Tony Orlando Discusses Farewell Tour, Showbiz in the ’70s, His Biggest Hits

Over the past few years, some of the biggest names of ’70s era entertainment are deciding to call it a career. And the latest is Tony Orlando – who experienced massive success throughout the aforementioned decade as the lead singer of Tony Orlando and Dawn (and scoring the #1 hit of 1973 with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”), starring in a hit variety show (also called Tony Orlando and Dawn), as well as becoming a long-time headliner in Las Vegas.

While his 60+ year career as a concert performer will wrap up on March 22nd at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut (with several other performances leading up to it), he is not retiring entirely – as he will continue to host his popular radio show, Saturday Nights with Tony Orlando.

Orlando spoke with AllMusic a little over one month before what will be his final concert, and was up for discussing such hits as “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” and “Knock Three Times,” a famous close friend who died far too young, and how he got involved in radio.

What made you decide to launch a farewell tour at this time?

Orlando: “Well, after 64 years…I told my wife, ‘I can still hit the ball. I just can’t run the bases.’ And basically what that means is all of the things that go on other than being on stage these days I think is why Elton John has retired, Kenny Loggins has retired, Oak Ridge Boys has retired, Bill Medley has retired.”

“I think what it is – for me, anyway – is traveling today, you sit in an airport, delays for five hours. You miss your gig, you have to come two days earlier, the cost of flying, the cost of hotel rooms. It’s just so crazy. All that kind of stuff adds up to, ‘Who needs this?’ It’s nuts and it’s tiring. I’m 79 – I’ll be 80 years old in April. I’m in this business 64 years, and I thought, ‘You know what? God has blessed me with 64 years. I would have been happy with 64 days. But 64 years in show business? Leave while you’re still selling out. Leave while you still have your pride…and make every day Saturday.’ That’s basically it.”

What can fans expect at the upcoming final shows?

Orlando: “1,000% of my heart – to show my thanks, to all the support they’ve given me for 64 unbelievable years. This has been a dream journey, man. I started when I was 16 years old. My first hit was with Carole King [and Gerry Goffin] – it was her first hit, as well – called ‘Halfway to Paradise.’ And then Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – four legendary writers, with Carole and Gerry – they won Academy Awards, they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And we started out as kids in 1961 – with Don Kirshner. It’s been an incredible, unbelievable dream come true.”

“I never saw high school – I’m an eighth grader. My palate has tasted the foods of 36 countries. I’ve been able to work for nine presidents, I’ve had my own television network show on CBS in the ’70s. A show – by the way – we were the first multiracial group to ever have a primetime television show. 36 million people watching us every Wednesday. Millions of records we’ve sold. So, all the dreams came true.”

“And to be able to say goodbye at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut – which is my favorite venue. I’m ending there because it’s my family. I’ve been working that hotel since they started in 1998. So, it’s going to be wonderful. 12,000-seats, fun, full of performers who have been my friends for many years – from Priscilla Presley to Frankie Valli who are coming, to David Pack of Ambrosia. I’m looking forward to a great celebration of a blessed life – both by God and by the public.”

Which songs are your favorite to perform?

Orlando: “I don’t have a favorite song to perform. My ‘song’ is the entire show. I enjoy doing the entire show – there’s no one song that is my favorite.”

What were your initial impressions of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” and did you have any idea it would become so successful?

Orlando: “No, it’s like every song you go into the studio. Y’know, the girls and I – Tony Orlando and Dawn – have five #1 records. They were ‘Candida,’ ‘Knock Three Times,’ ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,’ ‘Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose,’ and ‘He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You).’ Each one of those sessions, you don’t walk in, ‘Oh, I’m cutting a hit.’ You walk in going, ‘I want to make a great record. I want to make a great product.’ And that takes care of itself. I went in thinking, ‘Wherever it takes me, it takes me.'”

“That record, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon,’ I first performed it to welcome home our POW’s from Vietnam at the Cotton Bowl with Bob Hope in 1973. And then, welcomed home our hostages from Iran after 444 days – the yellow ribbon was tied around the space shuttle to welcome them home. Amazing. And then, it was the theme or the logo that led Desert Storm troops in that war – they came home to yellow ribbons. Then in Iraq and Afghanistan, the same. Then, as this war is preceded in Israel, right now in Jerusalem they’re wearing yellow ribbons in honor and hoping in prayer that those hostages come home. And this is all because I walked into a studio on a rainy afternoon in New York City. Who knew?”

“If you go to Hong Kong right now, they’re fighting for their democracy – their theme song is ‘Yellow Ribbon’ and their logo is a yellow ribbon. If you go to Singapore, the yellow ribbon is used as a welcoming home for prisoners who are coming home. So, anybody who has served in military, that song became a freedom anthem, a welcoming home anthem – reached way beyond a hit record. Did I ever have the thought that would happen?”

“And you know what? It’s allowed me to work for our military – because of that song coming out in 1973 and welcoming home our POW’s – I decided to dedicate my life as a performer to raising money for veterans. And because of ‘Yellow Ribbon,’ they tell me it’s well over $100 million that has been raised on behalf of our veterans since 1973. That reaches a level that goes beyond any expectation.”

And what about “Knock Three Times”?

Orlando: “‘Knock Three Times’ is the biggest selling record I’ve ever had. ‘Yellow Ribbon’ in its initial release did two million records. ‘Knock Three Times’ in its initial release did four million records. So, ‘Knock Three Times’ has been an amazing hit for me. One that each generation has picked up as their own. For instance, it was in a movie called Now and Then – young girls had that movie as part of their ‘backpack,’ so to speak. That song was written by the same writers who wrote ‘Yellow Ribbon’ – L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine. They wrote our hits. What Burt Bacharach was like to Dionne Warwick, they were to us. I owe them so much. Because they were the songwriters.”

In 1973, you began headlining in Vegas. What do you recall about that era in Vegas, and how does it compare to today?

Orlando: “When I came to Vegas, the headliners were the Rat Pack. So, they were my friends – I became friends with Frank, Sammy, and Jerry. I hosted the Jerry Lewis Telethon for 33 years. So, that was Vegas. They were Vegas. Don Rickles was Vegas. I found myself in that crowd. Amazing time in Vegas it was. Because Vegas, I didn’t realize in the late ’60s and early ’70s it was booming – to become the Vegas that you know now.”

“The Vegas that you know now is something that cannot be described. It’s a hundred times more exciting – more buildings, more shows. Like, when Steve Wynn brought in Cirque du Soleil, that was an $80 million show. An $80 million expense to put that show on. You didn’t have someone like Criss Angel – who sells out every show, and has for the last thirteen years. An unbelievable career he’s had there.”

“You had the Super Bowl this week. You look at the stadium, Allegiant Stadium…when I was here, there was no sports town. There was sports betting, but there was no sports town. Now, you have the Raiders, the Super Bowl, the NHL Team the Knights, and now you have the Athletics coming in from Oakland as a baseball team.”

“So, Vegas has become – I believe – the sports capital of the world now. Why? If the Super Bowl comes to a town anywhere in the country, it’s like, ‘Whoa! We’ve got the Super Bowl!’ When the Super Bowl comes to Vegas, it equals out. The excitement is both for the city and for that event. It’s one of the few times you’ll ever see the Super Bowl meet a city that’s as famous and aware of the world as Vegas. So, Vegas is on a different platform today than it was when I started.”

“Remember, when I started, the Hilton Hotel – where I worked – was where Elvis worked. I was there for ten years. And in that hotel now, I look back on it and I think, ‘Viva Las Vegas’ really rebirthed his career. In that building.’ And I had the privilege of working the same stage as him. So, from Sinatra to Presley to the Super Bowl, you can’t ask for better.”

Who were some of your favorite guests on the Tony Orlando and Dawn Show?

Orlando: “It’s interesting, because we had everybody on that show you can possibly name. But the ones that reoccurred that were my favorites, was a comedian named Ruth Buzzi. She was part of a show called Laugh-In, and she was a hysterical, genius, Chaplin-like comedian. She was amazing. Also, she was the one that you saw on The Dean Martin Roast. She was one of my favorite people.”

“And then Phyllis Diller – who also was a comedian back then. If you look on YouTube, there is a wonderful scene with her, where I came to welcome her and I grabbed her in my arm, and her wig got caught in my cuff link. When I pulled my arm away…off came the wig! And poor Phyllis was left with nothing. She was literally bald. I was so embarrassed – you can hear me say, ‘I’ll cut this out. I promise.’ And she says, ‘No! You can’t cut this out! This is the funniest laugh we’ll ever get!’ Those are the kinds of people I had the pleasure of working with.”

“And then of course, Jerry Lewis – who I idolized as a kid growing up. And became friends with him because of his appearance on my show in 1976. And then he gave me the honor of co-hosting the Telethon with him and Sammy Davis Jr. for 30 years.”

What do you attribute to the popularity of TV variety shows in the ’70s?

Orlando: “Remember, there were only three networks. There was no Cable. There was CBS, ABC, and NBC. That was it. So, it was a natural time for what I would call more of a vaudevillian type of comedy and sketches – that was applied to my show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Sonny and Cher Show. We all had those similar kind of comedy sketches. Of course, so did Saturday Night Live, which came in at the same time – they were just being born.”

“Today, television doesn’t have that kind of variety – except for Saturday Night Live. And what took its place are shows like The Masked Singer, American Idol, The Voice. That’s the variety shows today. So music and comedy were a natural fit for prime time television. I’m very proud that I was part of a time in television that was a trailblazing time. Because when Telma [Hopkins], Joyce [Vincent], and I – Tony Orlando and Dawn – went on the air, we were the first and only multiracial singing group to ever own a prime time television show. And by the way – it’s still that way to this day.”

You were a close friend of Freddie Prinze. What was he really like?

Orlando: “Freddie was the most incredible comedic talent to come upon this business. And he only was in the business for two years. I’m enjoying my 64th year. And he was my ‘younger brother.’ He was from Washington Heights in New York, I was from Chelsea in New York. He was from a Hungarian/Puerto Rican family, I was from a Greek/Puerto Rican family. We both understood the same dinners that we had, we understood the same foods we had. And I lost a good young brother – he was ten years younger than me.”

“But imagine this – this is a young man that had two years in this business, and they still remember him. Just like you did. Freddie was way ahead of his time. Freddie – at the age of 20/21 – hosted The Tonight Show. That says it all. When we did The Dean Martin Roast together, we were like two brothers on that show – in awe of the fact that we were there with all these great stars. We were just young kids. Freddie was a comedic genius – he really was. A great loss to show business and to the public.”

You also host Saturday Nights with Tony Orlando. How do you like working in radio?

Orlando: “I’ve always wanted to work in radio. It’s funny, in all the years in this business, you spend a lot of time on radio. And I remember one year I was asked to come on WABC or WCBS with Bruce Morrow, and do five hours – replacing him for a night. And I thought, ‘Man, this would be great to do.’ Never thinking that someday I would be doing it.”

“What happened was I got a call from the owners of WABC radio during the pandemic, and they said, ‘Would you like to a two-hour radio show for me?’ John Catsimatidis who owns the station is an old friend of mine. And I said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want.’ Never thinking it would go beyond that time. I thought I was doing him a favor – to be honest with you.”

“Then I started doing the show, and I started creating theme shows – I started creating shows that were more or less documentaries about my friends who I’ve had on as guests. Like Clive Davis – I did four hours with Clive. It was really interesting, introspective searching out how Clive found and nurtured all these great stars at Columbia Records. And I had a chance to work with him as his vice president before I had hits as a performer. I ran the music division for Clive – I signed Barry Manilow and represented James Taylor and Blood, Sweat & Tears. So, I had a great run with him.”

“But radio allows me to do two things. Play great music, play music from all genres, from all decades, even now. And also, interview some of these great performers that I’ve developed friendships with. So, it’s been a joyful ride. And I hope it continues. I’m enjoying that. I do it from home with my brother David, and it’s become a big hit – so I’m very happy. I enjoy radio very much. To use an old expression, it’s ‘the theater of the mind.’ So, you create vision for people. You create ‘looks’ in their heads, hopefully. And the response will tell you whether you succeeded or not. It’s great.”

You recently had Paul Stanley of Kiss on as a guest. Are you friends with Paul?

Orlando: “I am. My manager, Susan Maneo, was a vice president of Casablanca Records. And this was before she managed me – she also managed Donna Summer’s career. And I met Paul with Gene Simmons in the ’70s – when they started. And then he became very close friends to a young man that is like a son to me – and that’s Criss Angel. So, Criss Angel and Paul are very tight, very close. We got together one day at his birthday party, and Paul said, ‘When am I doing your radio show? What are you waiting for?!’ He’s a good guy. And I love his soul album, Soul Station: Now and Then. When I played cuts from that, the reaction from the audience was unbelievable.”

“The same thing with Bruce Springsteen and his album, Only the Strong Survive – another album much like Paul’s album. Paying tribute to the people who inspired them. I was just inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and Clive and Dionne Warwick had me come in. So, Bruce comes up to me singing my first hit record, ‘Halfway to Paradise.’ I said, ‘Hey! You know this song?’ He goes, ‘Tony, come on. We grew up on that song. 1961. ‘Halfway to Paradise’.’ It thrilled my soul that he and all those guys know that song.”

Future plans?

Orlando: “I want to flex my writing muscle. It’s part of the creative juices that I have, that I have not paid much attention to – although I wrote a lot of the sketches on the TV show along with the comedy writers. I’ve written a couple of movies, scripts for film. I had a good time making That’s My Boy with Adam Sandler. I had a good time making that movie with Adam.”

“So, I’d like to spread my wings more in the writing side of my talent – which I have not paid as much attention to, because it really inspires me and excites me when I finish a piece of product. Whether it be a book, a novel, a play, a Broadway show, or a song. And that’s where I want to spend my time.”

For more info, visit Tony’s official site.

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