Currently we are in the middle of the 35th anniversary of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” topping the Billboard Hot 100 for an astounding ten weeks from late November 1981 to early February 1982. The British-born Australian singer started her recording career ten years earlier with her debut album If Not For You, the title track of which was her first hit, reaching the top ten in many countries and number 25 in the U.S. “If Not For You” also was the number one song for three weeks on the Easy Listening charts in the U.S. To reach number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Easy Listening charts definitely put the new singer on the radar screen in the U.S.
What Olivia Newton-John and George Harrison have in common is that they both covered the Bob Dylan song “If Not for You” for their albums, which was Newton-John’s debut album and Harrison’s first post-Beatle solo album. Harrison’s version appeared on his seminal triple album All Things Must Pass, released in 1970, the same year that The Beatles officially broke up. Olivia Newton-John definitely based her version of “If Not For You” on Harrison’s rendition of the Dylan classic cut.
“If Not For You” was included on the 1970 Dylan album New Morning. The song was originally recorded by Dylan in a session in which he was accompanied by George Harrison on guitar on May 1, 1970 at the Columbia Studios in Manhattan. The version of the song that would go on to appear on the album was recorded in August 1970 in Nashville, with Charlie Daniels playing bass on the track. The original May 1970 Dylan/Harrison version of “If Not For You” would float around in the world of bootlegs and finally appear in 1991 on Dylan’s The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased).
In 1971, George Harrison was able to gradually persuade Bob Dylan to end his five year “exile” and perform at the ex-Beatle’s Concert for Bangladesh, the famous two concert fundraiser at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971. The duo performed “If Not For You” together at the rehearsal and final sound check, but Dylan did not want to do the song at the actual concert.
Twenty-one years later, at the 1992 star-studded concert at Madison Square Garden celebrating Bob Dylan’s thirty years in the recording industry on 16 October 1992, Harrison did both the Dylan tunes “If Not For You” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie”; many were shocked when the CD of the event included Harrison doing “Absolutely Sweet Marie” but did not include the more famous “If Not For You”.
All Things Must Pass yielded the first number one hit by a solo Beatle with “My Sweet Lord”. “If Not For You” was not released as a single, but received much praise in reviews of the album. The track had a colorful line-up to say the least. George Harrison handled vocals, acoustic guitars, dobros, and harmonica; Gary Wright played piano; Billy Preston handled the chores on organ; Klaus Voormann played bass; Alan White played drums; Ringo Starr played tambourine.
The first song on All Things Must Pass is “I’d Have You Anytime”, a song that Harrison co-wrote with Bob Dylan in 1968. “If Not For You” represents the only song on the triple album that was not written by George Harrison.
Olivia Newton-John did not like “If Not For You” at all and initially refused to record it, but both her manager and her fiancé were able to change her mind through great efforts. Newton-John said in 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, “I wasn’t keen on that song at all, but I’m so glad John chose it because it’s not one that I would have picked. I didn’t think I sang it well, so when it was a hit you know I had to really say it was my management, and Bruce Welch and John Farrar who produced it, that were really the ones that thought that was a good record for me cause in those days I loved singing those big dramatic ballads, you know, talk about being sentimental.”
Between 1971 and 1985, Olivia Newton John had 28 Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. It all started in 1971 with “If Not For You”, her debut single which reached number 25 and stayed in the Top 40 for ten weeks. Many people think that her highly successful “Have You Never Been Mellow” in 1975 was her first number one hit in the U.S. Actually, six months prior in August 1974 she had her first chart-topper with “I Honestly Love You”. Her other number ones have been “You’re the One That I Want” with John Travolta (1978), “Magic” (1980), and “Physical” (1981). Her top ten hits have been “Let Me Be There” (1973), “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” (1974), “Please Mr. Please” (1975), “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (1978) , “Summer Nights” (1978) with John Travolta, “A Little More Love” (1979), “Xanadu” (1980) with Electric Light Orchestra, “Make a Move on Me” (1982), “Heart Attack” (1982), and “Twist of Fate” (1983).
The song “Physical” was the biggest hit of Olivia Newton-John’s career as well as the biggest hit of the 1980s decade, staying in the top slot for an amazing ten weeks, beginning on November 21, 1981. It is surprising that the song would only reach # 7 on the British pop charts. Ironically, it was both preceded and followed in the top position by number one hits by Hall & Oates; “Physical” was preceded at number one by Hall & Oates’ “Private Eyes”, while it was followed at number one by the Hall & Oates’ classic “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”. It was Newton-John’s fifth and final number one in the U.S.
The distinctive lead guitar on “Physical” was that of Steve Lukather, the lead guitarist of Toto who did extensive studio work with other artists. Lukather went out on the road in 2013 as a member of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. What is most ironic is that right after “Physical” left the number one position in early February and started to fade, another hit song featuring Lukather on lead guitar, “Turn Your Love Around” by George Benson, cracked the Top 40 and started to dominate the airwaves, reaching number five on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the soul singles chart. “Turn Your Love Around” was co-written by Steve Lukather, Bill Champlin of Chicago, and producer Jay Graydon. 1982 continued to be a stellar year for Mr. Lukather with his band Toto releasing Toto IV, which would sweep the Grammy Awards. 1982 would continue to be fruitful for Toto as members of the band – Lukather, Jeff Porcaro Steve Porcaro and Dave Paich – would do extensive session work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, which would sweep the next Grammy Awards the following year. In addition, Steve Porcaro also wrote the hit “Human Nature” on the classic Michael Jackson album.
In addition,the first single released off of Thriller was “The Girl Is Mine”, the duet with Paul McCartney which reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and featured four members of Toto – Dave Paich (piano), Steve Lukather (lead guitar), Jeff Porcaro (drums) and Steve Porcaro (synthesizers).
Of course, the word “physical” is an adjective of “physics”. While “Physical” dominated the U.S. charts and airwaves for so long, few people knew of Olivia Newton-John’s connection to the world of physics. Her mother was German-born Irene Born, who married Welshman Brinley Newton-John in England. Irene Born was the daughter of the famous Max Born. Max Born, who was Olivia Newton-John’s maternal grandfather, was a famous physicist and mathematician who was also the father of quantum mechanics. Max Born won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1954 for his “fundamental research in quantum mechanics, especially in the statistical interpretation of the wave of function”. Not only did Max Born win the Nobel Prize in Physics himself, but he also has the distinction by far of teaching the most people who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. The amazing career of Max Born cannot be summarized in a single blog post. Born was a best friend of Albert Einstein, and their correspondence over 40 years was archived in the 1971 book Born-Einstein Letters, 1916-1955: Friendship, Politics and Physics in Uncertain Times.
Max Born was one of six Jewish professors at the University of Gottingen who were suspended in 1933 when the Nazis took power. He immediately fled to England with his wife and three children, one of whom was Olivia Newton-John’s mother Irene. He was a professor at universities in the UK for the rest of his career. He died at age 87 in 1970, a year before his granddaughter debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 with “If Not for You”. How ironic that ten years later the biggest hit of her career and the biggest hit of the entire 1980s decade would be entitled “Physical” in light of the fact that many people consider her grandfather to be the greatest physicist of all time.
In addition, in the UK it is well known that Olivia’s father, Brinley “Bryn” Newton-John, a native of Cardiff, Wales, who died in 1992, was the main MI5 officer on the Enigma Project in Bletchley Park which famously took Rudolf Hess into custody when the Deputy Fuhrer made a solo flight into Scotland in 1941 in a famous attempt to negotiate peace during World War II.
While George Harrison jammed with Bob Dylan on “If Not For You” both before and after he himself recorded the classic Dylan tune on All Things Must Pass, Olivia Newton-John in effect covered Harrison’s version rather than that of the legendary Bob Dylan.