Oct 4/5, 2002
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AFTER 30 YEARS, STILL TOTALLY HOT OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN
by David Hofstede
How do you separate the hardcore Olivia Newton-John fans from the ranks of the mere admirers? They're the ones who swear to this day that Xanadu is an overlooked classic among movie musicals, long overdue for rediscovery.
That was the film, you may recall, in which Olivia played Kira, a roller-skating Greek muse who inspires Michael Beck to give up his job painting album covers and open up his own roller disco with legendary song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. You know, I'm starting to think these people have a point.
That's always been the way with Olivia, who opens a two-night engagement at the Paris resort on October 4. For three decades she's had legions of fans, all hopelessly devoted to her, and many others who just don't get what all the fuss is about. That group would include music critics, who have rarely had a kind thing to say about the Aussie singer since she first hit the American charts with a cover of Bob Dylan's "If Not For You" in 1973. I'll pause while the baby boomers shudder over the realization that it's been that long ago.
But like Abba, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and other charter members of the Unhip-but-Enormously-Popular club, "Livvy's" fans are fans for life, demonstrating a depth of loyalty and love that the her today, gone tomorrow critic's bands will never experience. Her disciples and sure to be out in force in Paris's Les Theatre Des Arts, singing along with hits like "Let Me Be There", "Magic" and "Twist of Fate", and proudly wearing their fashions from Koala Blue, the clothing chain Newton- John launched in the 1980's.
Her music career seems in retrospect the very model of success and stability, but surprisingly Olivia Newton-John has not been immune to controversy, especially when her first hits proved equally popular on the country charts as they did on the Billboard Top 40. "Let Me Be There" won her a 1974 Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal. "It's probably the first time an English person won an award over Nashville people," she said in her acceptance speech.
That same year, she was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association (CMA) over nominees Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker. Nashville was not amused. In fact, several entertainers left the CMA in protest. Olivia persevered, playing rodeos and county fairs, opening for country stars like Charlie Rich and choosing to record her first American album in Nashville. But the Grand Ole Opry never invited her to perform and Olivia, like Canada's Shania Twain in the 1990's, found herself ostracized for conquering country music-after growing up in the wrong country.
Fans, who didn't care how her music was categorized, bought everything she released. By 1975 Olivia Newton-John hd already amassed three platinum albums, six gold records, and a succession of #1 hits, including "I Honestly Love You" and "Have You Never Been Mellow". Then she decided to shake up her girl-next-door image by striking a seductive pose in black leather on the cover of her 1978 album Totally Hot. Songs like "A Little More Love" and "Deeper Than the Night" rocked harder than her previous releases, though the lyrics wouldn't make a preacher flinch in today's era of profanity-filled rap, back then they were downright racy.
Grease, Newton-John's first film, made full use of both her sweet and sexy attributes, and sold more tickets than any other movie in 1978. Hollywood hasn't made a better musical since (and if I hear one more Moulin Rouge, include your address so I can come over and smack some sense into you). After such a dazzling debut, it's surprising that she didn't have a more successful movie career. Though the aforementioned Xanadu still had its admirers, thanks mostly to a soundtrack album that produced five hit singles, Olivia left Hollywood after Two of a Kind (1983) fizzled at the box office.
Musically, she was still at the top of her game. In 1981, "Physical" topped the Billboard charts for a record-setting ten weeks. Though the video reinforced the song's association with the aerobics craze then sweeping the nation, there was a double-entendre in the "Let's Get Physical" refrain that had Olivia in trouble with the censors again. Lyrics like "There's nothing left to talk about, unless it's horizontally" got the record banned by some radio stations, though it still became the biggest hit of her career.
Since then, she's returned to the charts three more times, and recorded an album of lullabies (1989's Warm and Tender) that makes for ideal late-night listening, whether you have kids or not. A career spanning boxed set of CD's is now in the works.
Las Vegas had not been a regular concert stop for Olivia Newton- John, but in 1992 she agreed to make her showroom debut at Caesars Palace. Sadly, one month before her scheduled appearance, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After surgery, chemotherapy and a long period of recuperation, Olivia marked her recovery with Gaia:One Woman's Journey, an intensely personal album about becoming a survivor.
Fans who had tickets to that 1992 concert would have to wait seven years before finally seeing Olivia live. Following a 1998 tour that played to sold-out audiences in Australia, she helped ring in 1999 with two New Year's Eve concerts at the Las Vegas Hilton. Happily, she's been more visible in recent years, performing in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and starring in the TV movie Wilde Girls with her daughter, Chloe. Last year she released a Christmas album, and went back on the road for a tour celebrating 30 years of music.
At age 54, Olivia Newton-John still looks very much like the blond beauty whose posters once vied for wall space in the bedrooms of teenage boys, alongside Cheryl Tiegs, Suzanne Somers and Charlie's Angels. The gentle sweetness of her voice remains equally unchanged, summoning just the right amount of heartbreak for a ballad like "Please Mr. Please", or dropping in pitch for the provocative purr of "Come On Over". After 27 trips to the top 40 she has nothing more to prove, even the harshest of her critics may finally be waking up to the realization that there was something special in those records. And in the lady who sang them.
Thanks to Rheba Mabie and Philippe Roumila
This page brought to you by the Olivia Newton-John fan club Only Olivia.
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