Long-time singer to 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon' around the Atlantic City Hilton on Saturday, Oct. 9.
It didn’t take a near-death experience for Tony Orlando to see his life flash before his eyes.
All it took was 50 years in show business.
The Paley Center For Media in Beverly Hills honored Orlando last Thursday, Sept. 30, with a career retrospective that resembled the soul-bearing A&E television series Inside The Actor’s Studio.
One by one, Orlando and the audience watched while touchstone moments of his half-century as an entertainer played out on a big screen, like his 1961 debut with Dick Clark on American Bandstand; appearances with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show; his guest-starring role on Bill Cosby’s trail-blazing 1980s sitcom; his 1982 Broadway debut in the musical Barnum; and sketches he performed on his television variety series with the boyhood heroes who inspired him to become an entertainer, like Jackie Gleason and George Burns.
“They had everything up there,” Orlando tells Atlantic City Weekly. “They didn’t miss a thing. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but it was like a movie of my life. It was very moving the way they did it. It brought me to tears. I felt very proud of myself, and I don’t often feel that way.”
It was an evening of reflection and introspection for the 66-year-old singer, who has essentially had four separate chapters in his life in the business: As a 16-year-old who broke through with the song “Halfway To Paradise” in 1961, as a 19-year-old A&R man for CBS Records who helped guide the early careers of artists like Carole King and James Taylor; as the front man for the 1970s pop group Tony Orlando and Dawn; and finally as a solo performer who continues to fill showrooms and theaters around the world.
“It’s one thing to have a moment of reflection,” he says of the evening, “but it’s another to be reminded of how much work went into it all, and how much joy I really got out of it and how grateful I’ve been to survive the business, still headline and still work as much as I do.”
Although his years as a bankable recording artist basically consisted of less than a decade, Orlando and his former stage partners, Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, left an indelible mark on pop culture with hit singles that include “Knock Three Times,” “Candida,” “He Don’t Love You” and “Gypsy Rose.” Oh, and there was that little 1973 ditty called “Tie A Yellow Ribbon (‘Round the Old Oak Tree),” which remains a universal anthem for freedom and is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music.
Tony Orlando and Dawn also left their mark on television with their popular CBS show in the early ’70s, which was the first multi-ethnic variety series in the medium’s history.
To be sure, life hasn’t always been a bed of festive yellow ribbons for Orlando. His career had its darker moments, particularly following the untimely death of his best friend, comedy actor Freddie Prinze, from either an accidental or self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Following Prinze’s 1977 death, Orlando was hospitalized to kick an addiction to cocaine. And when the music and recording business began morphing into an industry that seemed to be passing him by in the late 1980s, he briefly considered retirement.
But with the proliferation of Native-American casinos beginning in the early 1990s, Orlando found himself with as much work as he wanted, and he continued to build on his reputation for his energetic, take-no-prisoners live shows.
Orlando, who headlines Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Atlantic City Hilton, knows that with every sold-out show, he’s defying the old show-biz axiom that says a performer is only as good as his last hit record. Jimmy Carter was the president the last time he had a meaningful hit on the pop charts, and Orlando is at a loss to explain why he’s been able to sustain a career long after other performers with similar histories have faded from view.
But he has a theory.
“The only answer I can give you is that I never shucked a show,” he says during a phone call prior to performing a sold-out show last Saturday in Zanesville, Ohio. “And people know it. They know I won’t disappoint them.”
Establishing a warm bond with each audience the moment he hits the stage might be another reason why his popularity has never waned.
“I think they feel as close to me as I do to them,” he surmises. “I think there’s a real friendship there. Not a fan-ship, but a friendship.”
Plus, even after 50 years in the business, Orlando still enjoys the road, unlike other artists who have to be dragged on tour kicking and screaming.
“I love seeing new places, and I love going back to places I’ve been a hundred times,” he says. “I love staying in hotels. I know it sounds crazy, but I love the road.”
“I was interviewed recently [in another market] and the reporter asked me where was my favorite place to play, and I immediately said Atlantic City,” Orlando says.