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Olivia Newton-John - 1948-2022

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 8 / 9 / 2022

Olivia Newton-John - 1948-2022

Dame Olivia Newton-John died peacefully at her Californian ranch on Monday 8 August, aged 73. She had suffered from cancer for over 30 years and is survived by her husband John Easterling and her daughter from her first marriage, Chloe Lattanzi. Although she will always be remembered for her role as Sandy in the 1970s musical phenomenon ‘Grease’ - alongside her co-star John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John had achieved so much more than that - not least in her unstinting charitable work including cancer research through her Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund. In her musical career she also achieved far more than many people now remember. Over five decades of performing, she released 26 studio albums plus a dozen live performance albums, winning four Grammys and a score of other awards. She sold more than 100 million albums and had three Number One hits in the UK - including 1981's single ‘Physical’ which topped the charts in more than 20 countries. Born in Cambridge, England, Olivia had emigrated to Australia aged six when her father, a distinguished MI5 operative during World War 2 and subsequently, took up a professorship at the University of Melbourne. By her mid-teens she was already showing promise as a music star in a girl group with several high school classmates. She later won a talent contest on Australian TV with a prize of a trip to the UK. By 1966 she had recorded her first single, ‘Till You Say You'll Be Mine’ in the UK and she subsequently formed a musical duo - Pat and Olivia - with an old friend from Melbourne, Pat Carroll. The pair toured clubs and army bases throughout the UK and in Europe and quickly developed a dedicated following. Soon they were taken on by Peter Gormley, a UK-based Australian who headed Cliff Richard's management team - and they supported Cliff's live appearances doing backing vocals and appearing in his BBC TV show. Olivia became engaged to former-Shadow and producer Bruce Welch at this time whilst her friend Pat Carroll later married their co-producer, Australian John Farrar – who also worked in the Cliff Richard team, sometimes performing with Welch and fellow-Shadow Hank Marvin as Marvin, Welch and Farrar. The support of Peter Gormley and Cliff's people helped ensure that Olivia's second single - a cover of Bob Dylan's ‘If Not For You’] reached the Top Ten in the UK and Australia. Her next single “Banks Of The Ohio” enjoyed chart success, too. By 1974, Olivia was sufficiently well-known to be chosen to sing the UK's Eurovision Song Contest entry, ‘Long Live Love’. Unfortunately, this was the year of the Abba phenomenon – and the Swedish group won with ‘Waterloo’, leaving Olivia in fourth place. By now Olivia Newton-John had started to enjoy some commercial success in the USA and she moved to Southern California, living in the beachside community at Malibu, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She was managed by Ian Kramer, a British businessman who she had met during a holiday in the South of France – and with whom she was now romantically involved. There were various attempts to interest Hollywood in featuring Olivia in a mainstream musical film but initially these didn't succeed. I was working in Los Angeles at this time and living in a home on Topanga Beach, adjacent to Malibu. I remember meeting Olivia - or Livvy as she preferred to be called - on many occasions as she either strolled alone or rode her horse along the beach in the early morning, right outside my home. She was always happy to chat and initially seemed the epitome of sunny innocence - though I quickly appreciated there was rather more to her than that. She would talk enthusiastically about London where she had lived for over eight years, relating many amusing anecdotes - and she clearly missed many of the friends she had left behind. She was nostalgic about Australia too – and her family back there. At this point Olivia was by no means sure she wanted to remain in America and on one occasion suggested she'd give it just another couple of years before returning to London or Australia, if she hadn't made a major breakthrough. She once commented to me that her major regret was that she was the big failure in her family. I remember her saying, “My grandfather was a top Nobel-prize-winning physicist and a close friend of Einstein; on my mother's side we are also related to Martin Luther and to a Spanish king. My dad, who is a university professor now, was from a Quaker family. He was a Cambridge scholar who spoke fluent German and worked through the war with MI5 and at Bletchley Park. He arrested and interrogated Hitler's Deputy, Rudolph Hess, too. He was also a brilliant classical musician and could sing opera like a professional! So, you see, there's a lot for me to live up to! I'm just someone who strums a guitar and sings a bit....definitely the failure of the family! But there's a lot of good that needs to be done in the world and I really feel I need to be achieving something much more positive. Hopefully soon!” Of course, things were to change with ‘Grease’. The 1978 film proved to be the ideal vehicle to transport Olivia to worldwide fame. Cinema in the 1970s had become hard-edged and gritty with films like ‘The Godfather’, ‘Dirty Harry’, ‘Pretty Baby’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’. By contrast, ‘Grease’ w\as a techni-coloured blast of escapist nostalgia.....a sunny, silly flashback to a post-war American heyday of promise and prosperity. Though it did have a darker side, too - with its hints at date rape, upskirting, gaslighting, toxic masculinity, slut-shaming and its heteronormativity, lack of diversity and even frequent wolf-whistling. ‘Grease’ commits so many woke sins and it would never be made by any Hollywood studio today! Olivia had some doubts about it too. But later she was always thankful for the way it helped her career and eventually gave her the resources and opportunity to do a huge amount of work to help others, just as she'd always promised herself she would do. In 2020, Olivia Newton-John was appointed a dame in the New Year's Honours for her contributions to charity, cancer research and entertainment. She could no longer blame herself for being the family's failure!

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Olivia Newton-John - 1948-2022

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