Why does hardly anyone know where Olivia Newton-John was born?!
PUBLISHED: 09:17 20 September 2018 | UPDATED: 09:17 20 September 2018
How old do you think Olivia Newton-John will be next week? We look at her life and career: from East Anglia to Eurovision and Grease, and her fight with cancer
“Oh, she had a good pair of lungs on her as a baby,” says my mother, back in 1978, as Grease-mania grips Britain. Who? “Olivia Newton-John.” What? Okaaay… How do you know? “Well, I saw her. Her dad was a headmaster in Cambridge.”
Tantalising. And, unfortunately, pretty much all. I didn’t pursue it then (big mistake) and my mother’s no longer here to ask.
Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge in 1948 (yep, she’s not an Australian, as almost everyone seems to think). It was a couple of years or so after father Prof Brin Newton-John became headmaster of Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, following illustrious wartime service in military intelligence.
My mother would have been 14 in 1948 and the city where she also lived would have been smaller than now. So she might have met this bonny baby at some point. Somehow. Somewhere.
Wonder if there’s a link between that cryptic nugget of information my mum casually dropped into the conversation in 1978 and my long-time appreciation of ONJ’s singing talents. (Picture my wife raising an eyebrow at this point.) Probably not. I think she’d already made an impact in 1974, when she flew the flag for the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Olivia came fourth in Brighton with Long Live Love as ABBA triumphed with Waterloo. (Great year.)
That’s got me thinking. For while we often bang on about Madonna reinventing herself, or Lady Gaga regenerating, ONJ had already been there, done that and printed the T-shirt. Sweet girl-next-door Eurovision hopeful to schoolgirl-turned-vamp in four years is quite some step.
By way of saying “Happy Birthday”, here’s my take on the Ages of Olivia.
That Eurovision era
Olivia’s career was treading water until 1973 song Let Me Be There broke into the top 10 of several US music charts and won her a Grammy award for “best country female”.
The following year she secured fourth place for the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest with Long Live Love. (Wearing a flouncy, unflattering, turquoisey, toes-to-throat, bedspread-like gown!) Single I Honestly Love You topped a number of charts in different countries – her first number-one.
Declared the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year – beating Dolly Parton.
Leaves UK for the US. Album Have You Never Been Mellow tops pop and country charts there. Has string of hit singles (particularly in States) up to 1977, including If You Love Me (Let Me Know), Let It Shine, Come On Over, Don’t Stop Believin’, and Sam.
Grease’s great days
Co-stars with John Travolta in film of Broadway musical Grease. Plays high school student Sandy Olsson (despite having 29th birthday during filming in 1977!) who in late 1950s meets “greaser” Danny Zuko on holiday. Later, she moves to his school and their romance blossoms (after a few stumbles).
(By the way: Many people think they married in real life. They didn’t!)
The film’s a worldwide hit and spawns hugely successful songs, including You’re The One That I Want, Hopelessly Devoted to You, and Summer Nights. Olivia is nominated for a Golden Globe as best actress in a musical. In the UK she gets an OBE.
The 1978 album Totally Hot gives her solo output a punchier edge, with songs such as Deeper Than the Night and the title track.
Then 1980 brings musical film Xanadu, with Gene Kelly of all people. Single Magic tops charts Stateside, while song Xanadu (with the Electric Light Orchestra) is a number one in several countries, including the UK.
The girl-next-door feel from the early 1970s is buried by the double-entendres of the title track of album Physical, plus the sweaty look of the pictures. A couple of American radio stations ban it. The album goes double-platinum and breaks into top five in four countries. Single Physical tops America’s Billboard Hot 100 chart for 10 weeks.
Olivia’s sold more than 100million albums. Four Grammy Awards. Ten chart-topping singles, and more than 15 in top 10. 2015: Ranked 20th in Billboard’s list of Greatest of All Time Hot 100 Artists.
Campaigns to preserve rainforest and about other environmental issues (including, in 1978, cancelling tour of Japan in protest at killing of dolphins caught in tuna-fishing nets). In 1991 became spokesperson for Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, launched after death of her daughter’s best friend from rare childhood cancer.
From Melbourne to motherhood
Five years old when her family moves from England to Australia. Father becomes master of Ormond College, University of Melbourne.
By 15, Olivia and three classmates have launched group Sol Four. She later becomes a familiar face on local radio and TV shows.
On The Go!! Show she meets singer Pat Carroll, her future duet partner, and John Farrar, who will become her long-term music producer.
Olivia lands a trip to the UK after winning TV talent contest and her mum persuades her to go.
1966: Records first single, Till You Say You’ll Be Mine, while here.
Pat Carroll comes to UK and the duo sing at nightclubs and army bases in Europe. When Pat goes back to Oz, Olivia stays.
1971: First solo album, If Not For You. Bob Dylan-written title track tops America’s ‘adult contemporary’ chart.
Follow-up Banks of the Ohio a top 10 hit here and in Australia.
Record Mirror magazine twice votes her best British female vocalist.
Olivia appears often on Cliff Richard’s weekly TV show.
1984: Marries actor Matt Lattanzi, whom she’d met during making of film Xanadu.
1986: Daughter Chloe born.
An inspirational fighter
1992: Diagnosed with breast cancer on same weekend her father dies of liver cancer in Australia. Has partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. “I did herbal formulas, meditation and focused on a vision of complete wellness,” she says. Talks openly about her illness and stresses importance of early detection. Launches the Liv Aid, which helps women check their breasts correctly.
2005: Olivia and business partners open Gaia Retreat & Spa in New South Wales.
2008: Leads three-week trek along Great Wall of China to raise more than $2million to battle cancer. It also symbolises patients’ roads to recovery. Quietly marries John Easterling in Peru and, later, Florida. She’d first met the founder of a natural remedy firm 15 years earlier.
2011: Brings out book – LivWise: Easy Recipes For A Healthy, Happy Life.
2012: First section of what is now the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre opens in Australia – a partnership between Austin Health and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute.
2013: Sister Rona, 70, dies of a brain tumour.
2015: Tops America’s Billboard Dance Club Songs chart with daughter Chloe with You Have to Believe.
2017: Postpones tour as it’s revealed breast cancer has returned and spread to her lower back.
This month: Tells Australia’s Channel Seven TV she has been diagnosed with cancer for a third time. Says “I believe I will win over it and that’s my goal”. Is tackling the disease with modern medicines and natural remedies. Has cut out sugar and is using marijuana as a painkiller.
Dad and the fight against Nazis
Olivia’s Cardiff-born father served with the RAF during the war. He spent a couple of years questioning captured Nazi pilots – using his language skills and knowledge of well-off German society.
He was part of the team that established the identity of Rudolf Hess in 1941. The one-time deputy führer had flown alone to Scotland in a bid to secure a peace agreement.
In 1942 Prof Brin Newton-John worked on the top-secret Ultra project at Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes – the place that cracked the Enigma codes and gave the allies details of Nazi plans.
Olivia’s maternal grandfather was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, who came from Germany to England before the Second World War to escape the rise of Nazism.