Singer Olivia Newton-John, c1970s.

Vale Olivia Newton-John

Vale Olivia Newton-John

Singer, actor and humanitarian
 Crispian Winsor

Olivia Newton-John was one of the biggest Australian stars to ever make a successful international career. Whether it was in music, movies, as an entrepreneur or as an advocate for breast cancer research, she left an indelible mark on the world around her.

Olivia was born in Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 1948. At the age of 5, her family emigrated to Melbourne when her father was appointed master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne.

Star in the making

In 1964 and 1965, she began to focus on a career as a performer and appeared on local television shows including Time For Terry and the children’s movie, Funny Things Happen Down Under. She also appeared on a now-forgotten show called Boomeride.

In 2018 the NFSA acquired episode 7 of Boomeride, which featured Olivia in what is believed to be one of her earliest-known surviving live musical appearances. Unlike other shows of the time that featured lip-synched performances, this show had vocalists sing live with a 4-piece band. In this clip from the show, she sings ‘Crawl Baby Crawl’:

Olivia Newton-John performs on Boomeride (1965).  NFSA Title: 1551990

Another program that featured her regularly was The Go!! Show which is where she met 2 people who came to have an enormous influence on her career: Pat Carroll and John Farrar.

Two images of Olivia Newton-John. On the left is a full length shot of her wearing a white dress and singing. On the right she is standing next to Johnny O'Keefe along with three other people on the set of 'Sing Sing Sing'.
Olivia Newton-John on Sing Sing Sing, 1964. Left: performing ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’. NFSA Title: 1000226. Right: Johnny O’Keefe announces her as winner of the Sitmar Talent Quest. NFSA Title: 689782. Courtesy: Seven Network.

With the former, she formed a duo called Pat and Olivia. They eventually moved to the UK after Olivia had won a talent contest on the television program Sing Sing Sing, hosted by Johnny O'Keefe. When Pat’s visa expired, Olivia stayed to further her career.

After limited success initially, she eventually released her first solo album, If Not For You, in 1971. This album was produced by one of the founding members of The Shadows, Bruce Welch (who was Olivia’s partner at the time) and John Farrar. John and Olivia became musical partners and he produced all of her albums for the next 15 years.

The title track (a cover of the Bob Dylan composition) was a hit in the UK and Australia as well as – more unexpectedly – the US.

From the Grammys to Grease

Olivia Newton-John wearing jeans and a red shirt and sitting on a wooden fence
Olivia Newton-John publicity image, c.1980. NFSA title: 789743.

In 1973, Olivia released the country-influenced single 'Let Me Be There', which peaked at No. 6 in America and earned her a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocalist. Although this decision did not thrill the Country Music Association, who felt that Olivia was 'not country enough', it did establish her as a bona fide star in the United States.

In 1978, after winning 3 Grammy Awards and enjoying several hits on the American Country, Pop and Adult Contemporary charts, Olivia was offered the role of Sandy opposite John Travolta as Danny in the film adaptation of the stage musical, Grease. This film changed Olivia’s career as it became the biggest box-office success of 1978 and one of the most loved musical films of all time.

Olivia was sceptical about the role at first as, at 28, she felt she was too old to play a high school student and she felt that her trying to be American wasn’t going to be convincing.

The producers changed her character to an Australian who moved to America with her family. In this clip from The Mike Walsh Show in 1980, Olivia explains how this decision was made:

The Mike Walsh Show, Ep. 0135, 18 August 1980. Courtesy Mike Walsh AM, OBE and Hayden Productions. NFSA title: 1247493.

Along with the film itself being a hit, the soundtrack was also a huge success. It included 2 songs written for the film by John Farrar which were massive hits in their own right: 'Hopelessly Devoted to You' and 'You’re the One That I Want' (a duet with John Travolta), which was added to the NFSA’s Sounds of Australia registry in 2019:

'You're the One that I Want' (1978), from the Grease music soundtrack. Performed by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, composed by John Farrar. NFSA title: 222298.

New look, new sound

Following this success, Olivia continued her music career with a new image. On the cover of her next album, Totally Hot, she was dressed in leather, a move that has been attributed to the look of Olivia’s character Sandy at the end of Grease.

Musically, the album was a change too. Instead of country pop music, it featured a more new wave pop sound that generated hits such as 'A Little More Love' and 'Deeper Than the Night'.

This musical change continued with the soundtrack of her next film, Xanadu, in 1980. The soundtrack produced more big hits for Olivia including 'Magic', 'Suddenly' (a duet with Cliff Richard) and the title track.

However, the film itself was not successful with critics or at the box office. This is despite the casting of 1940s and 50s film icon Gene Kelly, who Olivia refers to with great respect in this clip from The Mike Walsh Show in 1980:

The Mike Walsh Show, Ep. 0135, 18 August 1980. Courtesy Mike Walsh AM, OBE and Hayden Productions. NFSA title: 1247493.

Following Xanadu, Olivia went on to have the biggest album of her career with Physical in 1981.

The title track stayed at No. 1 in the US for 10 weeks as well as becoming a hit all around the world.

This was helped by the provocative film clip which, in the form of the ‘Olivia Physical’ music video collection, won the Grammy Award for Video of the Year in 1983.

Olivia's legacy

Although she continued to have occasional success on the charts, after Physical, she began to focus on other interests. In 1982, she and Pat Carroll (now Farrar, after marrying John Farrar), created the company Koala Blue which included a shop in Hollywood.

She also involved herself in humanitarian causes, particularly those involving animal welfare. Another major focus of her life was her advocacy for breast cancer research after she was first diagnosed in 1992.

Olivia had one of the most interesting and eclectic careers of any Australian performer. As one of the most successful recording artists of her generation around the world, her legacy will continue for many years to come.

Main image: publicity image of Olivia Newton-John for TV Guide, c1977. Photographer unknown. NFSA title: 789770.