Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in <em>Grease</em> in 1978.
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease in 1978.
Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock

'Grease' at 40: Olivia Newton-John, Frankie Valli & John Farrar Reflect on the Blockbuster Songs

by Chuck Arnold
April 14, 2018, 9:03am EDT

In the past two years, soundtracks to musical films like The Greatest Showman, La La Land and Beauty and the Beast have scored big on the Billboard 200 chart. But even those success stories can't compare to the blockbuster Grease soundtrack, which everyone was hopelessly devoted to after it was released 40 years ago on April 14, 1978.

The double-LP companion to the smash movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John—which didn't hit theaters until two months later, on June 16—was certified 8-times platinum (and has sold more than 6 million copies since the start of the Nielsen Music era in 1991), notched four top five hits on the Billboard Hot 100 ("Grease," No. 1; "You're the One That I Want," No. 1; "Hopelessly Devoted to You," No. 3; "Summer Nights," No. 5), and earned an album of the year Grammy nod. Whether you've ever seen the screen romance of '50s high-school sweethearts Sandy and Danny, chances are you've heard some of the music from one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time.

"I think the songs are timeless," Newton-John tells Billboard. "They're fun and have great energy. The '50s-feel music has always been popular, and it's nostalgic for my generation, and then the young kids are rediscovering it every 10 years or so, it seems. People buying the album was a way for them to remember those feelings of watching the movie and feelings of that time period. I feel very grateful to be a part of this movie that's still loved so much."

Newton-John—who was a "reluctant Sandy," insisting on doing a screen test after the failure of her 1970 musical film Toomorrow—asked that her frequent collaborator John Farrar be brought in to produce and write two of the four new songs added to the original Broadway score by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. "It's always great fun recording with John [Farrar] because he's been my friend since I was 15," says Newton-John of her fellow Melbourne, Australia native, who she had worked with on hits like 1973's "Let Me Be There," 1974's "I Honestly Love You" and 1975's "Have You Never Been Mellow." "I think John Farrar is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He's a brilliant musician."

Farrar's first task was to write a showcase ballad for Newton-John. "Apparently they needed a ballad for her that wasn't in the [Broadway] show. Luckily I came up with 'Hopelessly Devoted to You,'" says Farrar of the Oscar-nominated tune that displayed country-pop strains of Newton-John's early solo work. "Obviously it needed to be a brokenhearted song, and it had to have a '50s sort of feel. One of the songs that I always loved was Skeeter Davis' 'The End of the World,' so I wanted to get the same sort of feeling as that song. My song ended up being nothing like that, but that's what started me off on it. I think [Olivia] liked it straight away."

Indeed, when Newton-John heard the "Hopelessly Devoted to You" demo sung by Farrar, she was instantly smitten. "I loved it," she says. "It's a hard song to sing; it's rangy, and so it was challenging. But I thought it was a knockout song." Newton-John's bittersweet vocal perfectly captured the yearning of the lyrics. "She's got that lovely, emotional quality in her voice that people understand," says Farrar. "People just seem to look right into what she's saying somehow."

After "Hopelessly Devoted to You," Farrar went to work on a duet for Newton-John and Travolta. "They asked me if I would try and write the song at the end where they both dance together. So I did 'You're the One That I Want,'" says Farrar. "[Musical supervisor] Bill Oakes was a really big help coming up with the lyrics to that song. He explained to me how the characters would have this transition, that Olivia would become very aggressive."

"You're the One That I Want," which went all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100, was another immediate hit with Newton-John. "[Farrar] stayed up all night writing it and finishing it, came to my trailer early in the morning, played it for me, and I knew it was a smash. It was just one of those," says the four-time Grammy winner, who lent support to Travolta during the recording of the song. "'It was challenging for Travolta to do because it was really, really high. But he just did an amazing job with it. It was a great stretch for him."

Although Travolta had a top 10 hit on the Hot 100 with his 1976 debut single, "Let Her In," he was more of an unknown quantity for Farrar than Newton-John. "I hadn't really heard that much of John's singing, but I knew he had a sort of cool voice, " says the producer, who recorded Travolta's "You're the One That I Want" vocal in one session. "When he first came to the studio, he was a little apprehensive about it all. He didn't know me from a bar of soap, so it was good to have Olivia there. I was thrilled with the way it turned out."

Farrar also produced Travolta on "Sandy," another new song for the film, which was written by Louis St. Louis and Sha Na Na's Scott Simon. But the reins for the title track—the fourth tune composed specifically for the movie—went to Barry Gibb, who was riding high on the success of another soundtrack, 1977's Saturday Night Fever, with the Bee Gees. While Gibb wrote and produced the song—another No. 1 single on the Hot 100—he recruited doo-wop legend Frankie Valli to perform it.

"I was a big Big Gees fan, and they were big Four Seasons fans. And we also had a manager at the time [Allan Carr] who was one of the producers of the movie," says Valli, who was already "pretty familiar" with the original Broadway score of Grease. "Barry Gibb called me and told me that he had a song that he wrote that he thought would be right for me. It was going to be the title song of the movie. He sent it over to me, I loved it, we went in and recorded it, and the rest is history. I immediately had the feeling that it was a hit. It was magic."

Setting its doo-wop vocals to a strutting disco groove reminiscent of "Stayin' Alive" and "Night Fever," "Grease" was a perfect mix of '50s and '70s sounds. "It had all the ingredients of what was going on at that period of time. It had kind of a Bee Gees feel," says Valli, who recalls that Gibb himself sang the demo. "I'm not too sure that [the Bee Gees] realized that it was going to be as big of a hit as it was or they probably would have done it themselves."

Valli, who racked up the last No. 1 single of his career with "Grease," has continued to spread "the word" ever since by performing the song regularly in his concerts. "Oh yes—it's a definite part of my show. It's been a very important song in my career," says Valli, who praises other Grease soundtrack cuts too: "I liked all of the songs that were sung by Olivia, and I was always a big Travolta fan. It was really put together very well musically."

In addition to the four big hits—rounded out by the delightful "Summer Nights" duet performed by Newton-John and Travolta—the Grease soundtrack included other numbers from the film sung by cast members Stockard Channing ("Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," "There Are Worse Things I Could Do") and Frankie Avalon ("Beauty School Dropout"). Also, Sha Na Na covered '50s classics like "Hound Dog" and "Tears on My Pillow," while Louis St. Louis and Cindy Bullens performed songs from the stage version that were cut for the movie.

For Newton-John—who went on to have more soundtrack success with two of her other films (1980's Xanadu and 1983's Two of a Kind, also co-starring Travolta)—the Grease album marked a turning point in her music career. Just as squeaky-clean Sandy transformed into a leather-wearing temptress, Newton-John evolved from the innocent country darling of "Let Me Be There" to the sexy pop diva of LPs like Totally Hot, released in Nov. 1978, and 1981's Physical.

"Grease opened up a whole other world for me," says Newton-John, referring to her character's sultry makeover at the end of the film. "Being 'Sandy 2,' as I call her, gave me an opportunity to stretch my image a little bit, do something very out of what people would think was my character. It gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself. It greased the way for me."