A favorite among both country and pop audiences in the 1980s, singer-songwriter Juice Newton enjoyed crossover success throughout the decade with such country-rock hybrids as "Angel of the Morning," "Queen of Hearts," "Love's Been a Little Bit Hard on Me" and "You Make Me Want to Make You Mine." She toiled in obscurity for most of the 1970s, recording three largely unheard records as Juice Newton & Silver Spur, before striking out on her own in 1981. With longtime musical partner Otha Young, she penned two huge pop-country hits in "Angel" and "Queen," which were quickly followed by the equally polished "Love's Been a Little Bit Hard on Me." The songs, which drew equally from classic country and '60s-era studio pop, quickly minted Newton as a Top 40 artist, though she struggled to maintain the billing in subsequent years before shifting to a purely country format for the massively popular Old Flame (1985). The album generated six Top 10 country singles, including the chart-topping "Make You Mine" and two other No. 1 singles, but she was unable to repeat the success with subsequent releases. After a lengthy hiatus in the early 1990s, Newton returned to recording with several independent releases that were well received by her fanbase. Though her tenure at the top of the charts proved short-lived, Newton's gifts as both a singer and songwriter produced several enduring pop and country hits that extended her career for decades.
Born Judy Kay Newton on Feb. 18, 1952 in Lakehurst, NJ, she was raised in Virginia Beach, VA, where she developed a love for folk music after receiving a guitar from her mother while still in high school. After graduation, Newton headed west to attend Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA, where she met guitarist and songwriter Otha Young, who would become her longtime musical partner. The pair formed a folk-rock group called Dixie Peach, which briefly played the northern California club circuit before folding after only a year. Newton and Young then launched Juice Newton & Silver Spur, which hewed more closely to a country sound. The act proved more popular, attracting not only a sizable audience but also attention from major labels, including RCA Records, which signed them to a contract in 1975. Their eponymous debut album, released in 1976, generated a minor hit single with "Love is the Word," but a follow-up record, After the Dust Settles (1977), failed to find an audience. RCA subsequently dropped Newton & Silver Spur from their roster, after which they recorded a single, unheralded album, Come to Me for Capitol in 1978 before calling it quits.
Since Newton was still contracted to Capitol, she began work with Young on a solo album. Her first release, "It's a Heartache" (1977), rose only to No. 86 on the Billboard Hot 100, though it achieved gold sales status in Mexico before becoming a Top 5 hit for Bonnie Tyler that same year. Newton and Young also found modest success as songwriters in 1977 when the Carpenters scored a Top 10 country hit with "Sweet, Sweet Smile," a song originally intended for Newton but rejected by Capitol. Her first solo album for the label, Well Kept Secret (1978), failed to find chart placement, but a follow-up single, "Let's Keep It That Way," reached No. 37 on the country charts. Her second album, Take Heart, was a slight improvement over its predecessor, generating five Top 100 country singles, including a cover of Jonathan Edwards' "Sunshine," which reached No. 35.
Newton's fortunes finally changed with the release of her third solo album, Juice (1981). Its first single, "Angel of the Morning," was an immediate crossover hit, reaching No. 4 on the pop chart and the top position on the adult contemporary chart while also rising to No. 22 on the country charts. A second single, the upbeat "Queen of Hearts," performed even better, reaching No. 2 on the pop chart and No. 14 on the country list, while the record's third release, a new version of the song "The Sweetest Thing (I've Ever Known)," which originally appeared on her first album with Silver Spur, gave Newton her first No. 1 country single. Both "Angel" and "Queen" earned Grammy nominations for Best Pop and Country songs, respectively, while the album itself was certified platinum in 1981. Her fourth solo album, Quiet Lies (1982), another sizable hit thanks to the Top 10 pop hit "Love's Been a Little Bit Hard on Me" and "Break it to Me Gently," which reached No. 2 on the country chart. The latter track, a cover of a Brenda Lee hit from 1961, brought Newton her first Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, while a third single, "Heart of the Night," reached No. 4 on the adult contemporary chart. Emboldened by her success on multiple charts, Newton released a more rock-friendly record, Dirty Looks, in 1983. However, it failed to match the success of her previous releases, generating only one Top 30 single in "Tell Her No." She soon moved to RCA for her next release, Can't Wait All Night (1984), which followed the same sonic path as Dirty Looks, but response was equally tepid, with three singles, including the Bryan Adams-penned title track, charting no higher than No. 44 on the pop chart.
She fully embraced country music for her fifth solo album, Old Flame (1987), which provided her with six Top 10 singles on that chart, including three No. 1 singles with "You Make Me Want to Make You Mine," "Hurt" and a duet with Eddie Rabbit on "Both to Each Other (Friends and Lovers)," which also became a pop hit for Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson that same year. The album's singles found purchase on the country charts until 1987, when "What Can I Do With My Heart" reached the Top 10. Newton's next album, Emotion (1987), achieved only one Top 10 country hit with "Tell Me True," while its follow-up, Ain't Gonna Cry (1989) featured her final Top 40 country hit, "When Love Comes Round the Bend." RCA subsequently dropped Newton from its roster as part of a larger purge of country artists that included such hitmakers as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. She devoted the next few years to her family before returning to the recording studio for a collection of pop duets with a diverse slew of performers, including Willie Nelson, Frankie Valli and the Pointer Sisters. The resulting double album, Duets: Friends & Memories, fell victim to legal issues that prevented its physical release until 2010, but a number of tracks surfaced through grey market sources.
In the wake of the Duets debacle, Newton issued The Trouble With Angels (1998), a collection of re-recorded tracks and new songs, which was quickly followed by American Girl (1999), her first album of all-new recordings since Ain't Gonna Cry, and Every Road Leads Back to You (2002), which compiled live material with several new studio efforts. In 2005, she appeared on the American version of the U.K. series "Hit Me, Baby, One More Time," which featured former pop stars performing their biggest hit, along with a more contemporary track. Newton's rendition of "Angel of the Morning" and Ashlee Simpson's "Pieces of Me" earned the online viewer vote but not the show win. In 2009, Newton lost Otha Young, her collaborative partner of over 37 years, to cancer. She remained remarkably active in subsequent years, both as a touring and recording artist, as well as a frequent guest on other albums, most notably Carla Olsen's 2013 release Have Harmony, Will Travel.
By Paul Gaita