Olivia Newton-John breathed sensuality into ’70s soft-rock

Olivia Newton-John performed a superb woman gone unhealthy in “Grease,” the film that turned her right into a famous person in 1978. However Newton-John, who died on Monday from breast most cancers at age 73, was by no means really was a nasty woman — whether or not she sang nation or disco, she specialised within the mellowest rock — but a key a part of her enchantment lay in how her gentle contact appeared sensuous, not saccharine.

That simmering sense of seduction may attain a boil, because it did when she closed out “Grease” duetting with John Travolta on “You’re the One That I Want” whereas wearing skin-tight leather-based or on the video to her 1981 smash “Physical,” the place she fortunately performed a seductress on the prowl.

Spending 10 weeks on the high of the Billboard charts, “Physical” grew to become the form of hit that redefined Newton-John’s public persona, serving to to melt the blow of “Xanadu,” the 1980 roller-disco extravaganza that successfully introduced her silver display screen goals to an in depth. “Physical” additionally pushed her early successes on the nation charts into historical past, changing into a pop perennial as enduring as “Grease,” but it surely didn’t open one other chapter in her profession. It was the end result of a decade price of hits that made her one of many prime figures in that the majority retro of standard music genres — straightforward listening or, because it got here to be recognized, grownup up to date.

The one constant inside her decade and a half on the high of the charts is how she gravitated towards the center of the street, discovering a clean path whether or not she was singing nation or disco, the 2 types that bookended her Seventies journey. Newton-John didn’t drive these adjustments a lot as she navigated them, adapting to totally different sounds and types with the aplomb of a showbiz pure.

That innate sense of present was cultivated in her native Australia and acknowledged by Don Kirshner, the producer who helped deliver the Monkees to air. He tried to deliver that very same prefab spirit into the longer term with “Toomorrow,” a 1970 science-fiction flick through which a pop group that includes Newton-John is kidnapped by aliens. The film went nowhere, identical to the only she recorded for Decca again within the Sixties, but it helped increase her profile sufficient to land her a document contract with Pye, which launched her debut album, “If Not for You,” in 1971.

“If Not for You” discovered Newton-John in acquainted interval garb, recording such up to date requirements as Bob Dylan’s title observe, Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” plus Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” The sounds had been as acquainted because the songs, pitched midway between the fragile folk-pop of Anne Murray and the cheerful nation of John Denver, but these productions are distinguished by Newton-John’s presence. Her voice was candy and clear, delivered with precision and a heat that lent depth and dimension to her information. She didn’t interpret songs a lot as inhabit them, a top quality that got here into sharp reduction along with her breakthrough American hits, “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” songs that obtained their begin on nation radio and crossed over into pop.

Earlier than “Grease,” Newton-John was marketed as a rustic singer, however Nashville by no means welcomed her with open arms. As soon as she took house the Grammy for nation feminine vocal for “Let Me Be There” and was named the Nation Music Assn.’s feminine vocalist of the yr in 1974, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette fashioned the Assn. of Nation Entertainers, a company designed to maintain such pop interlopers as Newton-John away from nation music.

Trying again, it’s puzzling to suppose that Newton-John was seen as such a risk, notably as a result of her albums of the early and mid-Seventies had been captured in everlasting gentle focus. Listening extra carefully, notably to the chart-toppers “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow,” it’s not onerous to see this as a response to that sultry undercurrent in Newton-John’s mild guarantees — she could also be whispering her phrases of affection, however they’re seductions all the identical.

Olivia Newton-John

(RB/Redferns through Getty Pictures)

“Hopelessly Devoted to You,” the show-stopping ballad on the coronary heart of “Grease,” grew to become the ultimate installment of this swaying, love-struck trilogy, however the film pushed her out of nation and firmly into pop.

The shift on “Totally Hot,” the shiny album she delivered on the finish of 1978, isn’t as a result of new producers — she’s nonetheless working with John Farrar, who had been along with her since 1973 — however a brand new perspective: She’s determined to ramp up punchy pop hooks on “A Little More Love” and luxuriate within the neon-lit vibe of “Deeper Than the Night.”

This spirit was carried by means of on “Magic,” a shimmering, muted disco track from the “Xanadu” soundtrack. The movie might have flopped on the field workplace, but it surely confirmed how Newton-John sounded persuasive in a wide range of settings: She’s at house in Jeff Lynne’s overcooked title observe and duetting with a slick, cornball Cliff Richard on “Suddenly.”

A few of this versatility will be heard on the “Physical” album, which hits tougher in its rhythms and guitars than her earlier albums, a directness that’s mirrored by its blockbuster hit and its sequel “Make a Move on Me.”

Hardness by no means was Newton-John’s consolation zone, although, and the Nineteen Eighties had been a a lot tougher decade than the Seventies.

The inherent heat of Seventies studio periods gave option to the chilly, synthesized gleam of the Nineteen Eighties, a sterile sound that suited her nicely solely as soon as: the candied faux-new wave of “Twist of Fate,” taken from “Two of a Kind,” her 1983 reunion with John Travolta.

“Twist of Fate” was her final High 10 hit in America. After taking one final stab on the pop mainstream with 1985’s “Soul Kiss,” she retreated from the limelight, alternating between self-styled workouts in empowerment like 1994’s “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey” and returns to her roots, like 1998’s “Back With a Heart,” the place she recorded “I Honestly Love You” with R&B impresario Babyface.

Over the past a long time of her life, Olivia Newton-John focused on music impressed by her work along with her most cancers basis, in addition to recording an inordinate variety of Christmas albums (notably, she reunited with Travolta for 2012’s “This Christmas”). All this was good-looking work that constructed upon a legacy she usually embraced in public, going as far as to sing “Physical” with the solid of “Glee” in 2010.

A greater reflection of the breadth and depth of Newton-John’s affect could also be “Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John,” a 2018 tribute from the indie-rock stalwart. On the floor, Hatfield seems to be an unlikely acolyte, as she’s at all times performed guitar-rock on the perimeter of the mainstream, but her salute to her first musical heroine illustrates the broad enchantment of Newton-John. Punk rockers and pop idols had been each drawn to the marginally ethereal, eternally candy hits she had at her peak, gentle rock so dreamy that it may possibly nonetheless sound as if it’s floating within the air.