Look at her, she’s Sandra Dee… and also a spandex-rocking stiletto queen. Those extremes were dictated by the plot of “Grease,” but Olivia Newton-John had a strong narrative arc in her recording career, too. First, she was the country-pop crossover queen who set a template for Shania Twain; then, a dance-pop princess who could well have been the proto-Kylie; finally, a mature balladeer leaning toward self-help material that befit the public struggles and inspirational tone of her life’s difficult last act.
In celebration of the pop icon who died Monday at age 73, here’s a survey dedicated to covering the musical peaks and occasional eccentricities of a career that stretched from her film debut in 1965 to her ’70s and early ’80s heyday to her reflective final albums in the 2010s. The “Hopelessly Devoted” singer doesn’t deserve anything less than 25 critical devotionals.
25. ‘I Touch Myself’
Even most of Newton-John’s fans might have missed the fact that she covered the Divinyls’ saucy alt-pop standard. That band’s hit ’90s original was a song of true double-entendres, designed to be read on both sexual and emotional levels. But Newton-John managed to find an extra layer and make “I Touch Myself” a triple-entendre tune — by recasting it as a breast-cancer PSA.
24. ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Reprise)’
The first reading of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” in “Grease” belongs to Stockard Channing and the rest of the female supporting cast, but the short reprise late in the film is all Newton-John’s, as she sadly embraces what she thinks her prim attitude has cost her. The song isn’t sad all the way through, though — it captures the moment in which Sandy has a eureka moment and decides her romantic future lies in slutting it up a little. At that point, you’re prime for the movie’s “electrifyin’” finale, but she’s been so winningly winsome up to that point, you may feel more wistful than she does in saying “goodbye to Sandra Dee.”
23. ‘What Is Life’
Newton-John had her first international hit with “If Not for You,” a cover of George Harrison’s cover of a rootsy Bob Dylan number. Lesser remembered is that she also covered Harrison’s “What Is Life,” de-Spectorized a little. Too bad she never got around to covering the entirety of “All Things Must Pass.”
22. ‘The Rumour’
Elton John and Bernie Taupin penned what was supposed to be a comeback single for Newton-John in the ’80s, after a fallow period that followed her “Grease” success and the subsequent “Physical” album. It didn’t really catch on, and the music video is even more dated than the ’80s production. But between the big hair and the sensual attitude, it does look and feel like a years-later sequel to the final scene of “Grease.” And it’s fun hearing her channel Elton’s very distinctive voice and make the song half-his, half her own.
21. ‘Come on Over’
Would Shania Twain thought to have named her breakthrough album “Come on Over” if Olivia hadn’t used that title first? No one can say for sure, but it is possible to say almost definitively that Newton-John opened the country crossover door that Twain was able to waltz through a quarter-century later.
20. ‘And I Love You So’
Back in the more innocent, less synergistic days of the early ’70s, pop artists could regularly be found on TV variety shows performing standards that they never got around to actually committing to wax. Such was the case with Newton-John, who covered a hit that belonged to Perry Como (and to a lesser extent Elvis Presley) and made it her own. Also: green slacks (and green everything) sure did become her — is it too late to revive this eye-popping color palette?
19. ‘It’s Christmas Time Down Under’ (from the film ‘Funny Things Happen Down Under’)
Most people assume Newton-John’s pro career began in 1971, but she was well known in her native territories well before that. She made her little-seen first movie, “Funny Things Happen Down Under,” all the way back in ’65, and even a far less seasoned Newton-John exhibited a humble star quality in musical numbers like this regional/seasonal hybrid song.
18. ‘Best of My Love’
Going from her first filmic performance to her final solo studio release, the 2014 EP “Hotel Sessions”… This “Best of My Love” is not a cover of either of the two hit “Best of My Loves” you’re probably thinking of, but why not have three standout songs by that title?
17. ‘Happiness Valley’ (by Toomorrow, from the film “Toomorrow”)
Newton-John’s second feature film role, in the nearly buried sci-fi musical “Toomorrow,” looks like it was made even earlier than 1970, which affords the chance to not just imagine but really see the star groove out as a bit of a hippie-chick. Toomorrow was a real group, sort of, as well as the namesake for the film that starred the band — kind of a Down Under Monkees, albeit not so successful. With all due credit to the other actor-musicians, with whom she has a harmonic chemistry and easy familiarity, you watch a film clip like this and wonder, with the benefit of five decades of hindsight: Why in the world were they letting anyone sing?
16. ‘To Be Wanted’
Her 2006 album was called “Grace and Gratitude,” but while those qualities seemed to exist in abundance in Newton-John’s later career, it was good to hear her still singing about the lonelier stirrings of the human heart, and the desire to be desired, too.
15. ‘Banks of the Ohio’
Newton-John never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die during the early country phase of her career. But in “Banks of the Ohio” (the B-side of her first real hit, “If Not for You”), she did something arguably even more unsettling: she knifed a guy to death… her one true love, in fact. Given that this was a classic country-folk song, it was understood that she was working in a vernacular form and not really a psychopathic boyfriend killer. Still, if you allow yourself to image her with literal blood on her hands, it’s easy to start imagining what could have happened a few years later if John Travolta had not taken her “You better shape up” warning to heart.
14. ‘Please Mr. Please’
Frankly, it’s almost as hard to imagine Newton-John as the bitter barfly in this tune as it was to take her as a murderer in the previous pick. It’s kind of like hearing a song about a drunken souse who’s bending an elbow down on Skid Row as embodied by… Karen Carpenter. But it totally works, of course. And for generations to come, anyone stocking a jukebox had to pay special attention to what 45 to plug in to the “B-17” slot, thinking: What would make Olivia Newton-John bawl (and/or slam a fist into the Select-o-Matic)?
13. ‘Big and Strong’
In the late ’80s Newton-John started to de-“Physical”-ize her image a bit and drift toward more mature, reflective material, like this cover of “How to Grow Up Big and Strong,” an undersung sociopolitical lament by the late, great singer-songwriter Mark Heard. The very, very ’80s arrangement and an oddly tribally themed music video didn’t necessarily do the song any extra favors, but it’s still wonderful to hear Newton-John applying those pipes to a song with such a poignant sense of social commentary.
12. ‘Let Me Be There’
One of the great sing-alongs in her early, country-focused material. You will either love or not love the deep-voiced backing male vocal that almost makes “Let Me Be There” sound like an Oak Ridge Boys cover. But with promises of affection sung this sweetly… yah, O, be there.
Well, it seemed dirty at the time. How short and slippery a slope it was from Newton-John singing about naughty business to George Michael crooning “I Want Your Sex” a few years later to the public orgies in the streets we see in America today. Actually, Newton-John cleverly gave herself an out of plausible deniability by making the music video all about the wholesome subject of aerobics… horizontal aerobics. If you ever saw the 1982 long-form concert video that has Newton-John breaking out a jumprope for this song’s climactic coda, it may have pushed carnal connotations out of your mind altogether. OK, who are we kidding: this image-changer of a smash is — once and forever — filthy.
10. ‘Summer Nights’
This duet, carried over— unlike the soundtrack’s other hits — from the original Broadway song score, traffics enough in traditional gender stereotypes (boys want sex, girls want swooning) that it’d probably never get written today, even in the jest this one obviously was. But Newton-John sure was born to play the part of someone who doesn’t want to get physical, until she does.
Imagine a universe in which Newton-John sings lead on ELO’s entire catalog, not just a couple of pieces of Jeff Lynne assignment writing. It’s easy if you try.
8. ‘If Not for You’
Olivia Newton-John, queen of roots-rock and Americana? It didn’t really turn out that way, but you wouldn’t have guessed how exactly it would go from this initial 1971 breakout single, which took the then-fresh George Harrison/Bob Dylan number and kept all the slide appeal while adding a little sex appeal.
7. ‘A Little More Love’
Will a little more love make it right? Is this an eternal question, or what? The song itself leaves the question of romantic redemption and salvation up for debate — there’s a melancholy undertow to it, for sure — but with Newton-John posing it, the outcome can’t help but not feel hopeless.
6. ‘I Honestly Love You’
Who doesn’t love a song about star-crossed lovers, or would-be lovers, bound to their existing partners and destined to act as strangers when they meet? Newton-John always did such a magnificent job of looking tenderly into the camera as she sang this that probably the vast majority of the population missed that it was about illicit love. They just cottoned onto the honesty.
5. ‘Make a Move on Me’
Still in rascally “Physical” mode, Newton-John had one of her greatest post-“Grease” triumphs with a song that took a lover down for being too much talk and not enough action. “Won’t you spare me all your charms / And take me in your arms?” she implored. And with a hook up there with the best of the ABBA catalog, resistance was futile. “Touch is worth a thousand words,” she declares, and she’s got a point — but with a voice like Newton-John’s, you still wanted the thousand words.
Newton-John may or may not have been typecast as a literal muse in the Gene Kelly-co-starring movie-musical disaster “Xanadu.” She was a little too friendly to properly come off as a supernatural entity (which was hardly the most of the film’s problems). But in this ELO-aided smash, which has a slinky chord progression for the ages, she more than lives up to the single’s title. It really is magic, and the furthest thing from a trick.
3. ‘You’re the One That I Want’
Would we love this duet as much if we could somehow visually disassociate it from the sight of all that shoulder-wriggling and cigarette-stamping out? We’ll never know for sure, and that’s just fine. One thing for sure is that “Grease” would not be a tenth as well-regarded as it is if the film’s music team had not departed from the original stage score to allow for this anachronistic interloper tune, which is almost certainly the first thing anyone thinks about when they think of “Grease.” Aside from maybe “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” it’s the most fondly embraced pure-pop duet in history, with good reason.
2. ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’
Slow down, you move too fast — gotta make this feeling last. If anything is going to tease you into stopping to smell the roses, or even to quit the rat race, it is the expertly featherweight voice of Olivia Newton-John, beckoning you to an early retirement like a siren calling a workaholic to the rocks of early retirement. Mellow 4 Life.
1. ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’
Newton-John was a few years past her country phase by the time she made “Grease,” but there’s a subtle callback to it with that ethereal, steel-like lick that follows each verse — it has a little trace of country-and-spooky-Western to it. But Newton-John provides the real magic, somehow seeming to make Doris Day, and Barbra Streisand collide in the body of a bobbysoxer. The magnificence of her vocal performance almost wrecks the illusion that she is a high-schooler instead of a 29-year-old veteran, but she was such a strong actress as well as singer here that you bought it hook, line and faux-teenager-sinker. She could have lived to 100 instead of just 73 and we’d never stop being devoted to this image of her as the eternal innocent, just a red stiletto’s throw away from becoming a red-hot goddess. Letting go of this vision is just hopeless.