Olivia Newton-John: one of the great country singers of the 1970s

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Andrew Kay celebrates the life of country starlet-turned-Hollywood icon Olivia Newton-John

Her role as the squeaky clean, all-American teen Sandy earned her cult status around the world.

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Olivia Newton-John pictured in 1973 (Getty Images)

But for many, her true talent was a heartfelt, tender singer, and after winning an Australian TV talent show with Everyone Who Had a Heart and Everything Comes Roses, she used the prize to head to the UK coming where she began a career in music, toured European nightclubs as a duo with friend Pat Carroll before being recruited into the group Toomorrow.

It wasn’t until her first solo album was released that she gained recognition with Bob Dylan’s If Not For You, the title of the album that became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and second release, On The Banks Of The Ohio. became a top ten hit in the UK and her adopted homeland of Australia.

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John Denver’s Country Roads, Take Me Home followed. And it’s those early recordings that stick in my mind as one of their greatest achievements.

However, as one of the great New Country stars, she became increasingly well-known. Promoted by Helen Reddy, she moved to the United States and was voted best country singer of the year in 1974.

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That pure country-style vocal ease that got her that initial fame was certainly what got her the attention of Hollywood, and she was soon cast in movie stardom alongside John Travolta. And what a team they were: those scenes in Grease are legendary.

In 1978 she was cast opposite Travolta in the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Grease – it became a box office hit around the world and fueled a worldwide obsession with the classic American high school romance. It was hit after hit and by changing the role of Sandy from a Polish-American to a vacationing Australian, the producers got away with her Australian accent and at 28 she played a teenager with utter credibility during filming.

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After Grease came Xanadu, a theatrical flop, but the soundtrack went platinum.

Grease took her from sane to sexy, but for true fans, it’s that delicious and totally individual voice that has stayed with us. Her success has been rewarded with an OBE and in recent years her work for charities and cancer awareness in particular has earned her the well deserved Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

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