My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Fellow Travelers – Olivia Newton-John

olivia newton johnOlivia Newton-John is a British-born Australian singer who, while never really a country singer, sang a version of Australian folk-pop that fit comfortably into country radio’s format during the early 1970s.

Who Was She?

For a few years, Olivia Newton-John was a major international pop star and briefly, a movie star. Olivia’s recording career began in Australia, where her parents had emigrated in 1954, when she was six years old. Around 1965, Olivia won a contest where the prize was a trip to England for a recording contract. Her first single, released in 1966 by the English Decca label, “Til You Say You’ll Be Mine” did nothing chart-wise, but over the course of the next few years her career built some momentum.

Olivia’s first album IF NOT FOR YOU, was released in 1971 and contained two singles. “If Not For You” went top ten in Australia, Canada, England, and topped the US Adult Contemporary charts. The next single “Banks of The Ohio” (a rather morbid American folk song) went to #1 in Australia and charted in various other countries. Neither of these singles charted on the US Country charts although both did receive some country airplay.

From 1974 through 1982 Olivia Newton-John was a major pop star around the world with her records routinely going top ten. Her success accelerated for a few years after her successful movie role in GREASE in 1978.

After 1982 the hits started decreasing in size although she would continue to chart around the world until around 1992.

In addition to success in the singles market, Olivia Newton-John’s albums sold well. All told, she had twelve US albums that went at least gold (500,000 copies sold) with four of those albums going platinum (at least 1,000,000 copies sold). Although not specifically Olivia Newton-John albums, the soundtracks to Grease and Xanadu were hugely successful, with Grease selling over 8,000,000 copies in the US alone.

What Was Her Connection to County Music?

Starting with 1973’s “Let Me Be There”, country radio started charting Olivia’s records with six of the next seven singles reaching the country top ten. While none of her singles reached #1 on Billboard’s country chart, “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” reached #1 on Cashbox and “I Honestly Love You went to #1 on Record World. After 1976’s “Come On Over” her style changed, becoming more suggestive and with a harder beat that made it harder for country radio to justify playing her songs.

During her brief run as a country artist Olivia Newton-John won the 1974 CMA Female Vocalist of The Year and the 1973 NARAS Grammy for “Let Me Be There”. Both choices were highly controversial and remain so to this day as she never more than dabbled in country music and didn’t normally play the venues frequented by country fans. Still she did have a total of fifteen songs chart on Billboard’s Country Charts from 1973 to 1979 (Cashbox had a sixteenth song “Making A Good Thing Better” chart in 1977) and that’s more than Ray Charles or most of our other Fellow Travelers charted and more than many career country acts managed to chart.

One response to “Fellow Travelers – Olivia Newton-John

  1. Don February 4, 2015 at 8:49 am

    Thanks for giving my favorite female artist her due as at least a part-time or a minor country artist. Anyone who wins the CMA for the year and had 15 songs on Billboard’s Country Charts has to be considered “Country”, no matter how controversial the decision may be.

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