Friends recall the humanity of Santa Ynez singer Olivia Newton-John
Barry DeVorzon will never forget the evening at John Travolta’s ranch, just north of Santa Barbara.
That’s where he saw Olivia Newton-John and enjoyed an after-dinner, musical treat.
“John and Olivia recreated the songs from ‘Grease’ with Kenny Loggins chiming in,” Mr. DeVorzon told the News-Press last week.
Accompanying them on the piano was record producer and composer David Foster.
Mr. DeVorzon described the moment, which included his wife, Jelinda DeVorzon, and Mr. Loggins’ then wife, Eva, as “a group of friends sharing an evening together.”
“That being said, I still have to pinch myself,” Mr. DeVorzon said. “What a unique experience to be part of it.”
He also recalled that Mr. Travolta and Ms. Newton-John, who starred together in the 1978 film adaptation of Broadway’s “Grease,” had a great affection for each other as friends. “There was this lovely spontaneity that only really friends who are comfortable with each other can have.”
Fond memories of Ms. Newton-John — the “Grease” star and Santa Ynez actress and singer who people immediately describe as kind and down-to-earth — are being shared following her death Aug. 8 after a long struggle with breast cancer.
Her Montecito friend Corinna Gordon called her “a true angel on this earth.”
Those who knew her are quick to agree.
“She was one of the sweetest ladies you’ll ever find,” Tom Reed, the Unity Shoppe executive director, told the News-Press.
Mr. Reed noted Mrs. DeVorzon found it easy to persuade Ms. Newton-John to help Unity Shoppe, the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit that helps the less fortunate.
“As soon as Jelinda described what Unity did, she said, ‘I want to be part of that. It sounds wonderful. How can I be part of it?’ ” Mr. Reed recalled.
The answer was the Unity Shoppe telethons. Ms. Newton-John sang at them in the 1990s and the 21st century, and Mr. Reed said some of her songs were the hits from “Grease.”
Ms. Newton-John sang “Christmas Never Felt Like This Before” live in 1996 at a Unity Shoppe telethon, pouring her heart into the lyrics — something she was known to do. A clip of that performance was played during at the 2011 Unity Shoppe telethon, and you can see it at youtube.com/watch?v=ujeHDgWoyh8.
And Mr. Reed noted Ms. Newton-John never requested an honorarium or reimbursement of expenses for participating in the telethons. “She was a real down-to-earth person.”
Mr. DeVorzon echoed that.
“Olivia was totally unaware of her celebrity,” Mr. DeVorzon said. “She was such an easy and accessible person. You had to keep reminding yourself she was a star.”
Mr. DeVorzon, a longtime composer, met Ms. Newton, a Cambridge, England native who grew up in Australia, when he was working on the score for the 1980 film that starred her and Gene Kelly in his last movie role, “Xanadu.”
“Olivia was so nice to work with, as was Gene Kelly,” Mr. DeVorzon said.
“That film was the beginning of my friendship with Olivia,” he said. “Over the years, Olivia became a dear friend to Jelinda and me.”
He recalled another night of spontaneous music with the singer, when he and his wife enjoyed dinner at the home of Montecito singer Peter Noone and his wife Mireille. Ms. Newton-John was there with her husband, John Easterling and producer John Farrar, who wrote Ms. Newton-John’s hits, and Mr. Farrar’s wife Pat.
“After dinner, I told the story about my first hit as a young man, which was a (1959) song called ‘Just Married,’ recorded by Marty Robbins,” Mr. DeVorzon said. “To my amazement, John and Pat Farro and Oliva sang my song, ‘Just Married.’ They knew all the words!
“Apparently it was a huge hit in Australia, and they remembered it,” Mr. DeVorzon said. “To have Olivia and her producer singing the first hit I ever had and knowing all the lyrics impressed the hell out of me.”
Ms. Newton-John, of course, was known for rendition of songs in “Grease,” such as “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (again with her pouring her heart into the lyrics) and her iconic split-screen duet with Mr. Travolta, “Summer Nights.”
Before “Grease,” she recorded “Let Me Be There” (1973), “I Honestly Love You” (1974) and “Have You Never Been Mellow?” (1975). After “Grease,” her hits included “Xanadu” and “Magic” from her movie with Mr. Kelly, as well as the upbeat “Physical” (1981).
But those interviewed for this story agreed that despite the fame, Ms. Newton-John remained down-to-earth and genuine.
Ms. Gordon, the Montecito friend who called Ms. Newton-John “a true angel,” recalled meeting her through their mutual friend, movie and TV star Jane Seymour.
“Jane introduced us, probably in 1994,” said Ms. Gordon, who was diagnosed with breast cancer that year, two years after Ms. Newton-John’s diagnosis.
“She was incredibly kind and supportive,” Ms. Gordon said.
She noted Ms. Newton-John didn’t see herself as a celebrity.
“She never bought into ‘I’m better than anybody else,’ ” Ms. Gordon said. “She was just so real and normal and human and vulnerable.
“She was a very positive person,” Ms. Gordon said. “She was special.”
Ms. Gordon recalled how Ms. Newton-John was the first guest host for a benefit at Ms. Gordon’s Montecito home for the Breast Cancer Resource Center.
“She couldn’t have been sweeter,” Ms. Gordon said. “She came and talked to people and explained her breast cancer journey, and I think she really won over a lot of people.
“I took her to see the Breast Cancer Resource Center on Pueblo Street,” Ms. Gordon said. “She just loved it. I think it inspired her.
“My favorite moments were when I came up (to Santa Ynez) and visited her there, and we would just hang out together,” Ms. Gordon said.
“She was so real. She felt like a real friend.”