 and had metastasized to her lower back within four years. She long had been an activist against the disease.
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A UK native who was raised in Australia, Newton-John began her career as a country singer but quickly crossed over to pop with the late-1973 hit “Let Me Be There.” It was the first of 15 Top 10 U.S. singles, including five No. 1s: “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Please Mr., Please,” “You’re the One That I Want” (with John Travolta, from Grease), “Magic” (from the 1980 film Xanadu) and her biggest smash, “Physical.” The latter topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks and was the biggest single of 1981. It also spurred a physical-fitness craze, with its music video featuring Newton-John — in a a period-defining outfit that included a leotard and headband — cavorting among hardbody models and chunky schlubs just trying to work off a few dozen extra pounds. Watch it below.
Newton-John won four Grammy Awards among a dozen nominations during her career: “Let Me Be There” took Best Country Performance, Female, in 1974; “I Honestly Love You” won Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, the following year; and “Heart Attack” took Video of the Year in 1983. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
She is best known to movie fans as the “Sandra Dee”-esque Sandy in Grease, the 1978 smash that remains among the top-grossing movie musicals of all time. Starring opposite Travolta in the Broadway adaptation, Newton-John sang the film’s ballad country-tinged “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and also duetted with Travolta and company on “Summer Nights.” Both of those singles also made the U.S. Top 10. The film’s soundtrack spent 12 nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. It also spawned a No. 1 hit with Frankie Valli’s title track.
Grease was a sensation with it premiered in June 1978. With several scenes shot at Venice High and Marshall High in Los Angeles, it combines the era’s 1950s nostalgia with the burgeoning disco movement and made film stars of Newton-John and Travolta. They played star-crossed polar-opposite lovers who become the king and queen of Rydell High School, with Newton-John’s Sandy Dumbrowski getting an extreme makeover from the prim, ponytailed new girl at school into a leather-clad stunner near the end.
Grease was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2020.
The film also helped fuel Newton-John’s stellar music career. Along with “Physical” and “Magic,” she also had post-Grease Top 10 hits with the disco-flecked “A Little More Love,” “Make a Move on Me,” “Heart Attack,” “Twist of Fate” and the title track from follow-up film, “Xanadu.” She had five Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart as well.
Released by Universal in August 1980, Xanadu coat-tailed the late-’70s roller disco craze, with Newton-John starring as Kira, a mysterious woman who falls in love with a struggling freelance artist (Michael Beck) living in Los Angeles. Despite co-starring Gene Kelly, the film was not a commercial hit — the skating fad mostly had ebbed by the time it came out — but its soundtrack reached No, 4 on the Billboard 200 and went on to go double platinum. It also features Electric Light Orchestra and the Tubes.
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Many of Newton-John’s solo albums also were hot sellers in the 1970s and early ’80s, with If You Love Me, Let Me Know topping the Billboard 200 in October 1974 and follow-up “Have You Never Been Mellow” doing the same just five months later. Two others made the U.S. Top 10: Totally Hot (1978) and Physical (1981).
Born on September 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England, Newton-John moved with her family to Melbourne, Australia, when she was a child. She began in music eith a teenage pop group before winning an Australian TV talent show. She made her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine” in 1966, and toured English clubs as part of the duo Pat & Olivia with Pat Carroll. She later returned Down Under to continue her music career.
Newton-John is survived by her husband, John Easterling; daughter Chloe Lattanzi; her sister, Sarah Newton-John; her brother, Toby Newton-John; and many nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any donations be made in her memory at ONJfoundation.org.
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