In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s something awfully comforting about a well-executed drippy ballad — a sweeping and overbearing work of mawkish sentimentality that knows what it’s doing. If a drippy ballad hits right, it overcomes whatever natural defenses you might instinctively put up. There’s a pleasure to giving in to a song like that. A song like that hammers clichés hard enough, and sincerely enough, that you let yourself be manipulated. “I Honestly Love You,” Olivia Newton-John’s first American #1, is a pretty well-executed drippy ballad — not one of the all-time greats, certainly, but a song that might still break you down if you hear it in the right situation. It does its job well enough — better than it might’ve done in any other singer’s hands.
“I Honestly Love You” wasn’t supposed to be Olivia Newton-John’s song. Peter Allen, an Australian singer-songwriter, had co-written it with Jeff Barry, the god-level pop songwriter who’d co-written previous #1 singles “Chapel Of Love,” “Leader Of The Pack,” and “Sugar, Sugar.” Barry had the idea that “I Honestly Love You” would be a good song for a man to sing. The song’s message is this: I’m not going to cheat with you, but let’s at least entertain the idea of cheating. The singer is in a relationship, and so is the object of the singer’s affections. They’re into each other, but they can’t do anything about it. So the singer just professes love and moves on.
In a male singer’s hands, that could come off as a line. It would be an invitation, a fragile denial that’s also intended to work as a reverse-psychology seduction. “Sorry, you can’t have me.” The use of the word “honestly” is key here. Honestly, people very rarely use “honestly” when they’re being honest. And yet “I Honestly Love You” mostly works there because the final song does sound honest. It works because there’s a woman singing it.
Allen was all set to record the song himself, but Olivia Newton-John heard a demo of it and really wanted it for herself. This was the right move. In Newton-John’s hands, there’s nothing fake or horny about the song. It becomes a sincere confession, a vulnerable admission of an attraction that can’t go anywhere. You never get the idea that she’s waiting for this other person to break up with someone. Instead, it’s forthright about its sadness: “If we both were born in another place and time / This moment might be ending in a kiss / But there you are with yours, and here I am with mine / So I guess we’ll just be leaving it at this.”
Peter Allen didn’t want to give the song up, but it’s a good thing that he did; he went on to a pretty successful songwriting career after “I Honestly Love You” hit. (He was also Liza Minelli’s first husband, and he came out as gay after they broke up.) Later on, Allen recorded his own version, but it’s just not as good as the one Newton-John made.
Newton-John had good instincts. She’d been born in the English town of Cambridge, the granddaughter Max Born, of a Nobel Prize-winning German physicist who’d been best friends with Albert Einstein. Born, who was Jewish, fled Germany before World War II. (Newton-John’s father, an MI6 officer, was one of the people who captured Hitler underling Rudolph Hess.) Newton-John moved to Australia with her family when she was six, and she started singing on local TV shows when she was a kid. After winning a talent competition, she traveled back to England, where she sang in bars for a couple of years and eventually found another spot singing on TV. In 1970, the producer Don Kirshner, the guy behind the Monkees, recruited her to join Toomorow, a band that was the subject of a sci-fi musical that Kirshner had put together. Toomorow bricked, and Newton-John went solo.
After scoring a minor 1971 hit with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You,” Newton-John figured out the lane that would carry her through her early career. She started recording middle-of-the-road ballads that did well on both adult-contemporary and country radio. (The Nashville country establishment tentatively embraced Newton-John, even though she was an outsider. It’s hard to imagine anything like that happening today.) Newton-John landed her first US hits with 1973’s “Let Me Be There” (peaked at #6, a 5) and 1974’s “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” (peaked at #5, another 5). She was canny enough to see that “I Honestly Love You” fit right into what she was already doing, right down to the sentimental orientation and the awkwardly worded title.
“I Honestly Love You” is an extremely competent pop ballad, a simple and gratifying concoction of strings and pianos that plays like a long, pleasant exhale. Jeff Barry obviously knew how to put a song together, and “I Honestly Love You” has some of the mechanistic Tin Pan Alley precision that was on the way out of pop music. And while other ’70s producers would’ve smothered it in bombast, Newton-John’s regular collaborator John Farrar keeps the arrangement relatively soft and delicate. Newton-John sells the hell out of the song, quavering with emotion while still projecting some quiet strength. It’s not that much of a surprise that she’d really make her mark in musicals; she was already a convincing vocal actor.
This column has already covered so many boring, toothless ’70s soft-rock ballads. It will cover plenty more. “I Honestly Love You” fits firmly within that lineage. But it’s one of the less cloying, more successful entries in that lineage. Newton-John would go on to do bigger things, but “I Honestly Love You” has held up better than most of what would come later.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Juliana Hatfield’s cover of “I Honestly Love You,” from the Olivia Newton-John tribute album that Hatfield released in 2018: