January 25, 2019

OK, I’ll admit it: back in the early to late 70s, when I was in my early to mid-twenties I had a soft spot for Olivia Newton-John and her music. Great voice. Beautiful eyes. To this day I don’t believe I’ve heard a female vocalist harmonize with herself as uniquely and artfully as ONJ did – especially when the producer would add a hint (or more) of echo to her vocals. How many female vocalists could hit high notes but still keep it as soft as a pillow as Olivia? Unlike today’s pop divas, she never tried to pulverize you with the power of her voice, she just sang the friggin’ song – a quality you just don’t see anymore. Lovely vibrato. Was she an all-time greats? I dunno, she always had a truly lovely and unique voice. Most certainly, as a pop priestess she was as good during her time as just about anyone out there.

So it is with sadness that I read that she may be in declining health with cancer. Unfortunately, it appears that she’s always had it in her genetic make-up, and everyone knows, the genes giveth and they taketh away. Anyway, it got me thinking about what my top 10 list of ONJ songs might be, so here is what I came up with. Y’all welcome with your own suggestions.

10. Don’t Stop Believin’. Decent enough tune, but a lost opportunity, IMHO. I always thought this sounded like a George Harrison-penned tune (the slide guitar has more than a bit of a George feel) and could have stood a less “poppy”, heavier production – Olivia’s voice certainly could have handled it. Still, the blocked Olivia harmonies sound great and are as good as anything she did. It’s just a little too light to these ears.

9. You’re The One That I Want / Hopelessly Devoted To You. Two songs from her work on “Grease”. Both well sung, both good-sized hits. Not sure she carried off that black spandex look all that great (Olivia was never that curvy), but that’s OK – artists have to grow, and between “Xanadu” and “Grease” you gotta give the girl credit for trying.

8. If Not For You. Olivia’s first hit, this remake of a Bob Dylan tune was bettered by George Harrison on “All Things Must Pass”, but it propelled ONJ onto the charts. I remember my brother Mark bringing home the LP, thereby introducing us to the woman whose poster would always adorn our cellar wall next to the “Jaws” and “All The President’s Men” posters that would serve as inspiration during our Top Priority practice sessions. Not sure she ever took a better picture.

7. Let Me Be There / If You Love Me, Let Me Know. I combine the two songs here because they’re really just both one in the same. Good solid vocal performances all around, and huge hits. I listen to these songs now and it amazes me just how straight-forward her vocal stylings are. Nothing fancy, she just has a lovely voice and uses it to the best of her advantage.

6. Xanadu. Olivia does disco. OK, I’ll admit it: I’m probably one of the only folks who would put this in an ONJ top ten list, but I like the tune and, even better, the oh-so-70s arrangement by Jeff Lynne and featuring ELO. I remember going to see the movie with my brother Dave. I remember Gene Kelly in it, think it was one of his last performances. Not good. But in the video her hair is stunning. As are her shoes.

5. Come On Over. Penned by Barry and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, it’s really not that much of a tune (to be honest – it’s just 2 1/2 verses), but for some reason I’ve always loved her vocal performance. Olivia sings it both forcefully and passionately, and it always melts my heart. And since I’m a sucker for tags, this song has a very nice, albeit brief, tag.

4. Fly Away. OK, this was, of course, a huge John Denver hit – one of his best. But Olivia’s contribution here is truly stunning, to the point where she steals the show from ol’ JD. Again, the producer uses echo to create a ghost-like presence, and her voice is so uniquely “hers” I imagine I wasn’t alone when, hearing the song for the first time (I still remember that exact moment, something that makes music so transcendent), saying to myself, “Shit, that’s Olivia Newton-John!”. Her vocal performance here is wistful, sad, hopeful, but (as usual with Olivia) always angelic, especially when she sings in the outro tag, “I want to fly!”. Just lovely.

3. Love Song. Olivia did a lot of covers back in her early days – some good, some not so, but this cover of a Elton John “Tumbleweed Connection” tune is lovely and beautifully arranged with that hint of blocked, echoed harmonies that always made ONJ’s vocals shimmer. I wonder today what someone like Phil Spector might have conjured up had he been enlisted to produce an album for her. Knowing how Phil was at the time, he probably would have blown it, creating one or two classics but losing the rest awash in his “Wall of Sound”. This tune followed “Banks of the Ohio” on her 1973 “Let Me Be There” album, and the two songs together are, in my mind inextricably linked in their quality and beauty.

2. Banks of the Ohio. This, I’m sure, would be only my choice, but to me it has always been a gem. I’ve posted on this before as a simple, yet effective, example of how to take a simple tune and arrange it in a way that makes it both interesting and enjoyable. The “celestial chorus” harmonies behind the last chorus (all Olivia, BTW) are both intricate and stunning in their beauty and uniqueness. I’m also linking to a lip-synced performance not so you can see how the dolts in the audience clap on the downbeat instead of the backbeat (pathetic!), but so you can see just how damned attractive she was back in the early 70s. Her beauty radiates.

1. I Honestly Love You. I’m guessing (although not altogether certain) that this would be just about everyone’s choice, as this Peter Allen-penned tune has to be her signature song. Hearing it today as Olivia sang it – no forced emotion, no wandering all over the melody like just about every female (and male) singer does today. Here Olivia sings it straight and honestly, just as the sentiments the song portrays.

…A little “Jaws” trivia for you fans out there: IHLY” is played in the background during the beach scene just before the kid on the yellow air mattress gets devoured by the shark (the famous reverse-zoom scene into Roy Scheider’s face). Check it out!

So that’s my top ten. I know what y’all are thinking: but no, as much as it sounds like something The Police would have sung, I really don’t like “Magic”; same with the abysmal “Let’s get Physical”. It might be because I just can’t get past how awful her hair looked at the time. Although I do give her credit for trying to stretch and break out of the mold. And songs like “Have You Ever Been Mellow”, “Please Mr. Please”, and “Sam” are just too light even for these Olivia-sympathetic ears.

Whatever the state of her present health is, I wish Ms. Newton-John the best – she was always one of my faves, and her songs bring back some very fond memories.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:10 | Comments Off on An Olivia Ten-Spot
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