For the purposes of the movie version of Grease, Robert Stigwood commissioned some new songs…
You’re The One That I Want – John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John
RSO 891 (USA) / RSO 006 (UK)
Recorded in Hollywood, CA
Released March 1978
Writer John Farrar
Producer John Farrar
USA #1 10/6/78 1 week UK #1 17/6/78 9 weeks
From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack of Grease
While they only ever recorded 2 songs together way back in 1978, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John remain one of the most successful duet acts of all time due to their Grease double-whammy ‘You’re The One That I Want’ and ‘Summer Nights’. The singles on their own shifted over 9.5 million copies together, but their success also led to massive sales of the movie double album which sold in excess of 30 million copies in 1978 alone. A set-piece duet especially composed for the movie version of the musical, ‘You’re The One That I Want’ must have made its composer John Farrar a considerable amount of money, was one of the most popular songs of the 1970s, and continues to enjoy endless radio and club play some 39 years later. The original stage version of Grease, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey first saw the light of day in 1971, and by 1977 had run up over 2000 Broadway performances when Robert Stigwood obtained the movie rights. Hot on the heels of his mega-success with, Saturday Night Fever, which had also starred Travolta, Stigwood had earlier had success with his movie version of Andrew Lloyd-Webber & Tim Rice’s, Jesus Christ Superstar, while he was of course also manager of the Bee Gees, whose songs had helped to make Fever such a huge success.
Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England, but emigrated with her family to Australia at the age of four. Towards the end of the 1960s she formed a duo with girlfriend Pat Carroll. Meanwhile, Pat Carroll’s boyfriend, John Farrar, met and began playing with the Shadows while they were visiting Australia. The three soon made the journey to England, Farrar to continue with the Shadows, which metamorphosed into the Crosby, Stills and Nash inspired, Marvin, Welch and Farrar, while Olivia soon began a solo career, hitting the charts with a cover of Bob Dylan’s, ‘If Not For You’, in 1971. The Shadows’ links with Cliff Richard (Olivia became engaged to Shadow Bruce Welch) led to her regular appearance on Cliff’s BBC television show, and a shot at the Eurovision Song Contest. She represented England in 1974 with, ‘Long Live Love’, which came 4th.
It was at this point, with the assistance of John Farrar, who acted as Olivia’s musical director, producer, and sometime songwriter, she began somewhat surprisingly to have considerable success on the American country charts. ‘Let Me Be There’, ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know)’, ‘I Honestly Love You’ and ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ were all Top 10 pop and country hits in America, and in 1975 Olivia won the Female Vocalist Of The Year award from the Country Music Association. John Travolta, of course, had found fame and fortune for his part in Stigwood’s previous production, Saturday Night Fever, and was Stigwood’s first choice to play the part of Danny Zuko in Grease – Travolta had previously toured in a stage production of the musical. While Travolta was an unknown quantity outside of America prior to his appearance in Fever, he had in fact had 3 Top 40 hits in the States in 1976/7 including the #10, ‘Let Her In’, though of course he didn’t do any singing in Saturday Night Fever.
For the purposes of the movie version of Grease, Robert Stigwood commissioned some new songs. Not surprisingly, he called on Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees to write the title song, while Gibb in turn invited former Four Seasons vocalist Frankie Valli to sing it. In addition, John Farrar wrote Olivia’s solo song, ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ and the duet, ‘You’re The One That I Want’ which spent an impressive 9 weeks at Number 1 in the UK. The follow-up, another Travolta/Newton-John duet, ‘Summer Nights’ (from the original Grease score), was Number 1 in Britain for 7 weeks. Composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey who wrote the original Grease score, the song finds Danny (Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia) singing separately to their friends about their summer romance, with each having a completely different perspective on what really happened. Danny sings his part to his greaser friends the T-Birds, and implies that it was a sexual relationship. Sandy sings to her friends the Pink Ladies about a much more innocent adventure where they held hands and drank lemonade. Unfortunately for Danny, he tries to keep up the act when he sees Sandy, acting cool to impress his friends, and it takes him the rest of the movie to win her back!
Robert Stigwood’s record label, RSO, held the Number 1 spot on America’s Billboard Top 100 for an unbeatable 31 weeks in 1978, the company’s releases holding the top spot in one un-broken chain from 24th December 1977 until the 20th May 1978. In addition to Number 1’s from the Bee Gees and Grease there were chart toppers by Player, Bee Gees younger brother Andy Gibb (2) and Yvonne Elliman, and the other major American record companies must have begun to wonder if they’d ever see the Number 1 spot again!
In the 1980s Ms Newton-John adopted a more ‘raunchy’ image and spent 10 weeks atop the US charts in 1981 with, ‘Physical’. Grease 2, starring Maxwell Caulfield and a young Michelle Pfeiffer was a resounding flop in 1982, as was a revival of the Newton-John/Travolta movie partnership in 1983; Two Of A Kind was described as a, “Puerile fantasy- romance with a script that must have been scrawled on a gum-wrapper”! Travolta’s own career subsided for years, but he made a remarkable comeback in the 1990s (particularly via his appearance in Pulp Fiction) and is now one of Hollywood’s most well paid box-office attractions. It’s notable that although Olivia had 4 solo US chart toppers, she never made the top of the British charts alone – of her 3 UK chart toppers two were with Travolta, while the third, ‘Xanadu’, another movie tune, was in the company of Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra.
In the new millennium there has been occasional talk of a Grease 3 in which Mr Travolta and Ms Newton-John might agree to reprise their roles as Danny and Sandy some 30 or so years down the line. If this does come to pass, it will be interesting to see if the pair will also reprise their singing activities and pay a return visit to the top of the charts. However, as of 2013 these rumours seemed to have ceased and it appears that Paramount have given up the idea…at least for the moment. As a matter of interest, in 2010 Olivia Newton-John sued Universal Music claiming at least 1 million dollars in alleged unpaid royalties for her recorded performances from Grease. These royalty legal battles always take years to settle and it’s usually the lawyers who make off with most of the money, however if Universal and its’ predecessors have not paid Olivia her full share of royalties, due to the huge sales of Grease over the years, we could be talking considerably more than just 1 million dollars. As of 2017 there appear to be no details of a settlement regarding this suit, though it’s likely there has been some kind of amicable out-of-court agreement with a non-disclosure clause attached.
Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton