Olivia Newton-John, Pop’s First Female Chameleon

As the superstar turns 70, let’s revisit her ever-changing moods.

From Grease’s good girl… (Photo: Paramount Pictures)
To Grease’s bad girl… (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Folkie and Rocker Olivia (1971–1972)

Olivia meets Dylan? Strange but true. When Olivia scored her first hit single in 1971 with “If Not for You,” she was singing a song Bob Dylan wrote and originally recorded for his 1970 album A New Morning.

Country Queen Olivia (1973–1977)

Her first burst of superstardom came with a string of pop hits, beginning with 1973’s “Let Me Be There,” that also charted high on Billboard’s country singles chart. Although Olivia never considered herself a country singer, she hit the country Top 10 six more times, winning the Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy for “Let Me Be There” and the Academy of Country Music’s Top Female Vocalist prize in 1974.

Pop Star Olivia (1978 to 1988)

By 1975’s chart-topping Have You Never Been Mellow, the best of her ’70s solo albums, Olivia was slowly phasing country out of her sound. She covered Bee Gees for the title track of Come on Over in 1976, nearly a half-decade before Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and Diana Ross made collaborating with the Brothers Gibb ’80s-fashionable.

Movie Star Olivia (1978)

Without the precedent-setting Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Olivia Newton-John in Grease in the ’70s, we might not have Cher in Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again (and no Dancing Queen, Cher’s ABBA tribute album, out two days after Olivia’s 70th) and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born 40 years after Grease. (Previous female double-threats like Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Streisand launched their acting and recording careers more or less concurrently.)

Sex Goddess Olivia (1979 to 1985)

The Grease makeover stuck! When Olivia’s Grease good girl Sandy went bad in skin-tight black leather in the movie’s most iconic scene, it telegraphed a shift in her music and her image that would begin the following year with “A Little More Love.”

“Physical” Fitness Olivia (1981)

Hello, controversy… again. Olivia’s signature hit, which was banned by radio stations around the country for being too sexy (“Let’s get physical — get it?), wasn’t actually all that sexy. Sure, the double entendre was risqué for the times, but the song itself was a perky pop confection better suited to aerobics class than the bedroom.

New-wave Oliva (1982–1985)

After the success of “Physical,” Olivia enjoyed a string of hits that were sonically aligned with the new-wave sound of the times. While bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club were launching a second British invasion with new-wave hits, Olivia’s singles took on more of a synth-pop sound, from “Heart Attack” to “Living in Desperate Times.”

Go All the Way Olivia (1985)

“When I look at that video, I don’t even know who that woman is,” Olivia told me in 1998, during a telephone interview months before she turned 50. (When she was answering my question about reaching the half-decade milestone, I could hear her then-12-year-old daughter Chloe saying in the background: “But Mom, fifty isn’t old.”)

Earth Mother Olivia (1994)

Five years after closing the ’80s with Warm and Tender, a 1989 album of children’s lullabies (including Brahms’s — naturally), and two years after battling breast cancer in 1992, another new Olivia made a music comeback with Gaia: One Woman’s Journey.

“Cancer Thriver” Olivia (the ’90s to now)

Now facing her third battle with cancer, this time in her lower back after being treated successfully for cancer in her shoulder in 2013, Olivia looks as beautiful and youthful as she did 20 years ago when she was on the cusp of 50.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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