Growing up in a half-Italian, half-Irish family, Annie Aiello always had a large audience for the performances she did as a child.
“I’d bust through the double French doors and perform. I’d do a lot of Olivia Newton-John stuff. I grew up with a lot of great music, but mostly hers,” said Aiello, whose tribute to the late singer “Always Olivia” will be at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and 24 at the Hardin Performing Arts Center.
Newton-John’s voice captivated the Chicago-area resident when she was only 7. She vividly remembers her father bringing home the singer’s “Have You Never Been Mellow” album and learning every song.
As she got older, she followed Newton-John’s career through “Grease,” “Physical” and other iconic phases.
By 2017, she was a seasoned fan whose voice and style had been molded by Newton-John’s sound. She’d purchased tickets to see the singer in concert at Chicago’s Genesee Theatre.
“She announced that the cancer had returned, and I knew that wasn’t good. We had tickets for May 2017, and she had to push the date back due to health reasons,” Aiello said.
Aiello eventually did get to see Newton-John perform, and the singer ended that 2017 concert with a moving rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” However, it stirred some uncomfortable thoughts within Aiello and the stark reality that the cancer could eventually claim Newton-John’s life.
“I wondered ‘how are we going to hear her music live?’” Aiello said. “There’s so much of her voice in my voice just because I listened to her all those years. Why couldn’t I tribute her music?”
The thought rolled around in her head for a while, and then the pandemic hit. Several of Aiello’s professional musician friends were out of work, but she still had a day job. She contacted one of them and told him she’d pay him to put together some charts. She started working on that dream.
Once they were completed, she reposted a few YouTube videos singing the songs as herself. Lisa McClowry, who won the 2023 Josie Award as Tribute Artist of the Year, got wind of what Aiello was doing through a mutual friend. McClowry is a Cher tribute artist and performs in Las Vegas.
“She said ‘You’re fantastic. I want you to meet my agency,’” she said.
Around the same time, Olivia Newton-John died.
Aiello said up until then, she’d sung Newton-John’s songs as herself, but McClowry’s agency wanted her to become Olivia not just Annie singing Olivia. McClowry took Aiello under her wing and gave her pointers on how to get the right look as well as introducing Aiello to the right people.
“I met Olivia Newton-John’s costume designer, and she did all the costumes except one by Bob Mackie’s understudy,” Aiello said. “The costumes were done by the absolute best of the best.”
And the mentoring helped because Aiello was nominated for the same award that McClowry won in 2023.
When she comes to Evans, Aiello will bring five decades of music with one iconic costume for each set. Backing her are those “Incredibly talented” musician friends of hers who’ve played with Mannheim Steamroller and Frankie Valli and worked on shows such as “Jersey Boys.”
She’ll throw in some audience participation selecting an audience member to be a Pink Lady and a T-bird for the “Grease” numbers.
When putting together the concert, she pored over Newton-John’s own concert set lists. Some portions of the show follow the same format that Newton-John followed.
“The country medley is exactly how she did it, in the order she did it,” she said. “We charted it with tedious attention to detail.”
Not only does she want to keep Olivia Newton-John’s songs alive, but she wants to keep the singer’s legacy alive. Aiello will do that by supporting a charity near and dear to her – the Olivia Newton-John Wellness and Cancer Research Centre in Australia.
“Olivia Newton-John was a breast cancer survivor or ‘thriver’ as she called herself. She started the cancer wellness center and was very much about kinder treatments. She was concerned about the whole body and the mind – not just chemo, but how do you treat the mind and soul?,” said Aiello whose own life has been affected by the disease.
Her father and brother-in-law both died of cancer.
“I’m very much aligned with all of that anyway,” she said.
Aiello doesn’t add fees into the tickets to raise the money, but she makes a donation out of her own profits, she said, and she’s been one of the top fundraisers in the world.
Always Olivia tickets are $44.95 and available at augustaamusements.com or by calling (706) 726-0366.
Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News and Inspiring: Women of Augusta, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for the newsletter here.
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