‘Grease’ star and pop singer Olivia Newton-John dies at 73

Newton-John amassed No. 1 hits, chart-topping albums and four records that sold more than two million copies each

Olivia Newton John starred with John Travolta in the 1978 hit movie Grease
Olivia Newton John starred with John Travolta in the 1978 hit movie Grease

Olivia Newton-John, who sang some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and 1980s and was the evergeen star of “Grease”, one of the most popular movie musicals of its era, died on Monday at her ranch in Southern California. She was 73.

The death was announced by her husband, John Easterling. She had lived with a breast cancer diagnosis since 1992 and in 2017 announced that the cancer had returned and spread. For years she was a prominent advocate for cancer research, starting a foundation in her name to support it and opening a research and wellness centre in metropolitan Melbourne, Australia. English-born, she grew up in Australia.

Newton-John amassed No. 1 hits, chart-topping albums and four records that sold more than two million copies each.

She scored seven Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Country chart, two of which became back-to-back overall No. 1 hits in 1974 and ’75. First came “I Honestly Love You”, followed by “Have You Never Been Mellow”.

In “Grease” in 1978, her character Sandy, is transformed from a pigtailed square smitten with John Travolta’s bad-boy Danny, to a gum-smacking bad girl. “Grease” became one of the highest grossing movie musicals ever, besting even “The Sound of Music”. Its soundtrack was the second best-selling album of the year, beaten only by the soundtrack for “Saturday Night Fever” which also starred John Travolta.

The “Grease” soundtrack spawned two No. 1 hits, both sung by the co-stars, including “You’re the One That I Want” and the doo-wop romp “Summer Nights”. A ballad Newton-John sang alone “Hopelessly Devoted to You”m earned the film’s lone Oscar nomination, for best song.

Olivia Newton-John was born on 26 September, 1948, in Cambridge, England, the youngest of three children of Brinley and Irene (Born) Newton-John. Her mother was the daughter of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. Her Welsh-born father had been an MI5 intelligence officer during World War II and afterward served as headmaster at Cambridgeshire High School for Boys.

When Newton-John was 6, her family immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where her father worked as a college professor and administrator.

Newton-John won a local TV talent contest whose prize was a trip to Britain. While tarrying there, she recorded her first single, “’Til You Say You’ll Be Mine”, which Decca Records released in 1966.

In 1970, she was asked to join a manufactured group named Toomorrow, formed by the American producer Don Kirshner in an attempt to repeat his earlier success with the Monkees. Following his grand design, the group starred in a science-fiction film written for them and recorded its soundtrack. Both projects tanked.

Her debut solo album, “If Not for You”, was released in 1971, its title track a cover of a Bob Dylan song.

Two key changes in pop music boosted her career that decade: the rise of “soft rock” in reaction to the harder genres of the late 1960s, and the mainstreaming of country music, also epitomised by stars like John Denver and Anne Murray.

The second phase of her career, which began with “Grease”, found further success through a duet with Andy Gibb, “I Can’t Help It”, followed by an attempt to expand her acting career with the 1980 musical film “Xanadu” with Gene Kelly.

Newton-John’s smash “Physical” also yielded the first video album to hit the market, with clips for all the album’s tracks.

By the mid-’80s, her career had cooled. For several years she cut back on work to care for her daughter, Chloe Rose, whom she had with her husband at the time, the actor Matt Lattanzi. They had met on the set of “Xanadu” and married in 1984; they divorced in 1995. In 2008, Newton-John married Easterling, the founder of the Amazon Herb Company.