“Physical” Singer, Grease Star Olivia Newton-John Dead at 73

Music News Olivia Newton-John
“Physical” Singer, Grease Star Olivia Newton-John Dead at 73

Singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, best-known for her 1981 smash-hit single “Physical” and her starring role in Grease, died at her Southern California ranch on Monday, her husband John Easterling announced via social media. She was 73 years old.

“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” Easterling wrote. “Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any donations be made in her memory to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund.”

Born Sept. 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England, the youngest of three children, Newton-John was raised in Melbourne, Australia. At 14, she was already a regular on Australian TV, performing as “Lovely Livvy,” and in 1966, she recorded her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine,” for Decca Records. Her debut solo album If Not for You (self-titled in the U.K.)—and her first international hits—followed in 1971. She won her first Grammy (for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female) for her 1973 single “Let Me Be There,” the title track from her album of the same name.

Newton-John represented the U.K. in 1974’s Eurovision Song Contest, singing “Long Live Love” (though that would be ABBA’s year to win it). Her album of the same name, released in the U.S. as If You Love Me, Let Me Know, featured “I Honestly Love You,” her first pop chart-topper. The track won her two more Grammys, for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. She soon relocated to the U.S. and released another album, Have You Never Been Mellow, setting a Guinness World Record—for the shortest time period between chart-topping albums by women, at 154 days—that would stand for 45 years.

In 1978, Newton-John’s career took off when she starred in the film adaptation of Broadway’s Grease, playing Sandy opposite John Travolta’s Danny, in only her third screen role. The film was a box-office smash with a soundtrack to match: Her duet with Travolta “You’re the One That I Want” hit #1 and went platinum in a little over a month, and remains one of the best-selling singles of all time. The soundtrack also produced two other top-five hits, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights,” and made Newton-John the second woman in history (after Linda Ronstadt) with two simultaneous top-five singles. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was nominated for an Oscar—she performed it at the 1979 ceremony—while Newton-John’s performance earned her a Golden Globe nod.

“I think the songs are timeless,” Newton-John told Billboard in 2018, when Grease was celebrating its 40th anniversary. “They’re fun and have great energy. The ’50s-feel music has always been popular, and it’s nostalgic for my generation, and then the young kids are rediscovering it every 10 years or so, it seems. People buying the album was a way for them to remember those feelings of watching the movie and feelings of that time period. I feel very grateful to be a part of this movie that’s still loved so much.”

Newton-John starred alongside Gene Kelly in 1980’s Xanadu, a critical failure whose soundtrack was another enormous success, producing five top-20 singles (three of which featured Newton-John) on its way to double platinum status. One of those was the Grammy-nominated “Magic,” which would later inspire a 2007, Tony-nominated Broadway show of its own. Her biggest pop hit to that point was soon followed by her most popular studio album, 1981’s double platinum Physical—the title track topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 straight weeks, and Olivia Physical, her companion video album, won her her fourth Grammy, for Video of the Year.

Newton-John’s output of new albums and hits collections slowed but remained steady through the ‘80s and early ‘90s. She collaborated with Travolta, Elton John and others, and took a three-year hiatus while pregnant with her daughter, Chloe, who was born in 1986. But in 1992, while planning her first major tour since her Physical era, Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer, forcing her to shelve those plans, and turning her into the breast cancer patient and survivor advocate she is remembered as today. Sadly, her breast cancer would return in 2013, and again in 2017.

All told, Newton-John’s music career saw her release 14 gold albums—including two platinum and four double platinum—and 11 gold singles, including two platinum. Her 100+ million records sold globally make her one of the best-selling musicians of the past century.

Newton-John established the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne in 2008, the same year she married Easterling. In 2020, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (the female equivalent of a knighthood), and in 2021, she and her daughter Chloe released a duet called “Window in the Wall.”

Newton-John is survived by her husband Easterling, her daughter Chloe Lattanzi, her siblings Sarah and Toby Newton-John, and her nieces and nephews: Tottie, Fiona and Brett Goldsmith; Emerson, Charlie, Zac, Jeremy, Randall, and Pierz Newton-John; Jude Newton-Stock; Layla Lee; Kira and Tasha Edelstein; and Brin and Valerie Hall.

Revisit a few of Newton-John’s best-loved hits below.

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