In some circumstances, popular songs can take on a significance far beyond their melody or lyrics alone. Such was the case for “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree,” the second Number One hit for Tony Orlando and Dawn. This simple, upbeat tune was released in the early 1970s when American families were anxiously awaiting news about soldiers missing in the Vietnam War. Later it resurfaced when U.S. citizens were held hostage in Iran. By the time American troops participated in Operation Desert Storm in 1990, the image of yellow ribbons worn in hopes of the return of a loved one had become a national norm—a testament to the power of even the simplest pop music piece.
Tony Orlando, a songwriter, music publisher, and performer, admits that the works he recorded with Telma Louise Hopkins and Joyce Vincent-Wilson as Tony Orlando and Dawn were “corny.” He told Newsweek: “I kept wondering who would listen to that crap.” But it seemed as if all America listened in the early 1970s, as Orlando and his two comely backup vocalists turned out hits such as “Knock Three Times,” “Candida,” “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” and “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You).” Tony Orlando and Dawn posted nearly 30 million in record sales, released two platinum albums, and won two American Music Awards. Scorned by the critics, this unconventional interracial trio found a permanent place in the annals of pop music—and in the psyche of Middle America.
Born Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis in New York City in 1944, Tony Orlando grew up in a straight-laced family that was beset with enormous burdens. His father was a furrier of Greek ancestry, his mother was an immigrant from Puerto Rico. Orlando’s only sibling, a sister named Rhonda Marie, was mentally retarded. He spent much of his youth caring for her, so he managed to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol and drugs that were threatening his working-class neighborhood.
While still a teenager, Orlando began performing, cutting demo tapes with composers and searching for rock and roll tunes that he could parlay into hits. At 16 he auditioned for producer Don Kirshner, who helped him to record the singles “Halfway to Paradise” and “Bless You.” The latter song reached Number 15 on the pop charts in 1961. Orlando was unable to sustain his performing career in the mid-1960s, however, so he found work in the publishing sector of the business. By 1967 he was manager of April-Blackwood Music, a subsidiary of Columbia Records.
In 1970 a friend of Orlando’s asked him to overdub the lead vocals for a new song by a group named Dawn out of Detroit. Orlando had never met the members of Dawn, and when he heard the song “Candida,” he
Pop singer, beginning 1960; manager of April-Blackwood Music (publishing arm of Columbia Records), 1967–71; member (with Telma Louise Hopkins and Joyce Elaine Vincent-Wilson) of Tony Orlando and Dawn, beginning 1971; group played briefly in 1971 as Dawn, featuring Tony Orlando. Hit singles include “Halfway to Paradise,” 1961; “Bless You,” 1961; “Candida,” 1971; “Knock Three Times,” 1971; “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree,” 1973; and “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” 1975.
Principal television work includes Tony Orlando and Dawn (variety series), CBS, 1974–76; episodes of Chico and the Man and The Tonight Show; specials The Johnny Cash Christmas Special, 1976, and Bob Hope Presents a Celebration with Stars of Comedy and Music, 1981. Principal stage work includes Barnum, St. James Theatre, New York City, 1981.
Selected awards: Two Grammy Award nominations for vocal performance with a group; two American Music Awards for vocal performance with a group.
Addresses: Record company —Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025–1900.
thought it would disappear from the charts without a trace. He did the vocals as a favor to his friend, and “Candida” became a Number Three hit on the Billboard pop charts in 1971. The song’s success led Orlando to quit his music publishing job. He teamed with the young women in Dawn, and together they recorded a string of numbers with the same catchy optimism as “Candida.”
Tony Orlando and Dawn became one of the best-known pop groups in America during the last years of the Vietnam War. In 1971 the trio had a Number One hit with “Knock Three Times,” a cheerful take on love in an apartment building. The group’s biggest hit found the charts in 1973—“Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” a ballad about a paroled prisoner looking for a sign of affection from his sweetheart. In ordinary times the song might have had little relevance beyond its catchy pop sound, but as Americans agonized over the fate of missing soldiers in Vietnam, the hit’s gentle tale of faithful love came to symbolize the homefront devotion to missing comrades. That same spirit of devotion gave the song a second life when Americans were taken hostage in Iran later in the 1970s. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree” was the biggest-selling single of 1973.
Other Tony Orlando and Dawn hits included “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” in 1973 and “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” in 1975. The group’s middle-of-the-road appeal helped them to land a prime-time television variety show, Tony Orlando and Dawn, that ran from 1974 until 1976. Then, amidst reports that Hopkins and Vincent-Wilson were dissatisfied with their contracts, the show was cancelled and the group disbanded.
For Orlando, 1977 marked the low point in his career and personal life. He was stunned by the deaths of his beloved sister and his best friend, comedian-actor Freddie Prinze, who had hit it big as the star of the sitcom Chico and the Man before taking his own life. Orlando also later admitted to abusing cocaine and to driving himself to the point of exhaustion for the television variety show. Finally he suffered a complete nervous breakdown and retired from show business for an extended period. After a long recuperation, he began to accept engagements again, including an appearance in the Broadway play Barnum in 1981.
In 1988 Orlando teamed with Hopkins and Vincent-Wilson again, and the trio performed their old hits and other similar tunes in a popular nightclub act. They still do occasional shows together. Reflecting on his work with his two singing partners, Orlando told Jet magazine: “There is a unique feeling with Telma and Joyce that is separate from the music. That wonderful sense— that rush that only harmony can give you. There is something about those two voices and being that middle voice in that pocket of harmony.”
Tony Orlando and Dawn proved that pop music need not only appeal to the young. Their vaudeville-styled numbers with their shameless Tin Pan Alley lyrics found an audience that broke the barriers of age and race. Few multiracial groups have enjoyed more commercial success, and fewer still have left a lasting cultural legacy with such irrepressibly cheerful music.
Candida, Bell, 1970.
Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Greatest Hits, Arista, 1975.
The Best of Tony Orlando and Dawn, Rhino, 1994.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 6, Gale, 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 1994.
Jet, October 10, 1988.
Newsweek, January 27, 1975.
People, May 11, 1981; July 17, 1995.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Orlando, Tony: 1944—: Singer
Tony Orlando: 1944—: Singer
1970s phenomenon Tony Orlando made a name for himself churning out bubble-gum pop songs with a female duo called Dawn, performing such runaway hits as "Knock Three Times" and "Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree." The group sold nearly 30 million records, topped the Billboard charts three times, and had their own television variety show that lasted for two seasons. But with their demise and subsequent breakup in the late 1970s, Orlando faced numerous obstacles, including a sluggish career, a cocaine addiction, and a nervous breakdown. Despite these roadblocks, he's managed to entertain audiences for more than forty years and continues to build an impressive resume that includes theater, production, and music. In 2002 he released a memoir of his life titled Halfway to Paradise in which he documents the ups and downs of his show business career.
Had Short First Music Career
Orlando was born Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis in New York City on April 3, 1944, to a Puerto Rican immigrant mother and a Greek furrier father. His younger sister and only sibling, Rhonda Marie, had cerebral palsy. Orlando managed to avoid the dangers of drugs and alcohol—so prolific in his working-class Manhattan neighborhood—by devoting much of his youth caring for his sister.
Orlando fell in love with music at the age of 15 and spent much of his time singing doowop on the corner and in the subway with his friends from the neighborhood. With hopes of breaking into the business, he performed and recorded demos with local groups like the Five Gents. Hanging around the legendary Brill Building, the New York-based home of some of the leading pop songwriters of the day, he managed to snag an audition with record producer Don Kirshner, who hired him for a dollar a week to sing on songwriter demos. One tape, featuring the Carole King-penned tune "Halfway to Paradise," was considered good enough to release and hit the U.S. charts at number 39 in 1960. A couple of months later he recorded the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil penned song "Bless You," which rose to number 15 in the United States and number five in the United Kingdom in the fall of 1961. Orlando became a minor-league teen idol and even made an appearance on Dick Clark's hugely popular show American Bandstand, but his star quickly faded. Orlando did a British tour with Bobby Vee, Clarence "Frogman" Henry and others in 1962, but by the next year he had quit the business. His last record, "Happy Times (Are Here to Stay)," peaked at number 82 in the United States.
At a Glance . . .
Career: Singer, 1960–; April-Blackwood Music (publishing arm of Columbia Records), general manager, 1967-71; actor, 1974–; Yellow Ribbon Music Theater, Branson, MO, owner and operator, 1993-99.
Awards: Grammy Award nominations, "Song of the Year" and "Best Pop Group Performance," 1973; American Music Awards, "Favorite Pop Single," 1973, 1974, "Favorite Pop Group," 1975; People's Choice Award, "Favorite All-Around Male Entertainer," 1975; awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990.
Addresses: Agent— The Brokaw Company, 9255 Sunset Blvd., Suite 804, Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Orlando had married shortly before his retirement and he had to find a way to make a living, so he went behind the scenes to work for music mogul Clive Davis and became general manager of April-Blackwood Music, a publishing arm of Columbia Records. He loved the work and the opportunity it afforded him to work with stars such as James Taylor, Barry Manilow, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. At that time things seemed to be headed in the right direction for Orlando and he had no plans to return to show business.
Teamed Up With Dawn
In 1970 Hank Medress, a former Token (of "Lion Sleeps Tonight" fame) turned producer and songwriter, and co-producer David Appel brought "Candida" to Orlando telling him it needed a better lead vocalist. The song was for a new Detroit-based group called Dawn, named after the daughter of Bell Records boss Wes Farrell and featuring female vocalists Thelma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent. He agreed to do it as a favor only if Medress agreed to keep Orlando's identity under wraps so his boss wouldn't know he was moonlighting for a rival company. Orlando cut the track without ever meeting Hopkins and Vincent, who had already recorded their parts in California.
"Candida" hit Billboard's number three spot by the end of the summer of 1970, and stunned Orlando who was sure it would disappear without a trace. In a 2002 Today Show interview with Matt Lauer he recalled, "I remember pulling off on the freeway and getting off the exit and listening to that record (on the radio), not being able to tell anybody because I was afraid to lose my job." Booking agents were offering Dawn gigs, but there would be no act until Orlando decided to give up his day job and step back into show business. He finally acknowledged that he was the voice of Dawn and left his job to join the group full time to record what became the rest of their debut album, Candida.
Medress and Orlando quickly collaborated on a follow-up, "Knock Three Times," a tale of two neighbors in adjoining apartments who communicate their love via a series of three knocks on the ceiling ("if you want me") and two on the pipe ("means you ain't gonna show"). The song hit number one in December of 1970 in both the United States and the United Kingdom. What followed were a couple of years of relatively minor hits, including "I Play and Sing," "Summer Sand," and "What are You Doing Sunday." The album that featured these songs topped the Billboard 200 at a disappointing number 178. It wasn't long, though, before the group struck gold again with a song based on a convict's release from prison.
"Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree" was released in February of 1973, and by April it had become a hit, selling more than six million copies worldwide. Though the lyrics were written about a convict returning home to White Oak, Georgia, hoping to see if his wife still loved him, the song quickly became associated with veterans returning from Vietnam after the war ended in 1974. Later it came to symbolize anyone returning home after a crisis, with yellow ribbons sprouting up on trees during wartime or when someone was missing or being held against their will. In fact, the song would climb the charts again in 1981 when 52 Iran hostages were released after 444 days of captivity. "I never ever set out to be a novelty act, a singer associated with ditties or bubble-gum tunes, yet … 'Yellow Ribbon' seemed like a novelty song to me," wrote Orlando in his autobiography, Halfway to Paradise. "Even though I knew it had hit potential it wasn't the kind of song I wanted to be defined by." Nevertheless, the song changed Orlando's life and became his signature theme song.
In 1974, after performing "Yellow Ribbon" at the 16th Annual Grammy Awards, CBS programming chief Fred Silverman offered the group their own variety show, Tony Orlando and Dawn, which became an instant hit. It featured some of Orlando's boyhood idols, including Jackie Gleason and Jerry Lewis. Orlando would forge a close friendship with Lewis and go on to guest and host his Labor Day Telethon for years to come.
With the success of their TV show, came a whirlwind of hit songs, including "Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose," "Who's in the Strawberry Patch With Sally," and "Steppin Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight)." The group moved over to Elektra Records with Bell promotion executive Steve Wax in 1975 and recorded a cover of Jerry Butler's 1960 Top Ten hit, "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)." It became the band's third number one single and selling more than a million copies.
Hit Low Point in Career
A trio of hits followed in late 1975-76, including "Mornin' Beautiful," a version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need To Get By," and a cover of Sam Cook's "Cupid." But good fortune took a turn and the group began to lose the public's interest. After only two seasons, the TV show was cancelled in 1976 amidst reports that Hopkins and Vincent were dissatisfied with their contracts. Then the group disbanded the following year when Orlando suddenly announced during a performance in Colhasset, Massachusetts, that it would be his last day as a performer.
Orlando had started to experiment with cocaine shortly before his television show was cancelled. He used the drug for nine months, but it would haunt him for years to come. "What nine months of using the stuff can do is ruin my career, ruin my decision making, ruin my marriage, ruin my self respect, ruin my relationship with my audience, and I lost my television show," he told Mark Steines of Entertainment Tonight.
The announcement that he was retiring from show business came after he suffered from a complete nervous breakdown from the demands of his TV variety show. He had also had a tough year with the death of his sister and the suicide of his close friend Freddie Prinze, who starred in the sitcom Chico and the Man. "Freddie was one of those brilliant, brilliant, brilliant comedians. And to see him lose his life like that had a tremendous effect on me, when I had never seen anybody die in my own presence," he told Larry King in a CNN interview. "And there I was with his wife Kathy and his mom. And it was a horrific time. And it affected me deeply."
Returned to Show Business
After a long recuperation, that included a six-month stay in a psychiatric hospital to help him kick his drug addiction and a brief period as a born-again Christian, Orlando decided to pursue a solo career. He became a staple in Las Vegas showrooms—25 weeks a year in his heyday—and recorded a solo album, Sweets For My Sweet, for Casablanca in 1979. He also dabbled in acting, debuting in the TV movie Three Hundred Miles For Stephanie, and making a guest appearance on The Bill Cosby Show. In 1980 he briefly took over the lead role in the Broadway show Barnum. Orlando has continued to perform regularly since then, including a 1988 reunion with Dawn in Atlantic City. He also teamed up with his friend Jerry Lewis for a series of shows in the early 1990s at the Las Vegas Hilton and Riviera hotels.
In 1993 Orlando moved to the Ozarks to perform in a variety show in Branson, Missouri, where he opened his own theater, the Yellow Ribbon Music Theater. It was grueling work—he would do 400 shows a year from April to December—but he enjoyed the enthusiastic audiences and change of pace that Branson offered his family. The Missouri residency also gave him time to produce two themed musicals with original songs, including a show based on the life of his grandfather, musician Leon Stanley.
Orlando hit the road again in 1999, taking another Broadway turn in Smokey Joe's Café. This came soon after he ended litigation with former friend and business partner Wayne Newton over a failed joint venture in Branson. Orlando's suit, which asked for more than $15 million and accused Newton of damaging his reputation and wrongly throwing him out of the theater they once shared, was settled with a gag order on both sides. He has been working on an album's worth of new songs with an autobiographical theme. One of the songs, "Carribean Jewel," is a nod to his Greek and Puerto Rican heritage. Another, "Papito Played the Trumpet," is about his grandfather. While his old hits with Dawn continue to sell records, Orlando realized that it may be difficult to sell another solo album.
Orlando married his second wife, Francine Amormino, in 1991. They have a daughter, Jenny Rose, and a son, Jon, from his first marriage. He continues to tour, performing about 150 nights a year. As Orlando told Entertainment Tonight, "Everybody has that new time in their life when they are the new act and hot. That moment in your career only comes once and you're probably not as good in your craft until you get to the point in your career where you say this is my 43rd year. So right now when I do a show I know what I am doing, and I have the same enjoyment now as I did when I had the dream. So how bad could it be? As I say in the book I am Halfway to Paradise."
Candida, Bell, 1970.
Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando, Bell, 1971.
Dawn's New Ragtime Follies featuring Tony Orlando, Bell, 1973.
Prime Time, Bell, 1974.
He Don't Love You … Like I Love You, Electra, 1975.
Tony Orlando and Dawn's Greatest Hits, Arista, 1975.
I Got Rhythm, Casablanca, 1979.
(Solo) Sweets For My Sweet, Casablanca, 1979.
The Best of Tony Orlando and Dawn, Rhino, 1994.
Big Hits, Intersound, 1995.
Tony Orlando and Dawn — The Definitive Collection, Arista, 1998.
Knock Three Times: The Encore Collection, Arista, 1999.
Halfway to Paradise, St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1974-1976.
Chico and the Man, 1976.
The Johnny Cash Christmas Special, 1976.
Bob Hope Presents a Celebration with Stars of Comedy and Music, 1981
Three Hundred Miles for Stephanie 1981.
Lynda Carter: Street Life, 1982.
Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story, 1982.
The Cosby Show, 1985.
Barnum, St. James Theater, New York, NY, 1980.
Hey, Look Me Over!, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY, 1981.
Smokey Joe's Café, 1999.
Las Vegas Review, January 25, 2002.
New York Daily News, December 29, 2002.
News-Press, December 6, 2002.
"Larry King interview with Tony Orlando," CNN-Transcripts, www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0212/15/lklw.00.html (June 16, 2003).
"Tony Orlando: 'Halfway to Paradise,'" Entertainment Tonight, www.etonline.com/celebrity/a127 05.htm (June 16, 2003).
"Tony Orlando Takes Wayne Newton to Court," CNNShowbuzz, www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/News/9904 /29/showbuzz/#story4 (June 16, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through transcripts from The O'Reilly Factor, broadcast by Fox News on November 8, 2002, and The Today Show, broadcast by NBC, October 14, 2002.
—Kelly M. Martinez