Olivia Newton-John, who sang some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and ’80s while recasting her image as the virginal girl next door into a spandex-clad vixen – a transformation reflected in miniature by her starring role in “Grease“, one of the most popular movie musicals of its era – died on Monday in South California. She was 73.
The death was announced by her husband, John Easterling. The British-born, Australian-raised performer whose sales topped 100 million records had lived with a breast cancer diagnosis since 1992 and in 2017 announced that the cancer had returned and spread.
Newton-John amassed No. 1 hits, chart-topping albums and four records that sold more than 2 million copies each. From 1973-83, Newton-John was among the world’s most popular entertainers. She had 14 top 10 singles just in the US, won four Grammys, starred with John Travolta in “Grease” and with Gene Kelly in “Xanadu.” The fast-stepping Travolta-Newton-John duet, “You’re the One That I Want,” was one of the era’s biggest songs and has over 15 million copies.
In 1978 “Grease”, her character, Sandy, transformed from a pigtailed square smitten with John Travolta’s bad-boy Danny to a gum-smacking bad girl. “Grease” is one of the highest grossing movie musicals ever, besting even “The Sound of Music.” Its soundtrack became the second best-selling album of the year, beaten only by the soundtrack for “Saturday Night Fever”. The “Grease” soundtrack spawned two No. 1 hits, both sung by the co-stars, including the manically lusty “You’re the One That I Want” and the doo-wop romp “Summer Nights.” A ballad Newton-John sang alone, “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” earned the film’s lone Oscar nomination, for best song. “Yours from the moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John,” Travolta wrote in an online post.
Applying the evolution of her “Grease” character to her singing career, Newton-John titled her next album “Totally Hot,” and presented herself on the cover in shoulder-to-toe leather. The album, released at the end of 1978, went platinum, yielding the rock-oriented “A Little More Love” with the line, “Where did my innocence go?”
In 1981, Newton-John scored her biggest hit single “Physical”. The song’s accompanying video featured her in work-out clothes and a headband, which fuelled a fashion trend. Newton-John’s career cooled off after “Physical” but in 2015 she had another No. 1 hit on the dance charts – “You Have to Believe”, a revamped version of “Magic” performed with her only child, Chloe Lattanzi. She would make another movie with Travolta, “Two of a Kind” in 1983, and they recorded an album of Christmas songs in 2012.

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