Barry Gibb wasn’t exaggerating when he told me that he and Olivia Newton John had “lived the same life”. British born, Australian-raised, first strides to fame in the UK, superstardom in the USA, careers of various astounding triumphs that are perennially overshadowed by one particular cultural earthquake; it’s not hard to see the parallels between Australia’s sweetheart and the second biggest pop group in history.
But ultimately more important, especially now as we reflect on Olivia Newton-John’s death at the age of 73 after a 30-year battle against breast cancer, is the fact that she and the sole surviving Bee Gee, Barry Gibb, share reputations as two of the nicest, most genuine people in the biz.
It was January of 2021 and I was interviewing Barry for his Greenfields album – a collection of 12 Bee Gees songs reimagined as modern-day country and Americana duets. A major international success that topped the charts in the UK and Australia, as well as reaching the top 15 everywhere from the States to Germany to New Zealand, Greenfields saw Barry teaming up with stars like Alison Krauss, Keith Urban, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and yes, his dear life-long friend, Olivia Newton-John.
Gibb confesses to having “a really special spot in my heart,” for Newton-John, “but then every guy I meet has the same spot!” With their paths first crossing in Melbourne in 1966, there’s a lot of history between them.
“We’ve lived the same life! She sailed to Australia on the Fairstar when she was five-years old. We sailed to Australia on the Fairsea, the sister ship. We came back on the Fairsky and I think she flew back to England. But we made the same journey. We’ve all lived that same way, we all wanted to make it internationally.
“She’s wonderful and instant and we’re lifelong friends. I congratulated her yesterday on our album being number one on Amazon and she sent a lovely text back. My text was ‘we’re alumni. We come from the same place, we made the same journeys, we made the same decisions, and we did not give up. We did not let anyone push us back’”.
The relationship between the Gibbs and Olivia was about more than parallel careers though, with there being a number of intersections in the 70s and 80s and beyond.
The first Gibb song that Olivia recorded (to my knowledge) came in 1976 with the country-styled Come On Over. Originally on the Bee Gees’ 1975 comeback smash Main Course, the same album that saw the brothers flesh out their love of R&B like never before with Jive Talkin’, Nights On Broadway and Fanny (Be Tender With My Love) also contained this gentle, twangy gem. Olivia’s version topped the US country charts and went to #23 on Billboard.
When Olivia’s career reached its apex in 1978 with the movie-musical Grease, it was Barry who’d written the chart-topping, Frankie Vallie-sung title track. Two years later, Olivia teamed up with the youngest Gibb brother, Andy, for a couple of excellent country-pop duets for his After Dark album, I Can’t Help It and Rest Your Love On Me – both written by Barry. I Can’t Help It was one of Andy’s last big hits, peaking at US #12.
The following year, Olivia took a shelved song from the Bee Gees-written Guilty album for Barbra Streisand and turned it into one of her greatest ever deep cuts, Carried Away. Dare I say it, the Barry-sung demo is even more ear-wormy.
1984 saw Barry and Olivia duetting on Face To Face for Barry’s ambitious Now Voyager solo album and film. There are countless Gibb songs that are immediate, but while this one takes a few listens to sink its melodic tentacles, when it does, it’s a rich reward (check out the harmonies on the “I’ll be with you when the world is lies and the music dies,” deviation at the 3:30 mark).
Fast forward to 2008 and Barry (with co-writing credits to his sons Stephen and Ashley) appeared on Olivia’s 23rd and final studio album, A Celebration In Song with the spirited The Heart Knows.
And then 13-years later, in 2021, Olivia reconnected with Barry one last time in the studio on a new version of Rest Your Love On Me. It’s a wonderfully lived-in vocal from two legends whose lives were so intertwined they felt like family. Just a year-and-a-half later, she was gone. RIP ONJ.
Lay your trouble on my shoulder / Put your worries in my pocket / rest your love on me awhile
Afterword: That’s six Gibb songs (and seven performances) that Olivia recorded over the course of her career, but I’m certain there are others. And then add to that concerts together like the 2009 Sound Relief benefit in Sydney, Olivia’s 1978 TV special that saw her jamming with Andy and Abba, not to mention various shared interviews.