Copyright 1996-2004 by Lori A. Buck
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Olivia Newton-John is one of the most recognized names and faces in the world. Australia, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, Italy, and the United States are just a few of the countries in which Olivia has achieved superstar status. She is, perhaps, most associated with the mellow sounds of the pop and soft rock music genre, but the diversity of fields that Olivia has managed to conquer, both inside and outside the music industry, is much wider than most people imagine.
At first glance, it is surprising that Olivia was destined to become an entertainer. She was born in the university city of Cambridge, England, on September 26, 1948, into an academically distinguished family. Her maternal grandfather was Max Born, whose contributions to the field of physics include work on the theory of relativity, the quantum theory, the space-lattice theory of crystals, and atomic structure. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1954 for fundamental mathematical work in quantum mechanics. Both of Olivia's parents (photo) were highly intellectual. Her father was a distinguished professor of German at King's College, University of Cambridge, arguably one of the greatest universities in the world, and Olivia spent the first five years of her life amidst this setting (photo).
Olivia was the youngest of three siblings (photo). The oldest, her brother Hugh, followed the academic path and became a doctor. Her sister, Rona, decided to pursue a show business career and Olivia followed not far behind. If this appears inconsistent with her background and upbringing, it is less so when the musical influences within the household are taken into consideration. Olivia's mother, Irene, loved music and it was always playing in their home. Her father, Brin, an avid record collector, reportedly had an impressive operatic voice and struggled with his choice to pursue teaching over music.
When Olivia was five years old, her father was offered a position as dean at Ormond College in Melbourne, Australia. As frightening as the change must have been for her at the time, the displacement to the land down under would prove to be a pivotal move in her life and career. It was in Australia that Olivia began to sing "just for something to do," and it was there that she scored her first professional successes. Even so, music was not Olivia's first choice for a career. She had originally hoped to work directly with animals. Olivia developed a love for animals very early in life: "When I was a kid, till I was five years old, I always played with this red setter named Pauly-Orly. He lived next door and he was my best friend. Because of him I always had a thing about dogs, but I never could have one because my father was a professor and we lived on University grounds." Olivia's devotion to animals translated into a desire first to be a veterinarian (which proved to be too science-oriented) and later to be a member of the Australian mounted police (which she found, to her dismay, did not admit women at that time).
Olivia's last name may seem ideal for show business, but she was actually embarrassed about it when she was younger. In grade school, she was teased about her double-barreled name. She and her brother and sister are, in fact, only the second generation of Newton-Johns. She explains: "My father is Welsh and when he was growing up in Wales there were lots and lots of people with the name John. They wanted to distinguish the family name so they took my grandmother's maiden name, which was Newton, and all my father's brothers and sisters are called Newton-John, so we're the second generation."
When Olivia was 11, her parents divorced. Divorce was a scandalous event in 1959 Australia. Her father lost his position at Ormond College, which did not allow divorced faculty members, and moved away. Olivia began living alone with her mother, who had to start working, another oddity in Australian culture at that time. Olivia felt unhappy and isolated in her then unique situation: "I had to go with my mother and I didn't want to leave my father. But I had to cope with my feelings quietly. I kept things to myself; I didn't want my mother to know that I was disappointed." She hated going home alone to an empty house. "My mum, she couldn't help out because she had to work all day, but being alone is hard to cope with. Maybe that's why I channeled all my energies into music. It helped me to not feel so alone and to accept what had happened." School was not much better either. Olivia has characterized her approach to her schoolwork as "lazy" and disinterested. Years later, when the time came for Olivia to choose between pursuing her education or pursuing her career, the decision was mostly a formality.
Young Olivia (photo) was a performer from early on and she would sing around the house for friends and family. Her sister, Rona, submitted a photograph of her to a lookalike contest for actress Hayley Mills. Although Olivia did not know she had been entered, she ended up winning the contest. At 12, she made her stage debut in a local Melbourne production of "Green Pastures" that also featured her brother Hugh as the Angel Gabriel. In fact, Hugh met his future wife during the production; she played the part of Eve. At the age of 13, Olivia penned her first song lyric, Why Does It Have to Be? At 14, she joined her first band, the Sol Four: "We used to wear denim jeans and Hessian jackets and black turtlenecks and the long, beatnik hair. That was a lot of fun. We were four girls, and we used to go to the old trad jazz clubs in Melbourne, performing on weekends and rehearsing during the week. Two of the girls were tone deaf and two ended up singing professionally." Unfortunately, rehearsing during the week meant not studying and the group was forced to disband in favor of schoolwork. Olivia went on singing though. She made her amateur television debut on the "Kevin Dennis Auditions," an Australian show reminiscent of the U.S. "Gong Show." Unlike the "Gong Show," however, the Australian version did not use phony acts that were planted just to be ridiculed and the goal of the performance was actually to be gonged. She sang one song and she received the maximum three gongs. Her professional television debut was on a Lawrence Welk-type show entitled "Sunny Side Up," on which she sang the song Melody d'Amour.
Rona had quit school at the age of 15 to become an actress and she did some Italian film work before abandoning her career to get married to a man who owned a coffee lounge in Melbourne. Olivia began hanging out at her brother-in-law's lounge, where she would sit beside the stage and sing along with the folksinger who performed there regularly. "One day he asked me up on stage, and that's really when [my career] got going." A customer suggested to her that she compete in the local leg of a national talent contest being hosted by Johnny "The Wild One" O'Keefe. Her entry was the song Everything's Coming Up Roses and to her surprise, she won first prize in the contest: a trip to England. Olivia, however, was content to remain in Australia. Her sister introduced her to a local musician who played guitar and sang in coffee lounges, and he became Olivia's first boyfriend. "His name was Ian. He was older than me, out of school already, and he used to meet me everyday outside the [school] building...I was already caught up in my career at that stage, working in clubs and things [and] Ian was teaching me to play guitar."
At 16, Olivia quit school and took a job as hostess for "The Tarax Happy Show," a children's television show that aired live five days a week. The previous hostess had been known as Lovely Ann and so Olivia became Lovely Livvy (photo). She served as hostess for two months until the end of the summer holiday season. Her local celebrity status continued to grow. She moved on to a daily variety show entitled "The Go Show," sharing top billing with another Australian songstress, Pat Carroll. The backup band for the show was a group known as the Strangers, noteworthy only for their guitar player, a then virtually unknown musician who would later come to play a large role in Olivia's musical career, John Farrar. Olivia was meeting with success in Australia and she was not anxious to leave her adopted homeland. "The trip that I'd won from the talent contest was overdue--I had to take it soon or lose out." Olivia was ready to let it go; her mother, however, had other ideas. She felt it in her daughter's best interest to increase her scope and experience and she hoped that Olivia might consider attending London's Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1965, a 17-year-old Olivia and Irene Newton-John left Australia for British shores.
In London, Olivia and her mother moved into an apartment in Hampstead. She secured an audition with Decca Records and recorded her first single for them. Till You Say You'll Be Mine, with B side For Ever, was released in May of 1966. When the record failed to generate any interest, Decca quietly withdrew from her life. Olivia found work, but not at places of the caliber that she had been used to in Australia. Her first British gigs were at a "terrible little dive called the Poor Millionaire's Club. I sang three or four songs to open for the main act, a folk singer. I used to sing everything, cabaret stuff, the Beatles, old tunes, blues, rock and roll, ballads, everything." Olivia went through a tough time during which she almost destroyed her chances for a career: "All through this period, I got more and more confused and homesick. I kept booking tickets back to Australia, but my mother was in England with me and she kept canceling them, so I stayed." Olivia could not return to Australia, but a little piece of Australia was on its way to her: Pat Carroll won a trip to England in an Australian radio contest and she soon moved in with Olivia and her mother. The two singers formed a duet, Pat and Olivia, and they took their act out on the road ( photo). Said Pat, "It was me, interestingly enough, who was very ambitious at that point, and Livvy was enjoying it as a lark. We originally joined together for companionship and the security of having a partner along in some of those workingmen's halls in the north of England. We also played Army bases in Germany--a lot of the places were rough, I guess, but we were naive."
Olivia began enjoying herself again. She and Pat left her mother's apartment and moved to Shepherd's Bush, into a flat with two other women, both aspiring young actresses. The four of them pooled their expenses and "shared everything. We shared the rent. We had a kitty for food. Pat made clothes for the stage. I used to budget down to the last penny. We didn't have very much money. We didn't work every week. We used to travel to do shows and pay our own expenses, but we never ran short. We were very careful. I managed it." One road trip took them to Bournemouth in September 1966, where Olivia struck up a conversation with a man backstage whom she presumed to be a roadie. That "roadie" turned out to be Bruce Welch ( photo) of the Shadows, also in town for a gig. The two became friends and began dating. Olivia's recollection of her first date with Bruce is quite humorous: "He sent me a dozen roses beforehand and I was so impressed. He was very well-off and flashy, a member of the English rock group the Shadows, and he picked me up in a Rolls Royce. A Rolls Royce. I had never been out in one before. He took me to dinner at a fancy restaurant, and then we started going round to expensive night clubs, another and another. Everywhere we drank champagne, glass after glass. It was quite a night for a teenager. I'm sure I'll never forget it...mostly because I drank too much, got sick, and threw up all over his car."
Pat and Olivia worked together in Europe for two years and they achieved enough success to appear on BBC shows and to be called back to Australia to do a television special there. Olivia's first movie role was in the 1966 Australian release, "Funny Things Happen Down Under." Late in 1966, Pat's visa expired and she was unable to remain in England. Through Bruce Welch, Olivia was asked to star in Cliff Richard's Cinderella at the London Palladium. She turned it down and returned with Pat to Australia, where she was offered her own television series. "Australia is so funny. Do the same thing you've always done and nobody takes any particular notice. But, if you're a hit somewhere else, they fall all over themselves and treat you like a big star." It was not in the cards for Olivia to remain there though; she stayed for the holiday season and then flew back to London early the next year. Pat, unable to return to England with Olivia, stayed behind and eventually married John Farrar, the guitarist from her former show.
Back in England, Olivia resumed her relationship with Bruce Welch, whose rocky marriage was ending. Within a few months, they were living together and became engaged. Peter Gormley, who was guiding the careers of Cliff Richard and the Shadows, became her manager and Olivia went about building her career. She appeared on the 1967 Shadows album, From Hank, Bruce, Brian, and John, singing part of the vocals on the song The Day I Met Marie. It was in Peter Gormley's office in London that Olivia was first introduced to Don Kirshner, who immediately recognized future potential within her. He was captivated by her "kewpie doll" appearance, her three names ("unusual, it sticks with you"), and her sweet singing voice.
Kirshner had come to Gormley to pitch his idea for a British Monkees of the 70's, which he described as a "dynamite film and music concept," but he ended up pitching to Olivia: "I walked the streets of London with Olivia, just telling her how incredible she was gonna be. Talent is the key to her success but there's a powerful magnetic quality about her, something that immediately gets under your skin and you can't shake it." Olivia liked what she heard and she put plans for a solo career on hold to become a member of Kirshner's group Toomorrow. Along with Karl Chambers, Vic Cooper, and Ben Thomas (photo), Olivia signed a 5-year deal that was to include a series of films, albums, and concert tours.
Toomorrow was thought to be an idea whose time had come. There was a large media blitz and a great deal of money was spent hyping the band. They started filming their movie in 1969 under the watchful eye of famed James Bond producer Harry Saltzman. It was a "science fiction musical" that, along with the accompanying soundtrack and two single releases (You're My Baby Now/Going Back, from the soundtrack, and I Could Never Live without Your Love/Roll Like the River, not connected to the film), was to serve as the band's vehicle to superstardom. A promotional handout for the band described Olivia at that time in her life:
"Livvy has buttery skin; big, big, very round, gray-green eyes; stands 5 ft 6 ins and weighs 98 LBS. She digs Baez, horse riding, Mac Davis, Redford, Bruce Welch, McQueen, Streisand, Feliciano, steak and salad, Hank Marvin, Beatles, wine, Bacharach and her Red Setter named Geordie."
Money may talk, but in the case of Toomorrow, it fell on deaf ears.
Olivia sums it up quite succinctly: "We went to America, and huge things were
going to happen to us. Then we sat around for ages and did some recording, and
the songs were pretty average, I must admit. And then we did the film and the
film was pretty average. So it started with a huge bang and went Ssssss...."
After her ascent to superstardom in the United States, an enterprising American
company attempted to purchase the rights to the film to capitalize on Olivia's
Grease fame. Olivia acted quickly to try to block the move. She
said of the movie, "What can I say but that it was terrible and I was terrible
in it. They kept telling me I had to project so I went through the whole picture
shouting. I guess we did some good as a tax write-off for the producers." In a
word, Toomorrow flopped. Far short of the terms of their 5-year contract, the
group was dissolved and Olivia was once again on her own. She did not remain
that way for long though. As she closed the door on Toomorrow, Olivia opened
another and in that doorway she found a man who would do a great deal to launch
her solo career in the United Kingdom: Cliff Richard.
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