There’s a lot more to Tony Orlando than a yellow ribbon and an oak tree.
In fact, it’s safe to say the resumé of the 73-year-old entertainer, who appears at the Nugget’s Celebrity Showroom on March 3, would surprise all but the most astute students of the history of early American pop music.
Born Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis (a “Greek-o-Rican,” by his own description) in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, he began singing in doo-wop groups in the late 1950s. In 1960, the 15-year-old was hanging around near New York’s legendary songwriting hothouse the Brill Building, when his talent and enthusiasm caught the ear of a rising music impresario, the late Don Kirshner.
Kirshner subsequently sent Orlando into the studio to record a handful of songs, including a “Bless You” and another, “Halfway to Paradise,” penned by an “older” upstart songwriter named Carole King, who was all of 18. “Paradise” entered the pop charts shortly thereafter, and the rest is, well, kind of unbelievable.
“I remember working Ponchartrain Beach (an amusement park near New Orleans, Louisiana) in (August) 1961. I was 16 years old, and there we are, and the bandleader was Dr. John,” who was then known by his given name, “Mac” Rebennack. The concert, billed as “WTIX Appreciation Night, the Greatest Free Show in the Country,” was promoted by the New Orleans-based powerhouse top 40 AM radio station. It drew 100,000 people with a bill including Orlando, Del Shannon, songwriter and performer Barry Mann, Danny and the Juniors, Dick and Dee Dee, Ray Stevens and several others.
“We all started on that stage in 1961 in New Orleans, and I’ll never forget it. Here I was, 16 years old, looking at 100,000 people ... and I’m walkin’ out there, and this record I had was ‘Bless You,’ and I felt like the Pope!” he said.
Orlando charted a handful of other tunes shortly after, but none that reached the heights of his early singles. By the mid-1960s, he was working for music business legend Clive Davis as general manger of Columbia Records’ publishing imprint, April-Blackwood Music. There he oversaw publishing concerns of the Original Flying Machine featuring a very young James Taylor. Orlando also worked with Laura Nero, the Yardbirds, Blood Sweat and Tears and signed Barry Manilow and produced the future hitmaker’s first album.
As a favor, Orlando agreed to sing a lead vocal on a new song written by Toni Wine, “Candida,” in 1970.
“I backed into that,” Orlando said. “Little did I know it was gonna change my life, y’ know?” The single was released under “Dawn” and became a surprise No. 1 hit.
The music executive became a reluctant pop star — again.
A string of hits followed, including, “Knock Three Times” (No. 1, 1971), “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” (No. 3, 1973), “He Don’t Love you (Like I Love You)” (No. 1, 1975), and of course, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” the 1973 No. 1 that remains his signature song.
The ’70s hits led to yet another branch in Orlando’s showbiz tree, the “Tony Orlando and Dawn,” TV variety shows that ran on CBS from from 1974 to 1977.
“It’s been a very lush career, really,” Orlando said. “When I think it’s been almost 56 years since my first record, 56 years since I went in the studio with Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Don Kirshner and Jack Keller. That was the team. And I recorded my first four songs. That’s 1960, and only four years before that was (Elvis Presley’s) ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’”
Orlando’s recollections of his early days in New York are chockablock with legendary names. But there is one chapter of his story that needs clarification.
“So, all of us started together as kids, but it wasn’t in the Brill Building, it was at 1650 Broadway, which is directly across the street from the Brill Building,” he recalled.
“There I was in a little office. Each one of us had a little cubicle. We were writing for Don Kirshner. Donny was our guru, who was a big 26-year-old. Carole was 18. I was 16. Carole had an office with a piano. Neil Sedaka had an office and a piano. Tony Orlando had an office with a guitar. And Toni Wine, who is still with me, 56 years later, had her cubicle. Then you had Barry Mann, Cynthia Wile, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, and Tom and Jerry, who didn’t make it in our office until they changed their name to Simon and Garfunkel.”
Carole King became Orlando’s mentor, dissecting songs, teaching him the incremental, essential lessons of singing.
“She taught me how to phrase, how to back-phrase. She was my teacher,” he said.
Another early mentor was legendary songwriter Doc Pomus (co-author of “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Little Sister,” and many other classics).
“I knew Doc very well.” Orlando said. “I remember sitting in the lobby of the Forest Hotel, where Doc Pomus lived. And that’s where Ray Charles lived. And that’s where Tony Orlando spent a lot of his teen years also. So, I would find myself in the lobby, I’m 18 years old, and I’m in the lobby of the Forest Hotel, and I’m listening to Doc Pomus and Ray Charles sing the blues, while Ray is singing and Doc is playing the guitar. When I think back to what I was sitting in between, those two guys, and they knew me on a first-name basis. And I’m sitting there and I say, ‘Ray, you make it so simple.’ And you know what he said to me that day? He said, ‘You know what makes Doc great and why you like what I do and why you say it’s so simple? Because simplicity is genius. It’s harder to write something simple, and keep it simple, than it is to be complicated.’ And I’ll never, ever forget that.
“It’s such a wonderful career. When I look back I think what a carpet ride I’ve been on. My gosh! And we’re still going, how about that! And I’m still two years younger than Paul McCartney!”