RIP: Olivia Newton-John, 1948-2022

“I’ll forever be Sandy (her character in the 1978 film Grease) to a lot of people, and (we’ll see) when I’m 80, but right now it seems to okay.” That’s what Olivia Newton-John told me in 2011 in a phoned interview promoting a concert at the Palace Theater in Albany. She didn’t quite make 80, dying August 8th at age 73. 

I always liked Olivia. What was not to like? The rock magazine Creem once asked the snarky question: “What female singer would ya like most to sit in yr lap?” Connie Francis? (too old) Cher? (too bananas). Answer: Olivia!” 

In Grease she played a pretty girl next door who goes bad in leather pants for a ‘hood” played by John Travolta. She had hits in several genres from country to pop rock, one of which, “Physical” got banned for its suggestive lyrics on some radio stations. I admired that.  

I also empathized with her decades long struggle with breast cancer. Below is my 2011 article promoting her area show. I don’t mention her breast cancer. My mom had it in 1948 and lived to 2007. Let’s just say I didn’t want to jinx her struggle with that awful disease, Instead, we kept it light. I’ve done so many interviews, I often forget them years later. Not this one. She was warm, engaging, a beauty that was more than skin deep. 

Olivia Newton John interview for The Troy Record and Saratogian 12 08 11 

Olivia Newton-John 33 Years after Grease 

By Don Wilcock 

          “Grease has been the constant in the last 30 years,” says Olivia Newton-John about her starring role with John Travolta in the film musical that in 1978 surpassed The Sound of Music as the highest grossing musical ever at that time. 

          “The movie is so beloved by people,” says Olivia who stars at the Palace Saturday night. “I’ll forever be Sandy to a lot of people, and (we’ll see) when I’m 80, but right now it seems to okay,” she chuckles. 

          Even in 1978 it was considered a stretch for the then 29-year-old Australian singer to play a senior at Rydell High. The musical takes place in 1958, and good girl Sandy Olson (Olivia) falls for bad boy Danny Zuko (John Travolta). Marie Osmond turned down the role at the time because it calls for the female lead to “turn bad” in order to win her guy. By the last scene, Olivia turns into a cigarette-smoking, leather-clad hotty.  

Olivia had only appeared in one film prior to this, a 1970 flop called Toomorrow. (YES, THIS IS SPELLED RIGHT) Fact followed fiction in her recording career. Prior to Grease, her most successful single had been a goody good song called “Have You Never Been Mellow.” Grease changed all that. One duet with Travolta, “You’re The One That I Want,” released prior to the film, went to number one. “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” another duet from Grease, hit number three. “Physical,” her number one single in 1981, was called “the sexiest song of all time” by the music industry Bible, Billboard magazine, and was one of several hits off an album of the same name that featured her on the cover in tight leather. 

If she were concerned about playing a high school senior 33 years ago, how does she feel today at 63? “It’ll be weird when I’m 80, but it seems all right now,” she giggles. “Basically, it’s actually been a real blessing because the music has been fantastic. John Farrar wrote some amazing songs for me and for John, and they were added into the original (Broadway play). Barry Gibb (of the Bee Gees) of course wrote the theme song. Barry’s a good friend of mine. So, it’s like really a gift, and people come to the show, little kids with their grandparents now. That’s the span.” 

The film itself was re-released in 1998, and a sing-a-long version played select theaters in 2010. But it’s not as if Grease is her only claim to fame. She laughs out loud when asked how she’s remained fresh for 40 years when so many singers from her era have become oldies acts. “I’m never going to give in to that expression,” says a woman whose sold more than 100 million albums, won four Grammys and has both a new film and a new CD due out next year. 

“Gee, maybe I am (an oldies act) without knowing it. I’ve been around for so long that I try to keep the show fresh, and I try to put new stuff in there, and when you say oldies, you mean doing their old songs? I do my old songs. Does that make me an oldies act?” 

I mention to her one of her mentors, Dionne Warwick, who hasn’t made the charts in decades. “No, I think I’ve been really fortunate. I don’t work all the time live, and I don’t do an awful lot of live performing now. I do sporadic little spurts here and there, but I have recorded, and I’ve recorded with other people, and I’ve made films and hosted shows, and I’m always doing something because I enjoy it, and I feel very fortunate that I’m offered all kinds of opportunities to do new things, and I like that.” 

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