Olivia Newton-John, the dulcet-voiced singer from Australia who became a country-pop, folk-pop, rock-pop, disco-pop sensation in the 1970s, starred in the Hollywood musical juggernaut “Grease” and underwent a sultry makeover with her mega-selling 1981 record “Physical,” died Aug. 8 at her ranch in Southern California. She was 73.
Ms. Newton-John was treated for breast cancer in 1992, and she announced 25 years later, in 2017, that it had returned and metastasized. (She subsequently revealed that she had been battling the disease in private since 2013.)
Since her initial diagnosis at 44, Ms. Newton-John had become an advocate for cancer research and awareness, as well as for environmental causes. She sang for presidents and a pope, the sick and the disabled, and promoted music as a form of spiritual therapy, raising millions of dollars to fund the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Center at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital. Her later albums featured inspirational music about love, friendship and overcoming trauma.
“Music always helped me in my healing, and now it is my hope that it inspires healing in others,” she told a reporter in 2007.
Ms. Newton-John had burst forth in the mid-1960s as a perky teen singing talent on Melbourne TV shows and had a runaway hit in England with her 1971 solo cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You.”
She scored five No. 1 hit singles over the next decade — “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “You’re the One That I Want,” “Magic” and “Physical” — won four Grammy Awards, hosted television specials that drew tens of millions of viewers, and remained Australia’s all-time most successful solo music star.
But her slickly produced, sugary-sweet mix of styles irritated purists of all stripes and left some reviewers searching for pejoratives. One compared her thin, nondescript voice to a sandwich loaf (“If white bread could sing . . . ”). A Playboy writer observed that her music made the listener “feel as if you’ve been wrapped in cotton candy and set out in the sun.”
When the Country Music Association named Ms. Newton-John its female vocalist of the year in 1974, Nashville stars including Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton formed a short-lived rival organization intended to exclude pop singers from their musical terrain. Some detractors spread the perhaps apocryphal story that Ms. Newton-John, on a visit to the country music capital, was excited to meet Hank Williams, the country legend who had been in his grave for 20 years.
Ms. Newton-John was widely considered one of the most guileless performers in the business and avoided responding to criticism in kind. “I was just a performer the audience found pleasant,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “And after all, the audience’s opinion is the only one that counts, isn’t it?”
Her revenge was at the cash register, with a string of hit songs. In her sold-out concert hall appearances, she tamped down expectations with self-deprecating wit, once telling an audience in Las Vegas: “About every 10 years, a really fantastic song comes along. And until it does, I’d like to sing one of mine.”
Then came “Grease” (1978), which showcased both her charm and sex appeal. The film, based on the long-running Broadway musical comedy about a 1950s high school, featured Ms. Newton-John as a goody-goody exchange student and cheerleader, Sandy, who falls for John Travolta as the (not so) bad-boy gang leader Danny.
By the finale, he is sporting a varsity letterman sweater, and she has transformed into a temptress wearing skintight black pants, a black biker’s jacket and red stilettos. She became an instant pinup for a generation of boys. “Those pants changed my life,” she quipped.
New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called Ms. Newton-John’s performance “very funny and utterly charming.” Audiences responded in particular to her chemistry with Travolta in duets such as “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want.” The soundtrack sold millions of copies and sent audiences back into the theater, creating a perfect commercial storm.
She squandered her stardom in “Xanadu” (1980), a musical roller-disco fantasy that also featured Gene Kelly and the Electric Light Orchestra. It gave her the chart-topping “Magic” but was otherwise a critical and box office fiasco, which she compounded with the bomb “Two of a Kind” (1983), co-starring Travolta.
All along, she searched for an image to sustain her musical career. She was the blue-eyed girl next door who delivered her words in a smoky whisper. Then she was the shoulder-shaking discotheque queen, with her blond hair shaped into foxy flip wigs. There was an unfortunate attempt to vixenize her with a bare back and a riding crop — courtesy of the kinky photographer Helmut Newton — on the cover of the 1985 album “Soul Kiss.”
The image was jarringly out of character for Ms. Newton-John, who said she was far more conservative, even “boring,” in her personal life. She worried that “Physical,” an aggressively suggestive song initially intended for British singer Rod Stewart, risked a backlash from her fans. She opted before the record was released to first make a lighthearted video, set in a gym filled with out-of-shape men instead of in a boudoir.
It cannonballed to No. 1 for 10 weeks, becoming the biggest hit of her American career and a staple of many aerobics classes in the era of headbands and leggings.
Within a few years, her musical and movie trajectory had plateaued, but she remained a staple of glossy magazines, which chronicled her personal travails. She was a survivor of cancer; of the deaths of family and close friends from the disease; and of her daughter’s public battle with depression, anorexia and drug abuse.
She also endured the bankruptcy of her Aussie-themed boutique chain, Koala Blue. And she overcame at least one very hinky relationship, with a debt-ridden Hollywood cameraman who may have faked his own death.
Through her anguish, she maintained a musical career that increasingly became more New Age catharsis than pop. Those albums, all of which featured her as a tunesmith, included “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey” (1994), “Stronger Than Before” (2006) and “Liv On” (2016).
From singing star to cancer survivor
Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England, on Sept. 26, 1948. Her mother, the former Irene Born, was the daughter of the Nobel Prize-winning German-Jewish physicist Max Born, who had fled to England during Hitler’s rise.
Her father, Brinley Newton-John, was a German instructor at the University of Cambridge who relocated the family to Australia in the early 1950s when he became dean of a college in Melbourne. It was a musical home, with her father playing piano and her mother on cello. Olivia, the youngest of three siblings, sang.
After her parents’ divorce, she found profound comfort in music. She sang at her brother-in-law’s coffeehouse on weekends, then at local dances and parties, and finally on TV. By 17, she had quit high school to pursue show business in England.
In 1969, the music impresario Don Kirshner, who had manufactured the Monkees as an American answer to the Beatles, assembled a band called Toomorrow that he described as “an action-adventure group — James Bond with music,” with Ms. Newton-John among its members. An eponymous science-fiction movie designed to launch the group proved an abysmal failure.
Ms. Newton-John represented England in the Eurovision contest in 1974 and lost to Sweden’s Abba — a small stumble on her climb up the charts.
She had long relationships with guitarist Bruce Welch of the Shadows and her onetime manager Lee Kramer before marrying Matt Lattanzi, a “Xanadu” backup dancer, in 1984. The marriage collapsed in the early 1990s amid the strain of her cancer fight.
In 2005, her on-and-off boyfriend of nine years, cameraman Patrick McDermott, disappeared on an overnight chartered fishing expedition off San Pedro, Calif. A Coast Guard investigation concluded that he probably drowned. But McDermott’s troubled financial history fueled enduring speculation that he had staged his death and was living incognito in Mexico. (Ms. Newton-John was in Australia at the time of the incident and was reserved in her public statements, once calling the situation “heartbreaking.”)
In 2008, Ms. Newton-John married John “Amazon John” Easterling, an importer of South American herbs. In addition to her husband, survivors include a daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, with whom Ms. Newton-John recorded a dance-beat version of “Magic” in 2015; a sister; and a brother.
“It’s funny, but now I am known more for being a breast cancer survivor than for being a performer,” Ms. Newton-John said long into her initial recovery from the disease. “It makes me proud to be someone who can inspire and help people. Maybe that was supposed to be my job all along.”