The beloved late singer’s final album is a series of moving duets with superstars, dear friends, and even her daughter. AARP goes behind the scenes for the stories behind the tracks
Read Original Article Edna Gunderson, AARP
Among the many fans hopelessly devoted to Olivia Newton-John are the famous peers who became cherished friends during her long career. And a number of them linked voices with the superstar singer on her final album, Just the Two of Us: The Duets Collection, Vol. 1, a 17-track set recorded before she died of breast cancer in August 2022 at age 73.
Newton-John soared to fame with such hits as “I Honestly Love You,” “Magic,” “Physical” and Grease tunes “You’re the One That I Want,” “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” After her cancer diagnosis and treatment in the 1990s, she remained in remission for more than 20 years. The disease returned in 2013 and again in 2017, when it metastasized to her spine.
Her final recording, just months before her death, is a duet with Dolly Parton, 77, a close pal since 1974. They turn in a fresh spin on the country legend’s “Jolene” (watch the moving collaboration on YouTube, here). The album also boasts duets with Grease costar John Travolta, 69 (“Take a Chance”), Michael McDonald, 71 (“Act of Faith”), Paul Anka, 81 (“Put Your Head on My Shoulder”), Barry Gibb, 76 (“Face to Face”) and Mariah Carey, 54 (“Hopelessly Devoted to You”), among others.
Here, five collaborators featured on the album share some of their favorite memories of their dear friend with AARP.
Country singer/songwriter Kelly Lang
Lang, 54, met Newton-John for the first time at a diabetes benefit in Florida, where mutual friend Barry Gibb, 76, was performing. “This lady came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ Oh my God. I wasn’t expecting to meet Olivia. We became super-close girlfriends. It was like a sisterhood instantly.”
Their paths crossed often. While Lang and her husband, country star T.G. Sheppard, 78, were visiting Gibb in Australia, they attended a gala where he and Newton-John sang the Bee Gees classic “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” “It really resonated with me,” says Lang, “I had never heard it as a duet, and I was very moved.” Months later, Newton-John was quizzing her about cover tunes she planned to record, and Lang blurted, “Do you want to do a duet with me?” They quickly settled on Gibb’s tune, and their version surfaced later as an obvious finalist for Newton-John’s duets disc.
“She never thought of herself as famous. She didn’t want the attention. She used her platform to heal,” says Lang, a cancer survivor. “Generation after generation will always love Grease. I hope her legacy will also focus on how many souls she and her cancer research have helped.”
Cuban American pop/R&B singer Jon Secada
Newton-John’s longtime friend and collaborator, Secada, 61, wrote and then recorded the love ballad “Lost Inside Your Heart” with Brazilian songbird Marina Elali, who released it in 2009.
“Eventually, I played it for Olivia, and she really liked the song,” Secada says, “so we recorded it. We were a good match in the studio. Our voices blended well. Because it was my song, she asked for my direction in phrasing and so forth. But the recording just kind of sat there for several years.” When Newton-John began to assemble Just the Two of Us, she told Secada she wanted to include it. He was flattered.
Secada hopes the album will reinforce Newton-John’s status as an exquisite singer. “What I always enjoyed about Olivia’s voice was the transparency of her instrument,” he says. “No matter what the style or the rhythm of the song, whether up-tempo or a ballad — she even did country music – that purity was always there.”
Singer/songwriter Richard Marx
Newton-John tapped the singer/songwriter, 59, whom she’d known for 40 years, to partner on his lush piano ballad “Never Far Away.” Marx said yes but has one regret: “I lived in Chicago and Olivia in L.A., so we ended up recording it separately,” he says. “Of course, in retrospect, I wish we’d been together and filmed our performance.”
Marx fondly recalls Newton-John’s always-generous spirit. “In 2012, Sara Bareilles was visiting me in Chicago, and over dinner Sara mentioned her idol was Olivia,” he says. “I discreetly texted Livvy, who answered me within minutes, saying, ‘So weird! I was going to call you tomorrow. I’m coming to Chicago and hoped we could have dinner.’ The next night we surprised Sara at the restaurant, and when Olivia walked in, Sara was so overcome she ran into the coat closet, crying. That’s who Olivia was. Sweet, kind, loving and open.”
Australian singer/actress Delta Goodrem
Playing Newton-John in an Australian 2018 biopic miniseries, Goodrem lent her voice to “I Honestly Love You,” a song she confesses to have, well, always loved. “Getting to spend time in the studio with Olivia was a dream come true and an experience I will cherish forever,” she says.
Goodrem says Newton-John was a life coach as well as a treasured friend. “I met Olivia when I was a young girl,” she says. “Her kindness and warmth had a profound impact on how I would treat people I met later in my career. She was someone who inspired me with her grace, humility and talent from the time I started singing.”
In 2003, at age 18, Goodrem was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy and radiation. Newton-John’s advice and support were invaluable. “Olivia has helped millions of people, including me,” she says. “Olivia told me that one day — not right now but one day — I would see this as a gift to be a pillar of strength for other people. She was an example to me of how, once I got through my own health journey, I would commit to being that way for others.”
Newton-John’s daughter, singer/actress Chloe Lattanzi
Newton-John’s only child sings “Window in the Wall” — a piano ballad written by the cousin of an acquaintance — with her mom. “My mom played it and was moved to tears. She asked me to record it with her. I recorded my vocals alone because I get nervous in front of her. I said, ‘You have to go away.’ I will treasure that song and memory for the rest of my life.”
Lattanzi (her father is Newton-John’s first husband, American former dancer/actor Matt Lattanzi, 64) says her mother was loving and supportive but often absent. “When I was growing up, she took me with her as much as she could, but it was hard for her,” she says. “She was the breadwinner. When she would go away, I would put Grease on repeat and sleep in her bed.”
Lattanzi, 37, plans to pursue singing but also feels committed to her mother’s projects, particularly the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Victoria, Australia. “Everything that was important to her is important to me,” she says. “My mom was a healer. She was the most powerful woman I ever met. Even on the hardest days, she would find a way to make a joke or find the beauty in a bad situation. She was such a fighter.”
Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.