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Olivia Newton-John, star of ‘Grease,’ chart-topping singer, dies at 73

Ms. Newton-John, attending the 2018 G'Day USA Los Angeles Gala at the InterContinental Hotel Los Angeles in 2018.Richard Shotwell

Olivia Newton-John, who sang some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and ‘80s while recasting her image as the virginal girl next door into a spandex-clad vixen — a transformation reflected in miniature by her starring role in “Grease,” one of the most popular movie musicals of its era — died Monday at her ranch in Southern California. She was 73.

The death was announced by her husband, John Easterling.

Ms. Newton-John amassed No. 1 hits and four albums that sold more than 2 million copies each. More than anything else, she was likable, even beloved.

In the earlier phase of her career, this English-Australian singer beguiled listeners with a high, supple, vibrato-warmed voice that paired amiably with the kind of swooning middle-of-the-road pop that, in the mid-1970s, often passed for country music.

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Her performance on the charts made that blurring clear. She scored seven Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Country chart, two of which became back-to-back overall No. 1 hits in 1974 and ‘75. First came “I Honestly Love You,” an earnest declaration co-written by Peter Allen and Jeff Barry, followed by “Have You Never Been Mellow,” a feather of a song written by the producer of many of her biggest albums, John Farrar.

“I Honestly Love You” also won two of the singer’s four Grammys: for record of the year and best female pop vocal performance.

The combination of Ms. Newton-John’s consistently benign music — she was never a favorite of critics — and comely but squeaky-clean image caused many writers to compare her to earlier blond ingénues such as Doris Day and Sandra Dee. “Innocent, I’m not,” Ms. Newton-John told Rolling Stone in 1978. “People still seem to see me as the girl next door. Doris Day had four husbands,” she said, yet she was still viewed as “the virgin.”

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An entry into movies in 1978 aimed to put the singer’s chaste image behind her, starting with “Grease.” Her character, Sandy, transformed from a pigtailed square smitten with John Travolta’s bad-boy Danny to a gum-smacking bad girl. “Grease” became one of the highest grossing movie musicals ever, besting even “The Sound of Music.” Its soundtrack was the second best-selling album of the year, beaten only by the soundtrack for “Saturday Night Fever,” which also starred Travolta.

The “Grease” soundtrack spawned two No. 1 hits, both sung by the co-stars, including the manically lusty “You’re the One That I Want” and the doo-wop romp “Summer Nights.” A ballad Ms. Newton-John sang alone, “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” earned the film’s lone Oscar nomination, for best song.

Applying the evolution of her “Grease” character to her singing career, Ms. Newton-John titled her next album “Totally Hot” and presented herself on the cover in shoulder-to-toe leather. The album, released at the end of 1978, went platinum, yielding the rock-oriented “A Little More Love” with the line, “Where did my innocence go?”

Ms. Newton-John and John Travolta, in the 1978 film "Grease."Paramount

The album featured Ms. Newton-John singing in a somewhat more forceful voice. Though her sales dipped as the 1970s turned into the ‘80s, by early in the decade she began the most commercially potent period in her career, peaking with the single “Physical,” which spent 10 weeks on Billboard’s top perch. Later, the magazine declared it to be the biggest song of the 1980s.

Olivia Newton-John was born on Sept. 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England, the youngest of three children of Brinley and Irene (Born) Newton-John. Her mother was the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. Her Welsh-born father had been an MI5 intelligence officer during World War II and afterward served as headmaster at Cambridgeshire High School for Boys.

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When Olivia Newton-John was 6, her family immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where her father worked as a college professor and administrator. At 14, she formed her first group, Sol Four, with three girls from school. Her beauty and confidence soon earned her solo performances on local radio and TV shows under the name “Lovely Livvy.” On “The Go!! Show” she met singer Pat Carroll, with whom she would form a duet, as well as her eventual producer, Farrar, who later married Carroll.

Ms. Newton-John won a local TV talent contest whose prize was a trip to Britain. While tarrying there, she recorded her first single, “‘Til You Say You’ll Be Mine,” which Decca Records released in 1966.

After Carroll moved to London, she and Ms. Newton-John formed the duet Pat and Olivia, which toured Europe. When Carroll’s visa expired, forcing her to go back to Australia, Ms. Newton-John stayed in London to work solo.

In 1970, she was asked to join a crudely manufactured group named Toomorrow, formed by American producer Don Kirshner in an attempt to repeat his earlier success with the Monkees. Following his grand design, the group starred in a science-fiction film written for them and recorded its soundtrack. Both projects tanked.

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“It was terrible and I was terrible in it,” she later told The New York Times.

Her debut solo album, “If Not for You,” was released in 1971, its title track a cover of a Bob Dylan song.

After some duds in the United States, the singer released the album “Let Me Be There” (1973), which led to a Grammy win for best female country vocal performance.

Two key changes in pop music boosted Ms. Newton-John’s career that decade: the rise of “soft rock” in reaction to the harder genres of the late ‘60s, and the mainstreaming — some would say the neutering — of country music, also epitomized by stars John Denver and Anne Murray.

The latter trend became an issue in 1974, after Ms. Newton-John was chosen female vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association over more traditional stars Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Protests led to the formation of the fleeting Association of Country Entertainers. Yet, after Ms. Newton-John recorded her “Don’t Stop Believin’,” album in Nashville in 1976, the friction eased.

Ms. Newton-John, on the set of "Grease," in Los Angeles in 1977.Nick Ut/Associated Press

The second phase of her career, which began with “Grease,” found further success through a duet with Andy Gibb, “I Can’t Help It,” followed by an attempt to expand her acting career with the 1980 musical film “Xanadu,” with Gene Kelly. While the movie floundered, its soundtrack went double-platinum and boasted hits like “Magic,” (which commanded Billboard’s No. 1 spot for four weeks), and the title song, recorded with the Electric Light Orchestra.

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Ms. Newton-John’s smash “Physical” also yielded the first video album to hit the market, which featured clips for all the album’s tracks. “Olivia Physical” won the Grammy in 1982 for video of the year.

She was paired again with Travolta in the 1983 movie “Two of a Kind” in an attempt to repeat the success of “Grease,” but the film disappointed even as its soundtrack proved to be popular, especially the song “Twist of Fate.”

By the mid-’80s, her career had cooled. For several years, she cut back on work to care for her daughter, Chloe Rose, by her husband, actor Matt Lattanzi, whom she had met on the set of “Xanadu” and married in 1984. They divorced in 1995. In 2008 she married John Easterling, founder of the Amazon Herb Co.

In addition to Easterling and her daughter, she leaves a sister, Sarah Newton-John, and her brother, Toby.

In 1992, Ms. Olivia Newton-John learned she had breast cancer and advocated for research into the disease. She continued to release albums and tour but failed to make headway on the charts. She also acted in movies and television.

In May 2017, Ms. Newton-John disclosed that her cancer had returned and had metastasized to her lower back. She published a memoir, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” in 2018.

She firmly believed in her audience-friendly approach to music. “It annoys me when people think because it’s commercial, it’s bad,” she told Rolling Stone. “It’s completely opposite. If people like it, that’s what it’s supposed to be.”