It Took a 10-Year Squeeze for Juice Newton to Make Her Big Splash

UPDATED 07/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

A Nashville nabob hails Newton as the new Newton-John

With her electric name, it would seem hard not to make it in the entertainment world, but singer Juice Newton somehow managed for five LPs and 10 frustrating years. Then, finally, this spring, at 29, Newton broke through with a chart-topping remake of the 1968 Merrilee Rush hit Angel of the Morning and a follow-up country rocker, Queen of Hearts. Both singles are on her career-establishing sixth album, Juice. Now, despite a fear of flying, she is tearing through airports like showbiz's other Juice: She has toured Europe, Africa and Australia and is currently crisscrossing the U.S. as a headliner for the first time.

The sudden stardom has not changed the unaffected quality that is part of her charm. Though she was raised in Virginia and is now a resident of Burbank, there is a Nashville flavor to Newton's voice, but she self-effacingly attributes part of that to a chronic case of sinusitis.

Her arresting sobriquet came honestly, too, not from some shrewd manager. Christened Judy Kay Newton, she was called Juice by her family and friends as a kid and had it legalized a decade ago. Shortly thereafter she met the main music collaborator and squeeze of her life, Otha Young, 38. He plays lead guitar and runs her six-piece stage band, Silver Spur. Newton plays rhythm guitar, and they compose (as well as room) together.

Youngest of three children of a career Navy man and a housewife mother, Juice got her first guitar at 13 and learned to strum and hum the '60s Dylan-Baez-Donovan folk canon. By her mid-teens, she was performing in coffeehouses near her Virginia Beach home, and she admits, "I sounded horrendously bad and nobody wanted to sing with me." In 1969 she joined the Aquarius rush to Northern California, settling in Los Gatos and attending Foothill College. It was while gigging evenings at local folkie clubs that she fell in with the Texas-born Young, discovered country music and gave up her folk acoustic for an electric guitar. "It felt strange," she recalls. "It was like I was betraying something."

In 1975 Juice and her man repaired to Los Angeles, but it took all those records before she found her country-pop groove. "Like Olivia Newton-John," notes Jo Walker, executive director of the Country Music Association, "Juice was on the fence between styles. Some people feel she will be a major country star. She's already been accepted by the fans." Newton argues that her stylistic evolution was natural. "I've never had to elbow out an identity," she says. "I can wear diamond earrings and the same boots I've worn for 10 years and still feel comfortable."

The same man, too, though they haven't married. "Nothing is well planned in advance," says Young. "If and when we do, we'll do it because we want to." They live in a seven-room Spanish-style house but sometimes backpack up north to escape Bur-bank's urban sprawl. "She's a little more impulsive and spontaneous than I am," he observes. "I am more thoughtful and pragmatic." One of her impulses is to exercise. She has taken jazz dancing lessons and has run in four 10-kilometer minimarathons. "I haven't collapsed yet," she boasts.

Her family and old friends finally got to see her new incarnation in Virginia Beach at a homecoming gig last month. She laments that her mother, who died 10 years ago, wasn't there. However, her dad, 62, was—and beaming, even if he had trouble categorizing Juice's music. "I don't know the difference between country, rock and folk and all that other stuff," said Charles Newton. "But I know it isn't that disco stuff that drives people crazy."

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