Whether she skated over a brick wall or drove a shotgun convertible, Olivia Newton-John, who died Monday at age 73, was a true original. With equal parts sincerity and brilliance, the Australian singer was impossible to be anything but herself (critics called her boring as hell), and we loved her for that. Her voice, the faintest whiff of whipped cream floating on a cloud of feather pillows, was an unashamed—but never diminished—feminine instrument, a quiet force that flowed through everything she did.
Pop’s smoothest transformer, Newton-John, made it look easy, moving seamlessly from grumpy, jeans-clad country girl to ’70s Sad Girl, Sandra Dee to the aerobics instructor we all want to be. And the fact that he did so without ever losing his cool was testament to his strong sense of self.
And now we present, in chronological order, the 15 best songs by Olivia Newton-John.
“Let Me Be There” (1973)
Newton-John’s ground phase was curious. While her clear, smooth voice was perfect for the flirty songs and her all-denim dresses sounded great, she wasn’t your typical country star, though she sure sounds like one here. With her Statler Brothers-style backing vocals and rousing chorus, “Let Me Be There” was her first Top 10 single and earned a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance. Written by John Rostill, the song was performed by Tanya Tucker, Ike and Tina Turner and one Elvis Presley.
“If You Love Me, Tell Me” (1974)
Olivia flies the flag of her country high on this biting and traditional-sounding single. But the authentic sound can’t hide the fact that Newton-John was considered an outsider, something the Nashville old guard never let him forget. In the year this song was released, it won the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year award and received the award with a pre-recorded video from a very different place than the country: London.
Her win so angered American country music royalty that genre giants George Jones and Tammy Wynette founded the Association of Country Entertainers specifically to keep out “pop stars” like Newton-John. Members included Conway Twitty, who covered Newton-John’s hit “Let Me Be There” with Loretta Lynn a year later. Very smug? But Liv had the last laugh: That year, If You Love Me, Let Me Know, reached number four on the charts of Billboard’s best country albums, as well as her first tour to the top of the Billboard 200 pop chart. Oh and Elvis again covered ONJ (who gave him the name during his concerts) and recorded the title track for his 1977 album, Moody Blue.
“I Really Love You” (1974)
With a slow tempo, mournful strings and a whiny piano, this ode to unrequited love is downright depressing, at least by Olivia’s sunny standards. It also serves as a sort of breadcrumb trail leading to her next stage as the queen of soft-rock AM radio. “I Honestly Love You” won two Grammys in one year: Record of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance in 1975. Co-writer Jeff Barry – was responsible for female band classics like “Be My Baby” and “Then”.
“You Were Never Sweet” (1975)
Light like a whiff of Jean-Nate’s body spray and melancholy like a smog-shrouded sunset, this track is moody, pillow talk for a stressful year (from Vietnam and Watergate). That it was followed by punk bands, lounge singers and indie stars is further proof of its masterful mystique. Written by his favorite Australian collaborator and colleague John Farrar, this deceptively simple ballad confirmed Newton-John’s transition from country to soft rock, reaching number one in March 1975.
“Hopelessly committed to you” (1978)
As part of Newton-John’s contract with Grease, he was allowed to sing a solo song – the problem was that this song was not in the original musical on which the film was based. Writer John Farrar came to the rescue with “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” a heartbreaking ballad that perfectly expresses Sandy’s desire for John Travolta’s Danny. This 50s-style track isn’t a throwback, it’s something completely new. As with the rest of the soundtrack, this track has an exaggerated and exaggerated grandeur that reinterprets the days of doo-whop. Everything in the song, and the way it was shot, is designed to melt you: Newton-John’s white nightgown and Disney princess fringe, the moonlit suburban courtyard, even the way Travolta’s reflection magically appears in the water of a plastic paddling pool.
“Summer Nights” (1978)
“Tell me more, tell me more!” With a story (Travolta’s Danny and Newton-John’s Sandy’s Summer Love Story) told from both angles, this is a story he told / told at such a powerful pace that it threatens to blow up in air the roof. Add to that the Greek refrain of Greasers and Pink Ladies and the choreography for the stands that literally sweeps the screen, and you can see why this song has crushed the charts and our hearts.
“You Are What I Want” (1978)
Ripped out of the purgatory of soft rock radio by Danny Zuko himself, Travolta told Merv Griffin in a 1981 television interview that he convinced Newton-John that the role of Sandy was meant for him. His fiery charm shines in every frame, with his strengths (best songs written by his right-hand man Farrar) and weaknesses (accents when Sandy magically became Australian). And the impact of this role – and this song in particular – on his career cannot be underestimated.
Transforming from pure innocent adrift (“Sandy 1”) to spandex-clad biker crushing cigarette butts with his kitten paws (“Sandy 2”). This song was a cinematic sensation, representing Newton-John’s amazing range. And the interaction between Travolta and Newton-John, who run into a carnal carnival, blow it up, scream as much as you want? Worth the entrance ticket alone.
“Let’s go together” (1978)
Long before the movie Grease, there was the musical Grease, a dirtier, grittier, Chicago-centric creation written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. But when he arrived in Hollywood, only a handful of original songs remained. Fortunately, “We Go Together” was one of them, and it’s clear why; this totally crazy but sincere song perfectly sums up the 1950s interpretation of Grease. Listening to it is of epic proportions, as the song teases and celebrates the classic tunes of the era. An example of these big crazy lyrics? We thought you would never ask! “Rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong / Shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom the tree / Chang Chang changitty Chang sha-bop / Dip da-dip da-dip doo-wop da doo-bee doo.”
Newton-John (in Bad Sandy mode) leads this co-vocal group with Travolta and gives it their all. And in the final moments, when “Greased Lightning” takes off, his amazement is so joyful, his joy so all-encompassing, involving the entire audience. Shotgun in the clouds, his head lightly on Danny’s shoulder, friends on the ground swaying below, well, that’s how we want to remember him forever.
“A Little More Love” (1978)
While life imitated art at its best, Newton-John’s career took a turn for the worse when he released the album Totally Hot, released a few months after Grease. On the cover, she is dressed, yes, completely black, and you can hear the echo of Grease’s favorites written by Farrar in this single, “A Little More Love”. If Blondie were to become Pink Lady, she might sound like this: slightly edgy, driving, with touches of new wave keyboards and full of the cold confidence that Newton-John was beginning to explore at this point in his care