OLIVIA NEWTON – JOHN 1971-1985

ONJ41

Let Me Be There (J Rostill) 1973 and Long Live Love (V Avon/H Spiro) – Olivia Newton-John 1974

 ONJ46Let Me Be There had a strong connection with the Shadows via John Rostill (above), former bass guitarist for the band, who wrote this song as well as If You Love Me Let Me Know for Olivia, and Bruce Welch, another Shadows band mate, who co-produced the session. Let Me Be There was another country-influenced song which featured steel guitar and the resonant bass harmony vocal backing of Mike Sammes, who with his vocal group the Mike Sammes Singers, provided backing vocals on hundreds of recordings throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Mike also provided distinctive bass vocal backing on Banks of the Ohio and If You Love Me Let Me Know for Olivia, although the advent of double tracking and synthesizers in record production would cause a decline in demand for such backing singers in the future.

Let Me Be There became Olivia’s first top ten hit in the US at #6 and charted #11 in Australia, it was a US million seller and it won ONJ her first Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female in 1974.(below with Grammy Award)ONJ47Olivia had beaten a field of C&W stalwarts including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Lynne Anderson for the Grammy, and she innocently and somewhat naively commented at the time that “It’s probably the first time an English person won an award over Nashville people.” The traditionalists within the C&W community had long been suspicious of Newton-John as she racked up no less than three hit country singles and an album between 1971-73, so her comments on Grammy night went over like the proverbial lead balloon, and soon thereafter the hillbillies descended on her with barely disguised contempt.ONJ43Things only got worse when the Country Music Association voted her the 1974 Female Vocalist of the Year over Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Anne Murray, and Tanya Tucker – you could hear the howls of protest from Butcher Hollow, Pigeon Forge, Locust Ridge, Itawamba, Smithsville, and Grand Forks. Tammy Wynette and her husband George Jones (above) rallied the troops, including such luminaries as Dolly Parton, Porter Waggoner, Dottie West, Faron Young, Bill Anderson, Conway Twitty, and Barbara Mandrell, to protest the outrage about someone who was “as “country as a kangaroo, couldn’t play a guitar, and had never set foot in a Nashville recording studio, much less the Grand Ole Opry”, taking home awards that were rightly theirs. Minor C&W singer Johnny Paycheck (real name Donald Lytle, below) summed it up for the locals when he commented “We don’t want somebody out of another field coming in here and taking away what we’ve worked so hard for.”ONJ48To better understand the rationale behind the attitudes of many US C&W performers, it’s worthwhile noting that country music was stereotyped as a nostalgic product from the very beginning, in the 1920’s, the members of this club jealously guarded the musical heritage that they sought to perpetuate, and profit from, they rather quaintly and disingenuously described country music “as three chords and the truth”. Country had not come from the affluent and the privileged, but from the fringes of American society, in the hills and hollows, and the barrios and blues clubs, but although their songs often eulogized the humble log cabin and the old country church, many of them had never been inside one themselves. Country music was changing anyway, towards a more polished commercial sound, no doubt there was still a debt owed to such legendary C&W artists as Hank Williams (below) and Bill Monroe, but the times were a’changin’.ONJ49At this time Olivia’s US manager Lee Kramer,  was too inexperienced to adequately prepare her for the negative reaction from the Nashville community, her naïve comments in media interviews were often fuel to the fire of controversy, when she heard a Hank Williams song and said that she would like to meet him, she was advised, to her embarrassment, that he had died in 1953.ONJ44Clearly Olivia was just doing her thing, recording songs that she described as straightforward, honest, and not requiring a passport to be accepted internationally. What she had never counted on, was the xenophobia and hypocrisy of the Nashville C&W community, who craved international acceptance of their music, but would not extend a welcoming hand to non-Americans who dared to invade their turf. Loretta Lynn and Stella Parton never aligned themselves with the protesters, Stella (above with sister Dolly) even composed a song, Ode to Olivia, in which she called out her country colleagues for the hypocrisy and ill-will they had directed at Olivia.  Ultimately Dolly Parton reproached herself for supporting the protests, and joined her sister in supporting Olivia in the future. The country cross-over phenomena, which Olivia had inadvertently championed, was unleashed, it would enable performers to move both ways between pop/rock and C&W, Dolly Parton herself would soon be taking her country songs into the pop charts and going to Hollywood to make movies. John Denver quickly followed in Olivia’s footsteps, and despite the fact that Charlie Rich (below) chose to burn the envelope proclaiming Denver as the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1975 on national television, and copped a lifetime ban from the event for so doing, the movement of performers both ways between country and pop, was becoming more commonplace.

Over time the country music scene has been begrudgingly democratized by artists from other musical genres, who don’t necessarily rely exclusively on a fiddle, a steel guitar and the occasional yodel to create “country” music. Ray Charles made inroads during the 1960’s with his album Modern Sounds in Country Music, and more than a half century later in 2019, the rise of Lil Nas X (real name Montero Lamar Hill) with his slurry on-line country/hip hop smash hit Old Town Road, now officially the longest-running #1 song in American popular music history, literally kicked down the doors to the Grand Ole Opry. But Lil Nas X is both black and gay, and the reactionary forces inside the C&W music industry, who prefer to see white men/women singing about religion, cheatin’ wives/husbands, GIs overseas, and C&W music itself, moved to ban the record from the C&W charts, claiming that it did not contain sufficient elements of traditional country music, dismissing it as a “stupid little ditty- an earworm”, and it was dropped from the playlists of country radio stations. But once Billy Ray Cyrus joined Lil Nas X ( together below) in a remix of Old Town Road, its success was assured, it sat atop the Billboard charts for  a record 19 consecutive weeks, and others like country/rapper Blanco Brown have quickly followed his lead, as what is now defined as “country music’, continues to evolve.     ONJ45 The following year Olivia was chosen to represent the UK in the 1974 Eurovision Song contest, the entry song was to be chosen via votes cast each week for songs performed by Olivia on the (now-disgraced) Jimmy Saville TV show Clunk Click. Although she favored a ballad entitled Angel Eyes, the public chose a cheery, sing -a-long song with an oom-pah-pah orchestration, about the Salvation Army, called Long Live Love, written by Valerie Avon and Harold Spiro.    ONJ39It was neither deep, meaningful nor destined to win, Livvy, dressed in a shapeless, floaty, aqua coverall, with winged sleeves, apparently inspired by a Demis Rousoss one-size-fits-all kaftan, made equal fourth place, and ABBA took out the contest with Waterloo, which kick started their career. The song was a moderate hit in Australia and in the UK charted #11, but later that year ONJ would have her first US #1 hit with a beautiful ballad co-composed by another famous Australian performer.

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