A baker’s half-dozen of moments from an adolescence and early adulthood of fandom for Olivia Newton-John:
“Let Me Be There”
It’s late 1973 or early 1974 when I first hear her voice. Like most of my musical discoveries in those days, this gift arrives while riding with the rest of my family in my father’s black 1971 LTD. (It’s nighttime, as it is so often in those memories.) The deep bass background vocals helped the song stand out, but I’m certain I paid enough attention that I knew her name going forward.
Looking back now, I’m a little surprised that it took just a little over a year for Olivia to go from here to two #1 singles–it felt longer than that at the time.
“Come On Over”
ON-J’s first wave of popularity had already crested by April 1976, to the point where her singles didn’t automatically receive airplay on WSAI, Cincinnati’s AM Top 40 station. This twelve-year-old had recently disovered AT40, however, so I got to learn about (and greatly enjoy) this Barry Gibb-penned tune anyway. It’s among the first of many songs from the second half of the 70s I’ll know only because of listening to Casey.
“Hopelessly Devoted to You”
Around the time that Grease was set to make a splash (mid-May 1978), Olivia hosted a special on ABC. While I doubt I actually watched the show, I was completely captivated by the photo appearing in the TV Guide Close Up that talked it up.
I may as well confess–I clipped this out of our TV Guide back then (remember, I was 14). I spent a little time yesterday rummaging through where I thought it’d be if I still had it but came up empty. This image, courtesy of imdb.com, will have to do.
I didn’t see Grease until a Sunday afternoon toward the end of August (my freshman year of HS began the next day). By that time, “You’re the One That I Want” had already come and gone from the charts, while “Summer Nights” and “Hopeless Devoted to You” were in full ascent. (Even before I saw the movie, I accurately sensed where each of the three appeared in it.)
Olivia was in the process of a remarkable career pivot, one whose success was surpassed at the time only by that of the Bee Gees. In the coming months, I would dig on both of the hit singles from Totally Hot; the wink in the line “Where did my innocence go?” from “A Little More Love” did not escape my notice.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first Olivia Newton-John 45 I ever purchased. (I did eventually buy “Sam,” several years after it was a hit.) All the singles from Xanadu were huge hits with me. The title song and “Suddenly” both topped the personal Top 50 charts I was maintaining at the time, but “Magic” dwarfed those feats, spending four weeks at #1, eleven weeks in the Top 3; I rated it as my second favorite song of the year. Yes, I saw the movie at the time–I have no regrets.
“Twist of Fate”
Easily my favorite song of hers post-Xanadu. “Physical” was fine though I didn’t really understand its ten-week run at #1 on the Hot 100, while “Heart Attack,” charting just as I started college, held no appeal at all. I think it’s the drive of the beat, the urgency in the chorus, that make “Twist of Fate” stand out. Yes, I saw Two of a Kind at the time–there may be some regrets over that choice.
Sexy Liv tries for one more big hit but comes up empty. When James and I put together a radio show documenting highs and lows of the music of 1985, I crowned this “Most Boring Song of the Year.” (Another friend thought that the second word of the title should have been replaced with a different four-letter word.) I’ll admit it took me decades to acquire any feel for what was going on here.
What goes around, comes around. Olivia was approaching forty, so she went back to her AC roots, though without the country inflections. I was well into my grad school years and learned about “The Rumour” via VH-1 and one of the less rock-oriented stations in Champaign-Urbana. I was aware of Elton John’s contributions at the time, but you wouldn’t have to be told to suss it out.
For a decent while, Olivia Newton-John absolutely was one of my favorites; as you can imagine, much of her music is interwoven with the fabric of my formative years. I applaud both her talent and her courage. She was a treasure.