If Not for You (B Dylan) and Banks of The Ohio (Traditional Arrangement adapted by B Welch/J Farrer) – Olivia Newton-John 1971
Olivia Newton-John and her family, parents Brinley and Irene (nee Born, daughter of the Nobel prize-winning nuclear physicist Max Born), and elder brother Hugh and sister Rona (see below), emigrated to Australia in 1953. Her father was an academic, a Professor of German Literature, who took up the position as Dean of Ormond College at Melbourne University. Olivia’s early life was impacted by the divorce of her parents in 1958 and the relocation of her father to another state when he assumed the post of Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University (NSW). Irene worked in public relations to support her family and Olivia and her siblings moved into an apartment, but her brother soon headed off to university to study medicine and her sister Rona dropped out of school to pursue an acting career, and married soon after, leaving a young Olivia without the company of her siblings or her father.Olivia’s early musical influences were Joan Baez, Dionne Warwick, Ray Charles and Nina Simone and she began performing at the age of 14 in a folk group known as the Sol Four in Melbourne coffee lounges in 1962, where she first met young rising star Ian Turpie, who would become her first serious squeeze. Appearances on such local TV shows as Kevin Dennis Auditions, Sunnyside Up, and Ian Turpie’s Go!!Show, convinced Olivia that her future lay in show business, and much to her father’s chagrin, she dropped out of school.As a regular performer on the Go!!Show she was usually backed by the house band the Strangers, whose lead guitarist John Farrar, would write and produce many international hits for Olivia in the future, it was also here that Olivia met young singer Pat Carroll, who would become her best friend and trusted confidante.By 1966 Irene was concerned about the intensity of her daughter’s relationship with Ian Turpie (above), and her tender age, so she decided that her and Olivia would return to the UK, Olivia was devastated and only acknowledged the wisdom of this move retrospectively many years later in 2002, when Olivia was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.Upon arrival in London mother and daughter leased a small flat in Hampstead, Olivia was signed to Decca but her first single, a Jackie de Shannon song entitled Till You Say You’ll Be Mine, sank without a trace, but her friend Pat Carroll (above) found her way to London, and the two Aussies moved into a flat in Shepherd’s Bush.It was the era of Swinging London, Olivia and Pat went to the trendy clubs of the time – Scotch of St. James, Bag O’Nails (above) and the Cromwellian, and shopped in the boutiques of Carnaby Street, Chelsea and Kensington.Males dominated the music scene but there were several exceptions to the rule – Essex girl Sandie Shaw (above) was slim, coltish, short-sighted, dark-haired and shoeless with a fey voice, Cilla Black was a giggly redhead from Liverpool with a very powerful voice, Lulu was a bouncy pocket rocket from Glasgow with a rasping, bluesy voice, Marianne Faithful below), Olivia’s immediate rival at Decca, was a convent-educated blonde with an angelic face, enigmatic smile and a whisperly quiet voice, and Irish girl Dusty Springfield, with blonde-beehive and Kohl-rimmed panda eyes, possessed a stunning bluesy, soulful voice that put her at the top of the heap.At Seeker Athol Guy’s suggestion, Olivia and Pat formed a duo and worked the pubs, clubs and variety show circuit in the UK, it was while performing as a support act for Cliff Richard and the Shadows, that Olivia met Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch, who would become both her lover and her manager, a potentially dangerous combination that would occur several times throughout Newton-John’s career. At this time Olivia met ex-pat Aussie Peter Gormley (below) who was managing Cliff Richard and the Shadows as well as Australian singer Frank Ifield at the time, he offered to manage Olivia’s career, and she readily accepted.Bruce Welch (below) was a respected UK music industry insider, who was not only a talented guitarist, and performer with the Shadows, but had also penned no less than five UK #1 hits, four for Cliff Richard – Please Don’t Tease, I Love You, Bachelor Boy, and Summer Holiday – as well as Foot Tapper for the Shadows. He was seriously smitten with the beautiful Olivia, decided to leave his wife, and moved into a St. John’s Wood apartment with her, she was similarly in awe of the man who was seven years her senior, and well-connected throughout the London showbiz scene.Between 1969 – 71 Olivia’s career would seriously stall, after she was persuaded to join a “pre-fab four” group, modelled on the Monkees, and put together by Brill Building promoter extraordinaire Don Kirshner and James Bond movie mogul Harry Saltzman. Toomorrow became the over-hyped brainchild of Kirshner (below), who had already launched the cartoon group the Archies and their 11 million- seller hit Sugar, Sugar, and he was convinced that the doe-eyed Olivia with a white American guitarist, a white British guitarist, and an African-American drummer, would be the next big multicultural thing “take off on a cosmic music trip with the new Toomorrow…” screamed the billboards, critics described it as Lost In Space or Tone Deaf In Space.A movie and its soundtrack of songs would launch the career of Toomorrow (see below) – the plot for the movie was ludicrous and quite bizarre – four college students form a band after inventing an instrument known as a tonaliser, this brings the band members into contact with aliens known as Alphoids, who reveal that they are sick and in need of Toomorrow’s vibrant beat to cure them of their illness which is – sterility of sound! Realizing that they can’t exist in the atmosphere on planet Alphoid, the band escapes back to Earth – what could go wrong with that plot? After two years and millions of dollars wasted, the movie and the soundtrack stiffed, Olivia badly needed to reboot her career and have a hit record.John Farrar had joined Pat Carroll in London and he and Bruce Welch assisted Olivia to arrange and produce If Not For You, her first album, the songs were recorded at Abbey Road Studios with guitarists Welch and Farrar sharing production duties, with Alan Hawkshaw (keyboards), Brian Bennett( drums, ex-Shadows) and Dave Richmond (bass, ex-Manfred Mann), the album also included covers of songs by Kris Kristofferson, David Gates (Bread), and Gordon Lightfoot. Several tracks were selected and the standout for a single release was a song off Bob Dylan’s New Morning album released in 1971 – If Not for You. The track had already been covered by no less a performer than George Harrison on his All Things Must Pass album, which featured a distinctive slide guitar backing which was replicated on Olivia’s version of the song. Fans generally agreed that Olivia gave this country-tinged song a new lease of life with her sweet, breathy vocals, it charted #7 in Australia and the UK and #25 in the US for her break-through international hit.
The follow up was Banks of the Ohio which was a traditional American murder classic, originally recorded by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers in 1927, and reminiscent of other murder ballads of the time, such as Pretty Polly and Omie Wise, and subsequently Tom Dooley by the Kingston Trio. This was a surprising change of material for ONJ, and not one that she particularly favoured, but it was well-produced and featured the distinctive backing vocals of the Mike Sammes Singers, she took this murderous ditty to a national #1, a #6 hit in the UK, and it was the #8 best- selling record of the year in Australia, however it failed to chart in America, where it had previously been covered by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Johnny Cash.
It was early days for the Newton-John/John Farrer/Bruce Welch combination, but Olivia and Bruce were now engaged. Welch and Farrar played critical roles in launching ONJ internationally, Farrar would write hit songs for her in the future and become a trusted professional collaborator, and with his wife Pat Carroll, a member of Olivia’s inner circle of close friends.
Olivia had a brief fling with French crooner Sacha Distel (above) which effectively derailed her engagement to Bruce Welch who was inconsolable, his attempted suicide was only narrowly averted when a window cleaner saw him lying comatose on his apartment floor after taking an overdose of barbiturates.
Although Welch and ONJ would part romantically, musically they continued to collaborate until she made the move to relocate to the USA and pursue her career there, with new manager/boyfriend Lee Kramer (above).