THE QUEEN OF RYDELL HIGH
by Norman Warwick
The obituaries and career reviews for Olivia Newton John spoke of her being both a show-business icon and, patently, a very decent, grounded woman. Liked all young men of the time, I was mesmerised by her high school antics in Grease, and several years later, as I fell in love with Americana music, she recorded, and had a hit with, The Banks Of The Ohio.
This song, about a lover who murders his girlfriend because she won’t marry him, was written sometime in the 1800s. The first recorded version of it was the August 12, 1927 version by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers.
Olivia Newton-John recorded an arrangement of the song by John Farrar and Bruce Welch in 1971, for her album If Not for You. It was released as the second single from the album after its title track If Not for You, and it became her first number one hit in Australia, reaching the top of the Go-Set Chart in November 1971. It was also successful in the UK, peaking at number six, but failed to reach the top forty in Canada and the US, peaking at number sixty-six and ninety-four, respectively. The distinctive bass backing vocals were provided by English musician and vocal session arranger Mike Sammes.
may be traced back to the British broadside tradition of songs dated to at least the end of 18th century, such as The Oxford Girl and The Berkshire Tragedy songs that may have been based on real events. In these songs, the murderer posing as the narrator asked a girl to walk with him to talk about marriage; he then attacked and killed her, throwing her body into the river, a crime for which he would be hanged.
Sidetracks And Detours have previously examined the story of such murder ballads through an extensive article on The Long Black Veil and its writer Marijohn Wilkins. The article remains in our archives, of course, and can be found by just typing in the wsriters name into the search engine in our archives section.
Banks of the Ohio also has some superficial similarity to Omie Wise and Pretty Polly, songs which are also generally narrated in the first person by a killer called Willie, but differing significantly in the narrative; the killer explains why he killed his love, and spends much of the song expressing his sorrow and regret. Musically, it is distinguished by a long refrain which calmly reflects the love and the hopes for the future which he felt before the murder. This gives a different psychological tone to the song, and accompanying singers (or indeed the audience) the possibility of singing along in chorus.
Commercial recordings of the song started in August 1927 with a country version by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers (as Down by the Banks of the Ohio),] and by Grayson and Whitter (as I’ll Never Be Yours) the same year as one of their first recordings for Gennett. Other early country music stars who recorded the song included Ernest Stoneman (1928), Clayton McMichen (1931), The Callahan Brothers (1934), The Blue Sky Boys (1936), and The Monroe Brothers (1936). The Blue Sky Boys partly rearranged the song and their version appears on the soundtrack of the 1973 film Paper Moon.
Olivia Newton John thus added to the legacy of this piece of authentic Americana music that had already been recorded by the likes of Doc Watson.this authentic piece of Americana music.
That alone would have been enough to have placed her in my own personal hall of fame but I combined her entry with her role as Sandra Dee, itself perhaps another piece of Americana.
Variety magazine reported her death in warm, thoughtful tones that filtered acrosss what was also a comprehensive career review.
Chris Morris, writing in Variety, began by telling us that Olivia´s husband, John Easterling,(shown right with Olivia) posted the news on her official Facebook page, writing: “Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”
A cause of death was not given, but Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer that surfaced for a third time in 2017. “Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” her husband wrote. “Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.”
Her Grease co-star and hit duet partner (left) John Travolta was quick to weigh in with a tribute on social media. “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” he wrote. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”
Chart historian Joel Whitburn ranked the warm-voiced Australia-bred singer as the No. 1 female soloist of the ‘70s. Her nine top-10 pop singles of the decade included three chart-topping 45s; the biggest of them, You’re the One That I Want, a duet with Travolta drawn from the smash 1978 soundtrack of the musical Grease, spent nearly six months on the U.S. lists
Newton-John remained a potent commercial force into the ‘80s; she logged the biggest hit of her career, Physical, in 1981. Though her other major top-lining musical feature Xanadu was a costly 1980 flop, its double-platinum soundtrack spawned three hit singles, including the No. 1 radio ubiquity Magic.
Originally slotted as a country vocalist, she quickly conquered the pop charts with a succession of well-scrubbed tunes. Though the hits dried up in the early ’90s, she remained a cherished performer into the new millennium, with a durable fan base sustained by the continuing popularity of Grease as a cable TV staple and sing-along theatrical screenings.
In recent years, she spoke about her seemingly upbeat attitude even as the cancer returned after she had been diagnoses as cancer-free. “I’m happy. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I have much to live for. And I intend to keep on living it,” she told Gayle King in an interview for CBS This Morning (right) conducted at her California ranch in 2019. “‘Why me’ has never been a part of it.”
In one of her last interviews, which aired on the “oday show in October, she commiserated with host Hoda Kotb, who shared her own experience with cancer. Said Newton-John: “We’re sisters´. …
Anyone ios who has gone on this journey with cancer, it’s unknown destinations and surprises and turns.´´ The broadcast noted that the singer-actor was dealing with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, almost 30 years after her initial diagnosis. She credited the cannabis being grown by her husband with helping her through painful moments in her illness.
Newton-John was born September 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England. Her grandfather was the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. When she was 6, her family moved to Melbourne.
Active in music from high school, Newton-John went pro in her teens, appearing on Australian TV. She returned to Britain on a plane ticket she won competing on the Aussie talent show Sing, Sing, Sing. Though she recorded for British Decca during her stay, she grew homesick and returned to the Antipodes, but moved back to England to perform with her music partner Pat Carroll.
She made her movie debut with two very obscure film musicals —
Funny Things Happen Down Under in 1965, followed in 1970 by Toomorrow, (left) a sci-fi musical starring a group of the same name that included Newton-John as lead singer, remembered as producer Don Kirshner’s attempt to formulate a U.K. equivalent of the Monkees. Following that all-but-buried motion picture and its equally little-known soundtrack album, her solo career took off with If Not For You, a cover of the countrified Bob Dylan-George Harrison song. The executive who signed Newton-John to MCA Records in the U.S. had a good feeling he had about her prospects — but that wasn’t shared by everyone at the time.
“I heard her version [of “If Not for You”] on an acetate,” veteran A&R exec Russ Regan recalled in a 2014 interview with author Harvey Kubernik. “I heard it and made the deal. I paid $25,000 for that record, and was second-guessed. That’s a whole other story. I loved it and I was put down for buying it. ‘She’s too plastic, beautiful and will never happen.’ So, I said, ‘She’s beautiful, she’s not plastic and it’s gonna happen big time.’”
Both If Not For You” and her version of the folk standard Banks Of The Ohio managed to chart in the U.S. in 1971, but she had to wait two years before making a major impact in the States. Her MCA singles Let Me Be There and If You Love Me (Let Me Know) reached the top 10 of both the country and pop charts. The former number garnered a Grammy Award for best female country vocal performance, and Newton-John additionally scored an Academy of Country Music Award as most promising female vocalist.
Her early career peaked in 1974 with the ballad I Honestly Love You, which topped the pop chart and peaked at No. 6 country; the song earned Newton-John female vocalist of the year kudos at the Country Music Assn. Awards in 1974. A second pop No. 1, Have You Never Been Mellow, arrived in 1975. Though she would tally three more top-five country singles and reliably crossed over to the adult contemporary charts, she was firmly entrenched as a pop star in the U.S.
Newton-John’s career sizzled with the mega-hit Grease. Though the 29-year-old singer worried she was too old for her role, she turned in a confident performance in the ’50s-themed musical as virginal high schooler Sandy Olsson, and displayed impressive chemistry opposite Travolta, coming off his Saturday Night Fever breakthrough and cast as bad boy Danny Zuko.
The Paramount release was an immediate hit, spawning a hugely successful soundtrack album. The Newton-John/Travolta duet You’re The One That I Want was succeeded by two more top-five singles, Hopelessly Devoted To You and “Summer Nights, also drawn from the picture. The soundtrack LP sat at No. 1 for 10 weeks, and spent a total of 77 weeks on the charts.
Following the double-platinum 1978 album Totally Hot, Newton-John returned to the screen for the ill-starred Xanadu. The creaky roller disco-themed plot incongruously cast the singer as a Greek muse, opposite 68-year-old Gene Kelly (right). Greeted with dismal reviews, the picture was an instant flop. Its main beneficiary was Newton-John: the singles Magic, Xanadu (with the Electric Light Orchestra) and Suddenly (with Cliff Richard) pushed the No. 5 soundtrack album to double-platinum status.
Newton-John’s film career never really recovered from Xanadu. A re-teaming with Travolta in the 1983 rom-com “Two of a Kind” also stiffed at the box office, and her leading roles were thereafter restricted to TV movies.
Having successfully messed with her squeaky-clean image with her good-girl-gone-naughty turn in Grease and her album Totally Hot, Newton-John upped the ante with 1981’s single Physical. The sexed-up single’s lyrics were softened by a coy video implying that the song was actually about … working out.
The singer recalled in 2017, “I was having a panic attack when it came out because I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve gone too far! We just need to do a video about exercise.’ And that made it even bigger!” The single, her last No. 1, held the top of the chart for 10 weeks, shifting more than 1 million copies.
Of the chart-topper she once considered “risqué,” Newton-John told King in 2019, “Now, compared to what’s on the radio, it’s kind of like a lullaby.”
After the double-platinum Physical album of 1981 and the top-five singles Make A Move On Me (No. 5, 1982) and Heart Attack (No. 3, 1982), Newton-John’s pop career stuttered. She took a protracted hiatus from performing after the 1986 birth of her daughter Chloe (from her marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi, whom she divorced in 1995).
She experienced business and personal setbacks in 1992. Koala Blue, a chain of boutique shops she operated with her one-time singing partner Pat Carroll, folded amid bankruptcy. She experienced a serious health scare when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; following a mastectomy, she became a high-profile spokesperson for cancer awareness, and established the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Victoria, Australia.
Following her Nashville return Back With A Heart (1998), Newton-John’s albums sold principally Down Under; a late exception was the 2012 Yuletide album This Christmas, a pairing with Travolta that reached No. 81 domestically.
She toured successfully with Aussie star John Farnham (left) , and dueted with him at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She continued to act, taking an unusual turn as a gay ex-con country singer in the feature “Sordid Lives” and its cable TV spinoff. After guesting as herself in 2010 on Fox’s hit Glee, a remake of Physical with the cast reached No. 89, becoming her first pop single to reach the chart in 12 years.
She returned to the road in the U.S. for a well-received 2017 trek.
She is survived by her husband, John Easterling; daughter Chloe Lattanzi; sister Sarah Newton-John; brother Toby Newton-John; nieces and nephews Tottie, Fiona and Brett Goldsmith; Emerson, Charlie, Zac, Jeremy, Randall, and Pierz Newton-John; Jude Newton-Stock, Layla Lee; Kira and Tasha Edelstein; and Brin and Valerie Hall.
Her family has requested donations be made in her memory to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund (ONJFoundationFund.org).
The prime source for this article was a piece written by Chris Morris for Variety and his warm hearted words were also deeply informative. Check out the magazine on line for scores of similar thought-provoking work.
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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