Before relocating to the US in 1974, Olivia was sitting in her London flat with Aussie John Farrar, former lead guitarist/singer with the Melbourne band the Strangers, and soon to wed Olivia’s good friend, Pat Carroll. Farrar had become a trusted musical collaborator with Olivia and would write, arrange, and produce many of the big hits throughout her career. They were going through a pile of acetates and stumbled onto this song, written by her friend and Aussie expat Peter Allen and Jeff Barry with whom Olivia had worked on the movie fiasco Toomorrow.
Peter Allen had originally demoed this song for his new album Continental American, which Jeff Barry was producing for him, Barry was a very successful composer/producer during the 1960’s and 70’s with his then-wife Ellie Greenwhich, they were Brill Building song writing royalty, having written River Deep, Mountain High (Ike and Tina Turner), Doo Wah Diddy (Manfred Mann), Then He Kissed Me and Da Doo Ron, Ron (Crystals), Leader of the Pack (Shangri-Las), Sugar, Sugar (Archies), Chapel of Love (Dixiecups), and many others.
The song had originally been offered to Helen Reddy (below) to record, Helen was one of the most prominent female singers in the States at the time, with no less than three #1 US hits to her credit – I Am Woman, Delta Dawn, and Angie Baby, but she declined because she was married to a jealous man (Jeff Wald), and would have felt uncomfortable singing a song about infidelity “But there you are with yours/And here I am with mine…”. This song is about a couple who clearly have a spark, but are also attached to others, the singer explains that despite their chemistry, she’s not going to do anything about it, because she honestly loves him.
But according to Jeff Barry the song was originally written from the perspective of a man, so the intention wasn’t completely pure. “I thought it would be a really sexy song for a guy to sing – ‘I’m not trying to sleep with you,” Barry explained in More Songwriters on Songwriting. “I honestly love you. No one had ever said that before. And I thought any girl who would hear that would have to say, “Well, can we just do it once?” Olivia was impressed with the song, in her 2019 memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’, she recalled when she first heard the song: “My heart stopped when I heard the lyrics: ‘I love you… I honestly love you.’ It was so simple, with a meaning that was deeper than the ocean. Those words made me stop and think because they touched me. I could certainly relate, and I knew that everyone would be able to make those words fit their own personal story of love and perhaps even loss. Just putting the word ‘honestly’ into the mix made it even more poignant. No lies. No denying it. I honestly love you.” She convinced Allen and Barry to let her record it, she went into a tiny recording studio in Soho’s Tin Pan Alley in Denmark St. (below) with producer John Farrar the next day and recorded the song that became Olivia’s breakout #1 hit in the USA.The Soho studio was rather primitive, the only access to the control room was via a ladder which tested Farrar’s dexterity and balance and as well as the sound quality in the recording space as he clambered up and down the unsteady treads.
Newton-John delivered a heartfelt vocal treatment of the song, Alan Hawkshaw wrote and played the two beautiful piano parts and expat Aussie Kevin Peek (James Taylor Move/Sky, below) played the guitar parts with John Farrar adding strings to the mix.I Honestly Love You won Olivia the Grammy for Best Record of the Year and sold over two million copies. It would remain Australia’s only winner in this Grammy category until Gotye’s beguiling Somebody That I Used to Know swept all before it at the 2012 Grammy ceremony. Newton-John took this song to #2 locally, #1 in the US and #22 in the UK and it became the first of five #1 US hits for ONJ in the period 1974-81.