Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Olivia Newton-John, who died this week at age 73, by beginning with the first of her five Hot 100-topping gems: the more-complex-than-it-seems soft-rock standard “I Honestly Love You.”
Olivia Newton-John’s remarkable career endurance can be explained in part by how easily she shapeshifted between genres. Her hits weren’t easily pigeonholed, and she fearlessly evolved with the times and musical trends. Within the span of a decade, Newton-John dabbled in Broadway (1977’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”), 1950s throwbacks (1978’s Grease soundtrack), frothy disco and pop fantasias (1980’s Xanadu), and keyboard-slicked new wave (1981’s “Physical,” 1983’s “Twist of Fate”). Incredibly, she found success in all of these modes.
Newton-John’s first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, 1974’s “I Honestly Love You,” fittingly arrived as her star was simultaneously ascending in the country, soft rock and top 40 pop worlds. Appearing on her 1974 North America-released LP If You Love Me, Let Me Know, the song was indicative of Newton-John’s skill as an interpreter and ability to elevate manicured pop.
The success of “Honesty” didn’t come out of nowhere, as Newton-John had been working on building a career for years by this point. In 1966, after winning first place on an Australian TV talent show, she traveled to England and recorded the Jackie DeShannon-written “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine” for Decca Records. That song didn’t chart, although she then toured as a duo with her friend Pat Carroll and later became part of a fictional band called Toomorrow, to little fanfare.
Newton-John’s fortunes soon turned around, however, and she started seriously laying the groundwork for a U.S. pop chart-topper upon the release of her 1971 debut solo LP, If Not For You — mainly by locking down No. 1s at multiple other formats. In August 1971, she spent three weeks atop the Top 40 Easy Listening (now Adult Contemporary) chart with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You.” Newton-John’s version hews much closer to George Harrison’s take from All Things Must Pass, with jaunty slide guitar high in the mix next to her optimistic warble. “If Not For You” was also her first song to make an appearance on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 25. Next, Newton-John landed a No. 1 album on the Hot Country LPs (now Top Country Albums) chart for two weeks in March 1974 with her second U.S. full-length, 1973’s Let Me Be There. The LP’s gospel-tinged, pedal steel-heavy title track was another big hit, reaching the top 10 on the Easy Listening and Hot Country Singles (now Hot Country Songs) charts in late 1973, and then topping out at No. 6 on the Hot 100 in early February 1974.
The crossover appeal of “Let Me Be There” was characteristic of the top 40 during this time. “Anything on Top 10; Bewildering Hit Mix,” screamed a Billboard headline on February 9, 1974, noting the top 10 that week comprised two “basically MOR records” by Barry White and Barbra Streisand as well as “four soul crossovers, two country crossovers and a patriotic spoken-word novelty.” After pointing out the “widely scattered direction of influences on mass listening habits,” the article observes that the songs in the top 10 shared one important common trait: “their strong traditional pop construction values, whether the record’s starting point is soul, country, MOR or rock.”
In other words, by early 1974, the pristine production and impeccable songcraft Newton-John had long favored was coming into fashion, at least commercially. This musical shift converged with Newton-John’s burgeoning career momentum, which started to accelerate during the first half of 1974. She won best country vocal performance at the Grammy Awards in March, and was England’s representative in the annual Eurovision Song Contest in April, tying for fourth. Prior to releasing “I Honestly Love You,” Newton-John earned what was then her biggest Hot 100 hit to date with another sparkling country-pop crossover gem, “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” which peaked at No. 5.
“I Honestly Love You” was perhaps destined for pop success due to its sterling pedigree. The lush song was co-written by Jeff Barry — who also co-wrote girl group classics like “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby” and “Leader of the Pack” — and Peter Allen; the latter would go on to co-write Christopher Cross’ Hot 100-topping “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” Alan Hawkshaw handled the song’s tasteful arrangement, which emphasized morose strings and downtrodden piano to convey melancholy.
However, “I Honestly Love You” is more clever than it appears to be on the surface. At first, the song seems to be about someone gathering up the courage to confess their love to someone else. Unfortunately, this causes awkwardness, because the confession is unwelcome: “I honestly love you/ You don’t have to answer/ I see it in your eyes.” In a twist, however, “I Honestly Love You” reinforces the theme of unrequited love and adds in some potential relationship drama; in fact, Newton-John reveals that both she and her crush object are with other people, meaning that they can never be together in this lifetime.
In the hands of a different ’70s soft rock artist, “I Honestly Love You” could be syrupy and cloying. However, Newton-John exudes warmth and nuance thanks to an empathetic and clear-eyed vocal delivery. At the song’s start, her voice is heavy-hearted, although she adds dynamic flourishes for effect – a whispering “I love you,” and strong, confident crescendos when she explains why she feels compelled to reveal her feelings (“And you shouldn’t blow the chance/ When you’ve got the chance to say/ I love you”). By the song’s end, however, her voice breaks with emotion and resignation.
“I Honestly Love You” reached No. 1 on October 5, 1974, in just its eighth week on the Hot 100, replacing Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” and spending two weeks at the chart’s peak. Mainstream pop music was still skewing eclectic the week that “I Honestly Love You” reached this peak. Just below Newton-John’s song was Billy Preston’s jaunty strut “Nothing From Nothing” (No. 2) and Dionne Warwick and the Spinners’ soul classic “Then Came You” (No. 3). Later in the top 10 was Stevie Wonder’s funky “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” (No. 5), Lynyrd Skynyrd’s country-rock “Sweet Home Alabama” (No. 9) and Cheech & Chong’s novelty hit “Earache My Eye” (No. 10).
As it turns out, Newton-John’s performance and the tune’s airtight songcraft were a dynamic duo. If You Love Me, Let Me Know topped the Billboard 200 albums chart, her first LP to do so. “I Honestly Love You” also won record of the year and best pop vocal performance, female at the 17th Annual Grammy Awards in March 1975, but lost song of the year to Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Newton-John consoled herself in a spectacular way: She earned another No. 1, as “Have You Never Been Mellow” topped the Hot 100 that same month.
But “I Honestly Love You” wouldn’t disappear from the charts for long. The song was reissued in November 1977 (backed by “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”) and peaked at No. 48 on the Hot 100. Newton-John also re-recorded the song for her 1998 studio album Back with a Heart, with Babyface on backing vocals. this new version of “I Honestly Love You” put Newton-John back on the Billboard charts that had first embraced her a quarter-century before. The song reached No. 18 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 16 on the Country Music Sales chart and entered the Hot 100 for the third time, this time reaching No. 67, creating a beautiful full-circle moment for a song that could still transcend genre.