Tony Orlando has a multitude of accomplishments to his name. He's sold millions of records. He has two Platinum albums, three Gold albums and fifteen Top 40 hits. He was named Casino Entertainer Of The Year, the recipient of the Best All Around Entertainer, Las Vegas, which he won four times and previously three times in Atlantic City. He received the Jukebox Artist Of The Year Award from the Amusement And Music Owners Association of New York, The Ellis Island Medal Of Honor, The Bob Hope Award For Excellence In Entertainment from the Congressional Medal Of Honor Society honoring his efforts on behalf of our nation's veterans. He's the recipient of three American Music Awards and two People's Choice Awards for Best Male Entertainer. He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame for outstanding achievements to the entertainment industry.
He enjoyed five Number One hits: "Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Ole Oak Tree", "Knock Three Times", "Candida", "My Sweet Gypsy Rose" and "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You}". "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" was the number one Billboard song of 1973 and became Tony Orlando's theme song and grew into an American anthem of hope and homecoming, reunion and renewal. Tony Orlando And Dawn rank among the Top 100 Billboard Magazine Artists of all time.
And besides being a top selling recording artist, songwriter, concert headliner, network television star, motion picture actor, Broadway performer and author (Halfway To Paradise), his autobiography, Tony Orlando was also the General Manager and Vice-President of CBS Music Division, April Blackwood Music from 1966 to 1970. He represented such artists as James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Blood, Sweat And Tears, and signed and produced Barry Manilow's first recording while working for Clive Davis.
It is with great pleasure that we present an interview with the one, the only, Tony Orlando.
Q - Tony, in reading your autobiography I didn't realize you were famous before you were famous.
A - (laughs)
Q - In 1961 you had a record deal.
A - I had two number one records.
Q - So, you knew what it was like to be famous, didn't you?
A - Well, I was sixteen years old and I never connected with fame. To be honest with you, I still don't. I read a book when I was a kid. It was called Notes To Myself. The author's name was Prather. I remember he wrote, "Fame isn't really fame at all. It only appears that way from a distance." I always realized that fame was nothing but a mirage. What was important was the work, what you put into it, the hard work you put into it and the creative satisfaction of doing creative work. I never thought about fame and I swear to you I still don't, although I know it exists. I know it's there, but I don't take it seriously. I just take the work (seriously). So, when I started at sixteen I had an opportunity to work with one of the greatest songwriters of all time and that's Carole King. She wrote my first hit. She was eighteen. I was sixteen years old. The first hit I had, she had. We had it together. She arranged a thirty piece orchestra on that session. In those days we cut four tracks. It was amazing when I think of that. And we had our first hit record together. It was called "Halfway To Paradise". Then the second hit record was a record called "Bless You", written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Now, both of these writers have a play written about them called Beautiful On Broadway. It was written about Carole and her husband Gerry, Barry and his wife Cynthia, and this camaraderie and yet the competition they had as writers in the office I started in with them. So, we were kids all together, starting out in 1961. You know what amazes me about that Gary? I say to myself, man, I was sixteen years old in '61. So, that's pre-Beatles, pre-Temptations, pre-Motown, pre-Supremes. (laughs) It's crazy.
Q - You were in on the ground floor of a business that was about to grow in leaps and bounds.
A - You said it right. You're one of the few people that recognize that. I was part of a seedling that finally became where we're at now.
Q - Having a record deal in the 1960s was probably better for an artist than it is today.
A - I think the talent today, truthfully on a whole, these young people sing better than ever. They are able to have a little more understanding of being eclectic. That's important. They have to be in videos and they have to score in a video which is really really a mini-movie. Because of Michael Jackson they have to be good in their choreography. They have to understand how to record with Pro-Tools rather than go out there and try on the first and second take, and stop and go and stop and go, and yet they still deliver a performance. They go on television and do shows like The Voice/. My life in television, I can tell you to go on 'live' television and nail it in front of fifty million people is a highly difficult job to do.
Q - I believe that. You had experience when you had your TV show.
A - Yeah.
Q - You take Carrie Underwood, who used to sing in front of her mirror in her bedroom, and all of a sudden she's performing on American Idol for tens of millions of viewers. Now that's difficult.
A - Exactly. You got it man! I think today's talent, young talent today, they just amaze me. Ed Sheeran, his writing is very much like a guy who would've written hits in the late '70s, and yet he's this young kid with a guitar who's up on that stage, just him and his guitar, changing the sounds on his guitar, and plays like a band. He's a killer! He's amazing! And his lyrics. Justin Bieber is very under-rated. Very under-rated overall talent. He hasn't even scratched the surface of his talent, he's so young. Demi Lovato's voice is bigger and more soulful now than she was when she was in high school, for Disney. I mean, these kids today are just awesome! Although I came from an era where the writing was amazing, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach. You're talking about some of the great songwriters of all time that set up the '70s, that brought us Elton John, and brought us all those people, Steely Dan. It just got wider and deeper. I've been part of a music business Gary that is so incredible. When I think about starting in '61 and the music twists and turns I've been part of, I'm so fortunate, so lucky to have experienced all of it. Don't forget, "Halfway To Paradise" came out six years after "Heartbreak Hotel".
Q - In 1984 you were smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.
A - (laughs)
Q - When you're a singer, doesn't that affect your voice?
A - Everybody in that time, everybody from Sinatra to Dionne Warwick, we all smoked. How we sang, I don't know. In '83, when I stopped smoking because Jerry Lewis came to my hotel room in Vegas one day and he opened up his shirt and said, "You see this scar on my chest here? I got it from a Black And Decker. They opened up my rib cage and pulled my heart out and put it in a pail. You want that to happen to you, you idiot? Stop smoking!"
Q - What year did you stop smoking?
A - '83.
Q - I had it as '84.
A - '83, '84, whatever. It was the same year to me. (laughs) Anyway, he (Jerry Lewis) walks in. He walks out. I think about what he said and I said, "Dear Lord," I was a pretty strong person and still am, I said, "Dear Lord, if you can take some nails in your hand for me, I want to stop smoking for you and I might even make Jerry Lewis happy." (laughs)
Q - Speaking of happy, when I listen to "Sweet Gypsy Rose" it sounds like you were very happy in the recording studio. You were having fun while you were making those records, weren't you? You liked what you were doing for a living!
A - Well, yeah. I've done nothing else since I was sixteen. I'm seventy-three. I'm in show business fifty-seven years now. I am still enjoying singing and performing more than ever. In fact, I'm probably enjoying it more now than I did then. It was funny about "Gyspy Rose". Listen carefully. Listen to this Say has anybody. Now what melody is exactly like that? "Rock A Bye Your Baby". So, the writers, Irwin Levine and Larry Brown, who wrote all those Dawn hits in those days, "Ribbon", "Gypsy Rose", Irwin was a big Al Jolson fan and when we cut the "Ragtime Follies" album, the idea was could we actually cut an album that would compete with records that were out. Heavy Metal was just finding its birthplace then. We said let's make this album as though Jolson was recording in 1972, in 1973 or '74, whenever we cut that album. Let's record it as though it was Al Jolson. And that's what we did when we did the "Ragtime Follies" album. So, when you listen to those records, those songs were written no differently for me than they were if they were written for Al Jolson forty or fifty years earlier. (laughs)
Q - I never thought of that. You worked on your TV show twelve to eighteen hours a day.
A - Oh, yeah. It was murder.
Q - You played thirty-two shows in thirty-six days in the summer of 1976. That seems too much to me. Did you ever say to somebody, "Hey, let's slow it down here."?
A - No. That was the norm for variety shows. You would do twenty-six shows on the network and then they would re-run them for the summer. But, I remember Carol Burnett passing me by in the hallway and she stopped me one day. She looked so fresh. She was coming in at three o'clock in the afternoon and I was dragging my butt through the hallway. She said, "Tony, come here. I want to talk to you." She was in her tenth year at the time and she said, "You know, you have to learn how to allocate work to others. You're doing everything. You're writing the show with the writers. You're going over who's going to be on the show. You're rehearsing this week. You're already figuring out who you're going to do on the third week. You're burning yourself out." She was right because by the time I got through that season I was pulp. Literally. She was still going along. She knew how to allocate her time much better than I did. I always thought if I didn't involve myself with everything, people would say I was fluffing my job. I was letting them down. But I learned later on that allocating the work to others was the way to go and trusting in their talent like Carol Burnett did. But, you're right. It was a drain. There's no question. But, it was a glorious, wonderful drain. When I look back on those shows now, I wouldn't watch myself on TV then. I didn't like what I did or how I sang. I just couldn't watch myself. Lately I said I'm going to go back and watch those shows. It doesn't matter. I turn the shows on and I say you know what? We did good. We were okay. (laughs)
Q - You're watching the shows where? YouTube?
A - No. I own the tapes, so I own the shows. So I was watching them at home.
Q - You own the master tapes is what you're telling me.
A - I do.
Q - You write in your autobiography about the music executives who didn't understand The Beatles' music and appearance before the group hit big. Did you ever try to explain to them what their appeal was?
A - Prior to their coming to America when I was in England with my first hit record, it was 1961. I noticed the kids would come to you. They wouldn't grab your shirt and rip it off or touch your hair. They would come up to you and say, "Is Gary Chester playing drums on your next session? Is Carole King writing for your next record? Is she producing and arranging your records?" They were into whatever the background of the artist was because don't forget England is the size of New York State. So, compared to America it's a small country geographically. All their papers were both the business papers, the music business and also for the public. So when a person would buy something to do with their favorite singer they were also buying a business related newspaper. They were aware of all the back stuff that went on. I remember coming home and saying to Carole and Don Kirshner, "You gotta get ready because whatever comes out of England in the next few years is going to be unbelievable. They are literally students of Rock 'n' Roll. and contemporary music." And sure enough, lo and behold we got The Beatles.
Q - Where did you see The Beatles or hear about them? Or did you?
A - I saw them in Germany.
Q - In The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany?
A - Yeah.
Q - They didn't have the Beatle haircuts or collarless jackets.
A - No, they did not. If you go to the BBC album you'll see they did a 'live' show of a performance and did a song called "Beautiful Dreamer". It says in the bio in there that they learned it from a record I had released in England that Lou Adler produced. They had gotten the record somehow before it was even released and they did it 'live'. I remember bumping into John Lennon at the Grammy Awards one year and he had an Elvis pin on his lapel. It was hysterical because he walked up to me and said, "Tony, I can't believe we used to think your record 'Bless You' was funky." (laughs)
Q - And you said what?
A - I said, "Where did you see me do that?" He said, "I saw you at the Granada Theatre in Manchester."
Q - Was that the one and only time you spoke to John Lennon?
A - No. I spoke to John many times. Of course I know Paul very well too. I remember I was at a session with Paul in L.A. He was cutting the sax solo part on "Listen To What The Man Said" with Wings. I'm in the studio and I watched him. He goes to the say player, "We're ready now." I can't remember the sax player's name. He's pretty famous actually. He played the sax and he looks at me and says, "Tony, I think we got it." He goes back to the mic and says, "I think we've got it." The say player says, "Paul, I was just warming up. Let me do that again." Well, fourteen takes later, God bless Paul McCartney, he allowed him to play it fourteen times before he finally got back on the mic and said, "I think we've got it. Take one." (laughs) He allowed that sax player to try everything thing he could to make it better. It was amazing.
Q - The Beatles were careful in the studio to never duplicate the sound of their previous recording. They were constantly changing things around and experimenting. That's what gave their records such a unique sound.
A - That was very much the way of making records in those days to be honest with you Gary. It was very, very common. When we went into the studio with Carole and Gerry in those early days, believe me when I tell you, there was experimenting going on. Putting paper between the strings of the piano and using it as a percussive instrument with sticks. I mean, we tried everything to be different. That was very much a time when making records like that was common place.
Q - Usually you had a three hour recording block to get your songs down. But if you were The Beatles or Tony Orlando and you were selling records you could take your time, right?
A - No, no. You're right the first time. We had an hour a song. Fours songs a session. If it didn't come off in an hour, next song. And we cut it 'live'. There was not overdubbing. Four tracks. So, if you wanted to open up a track for example we would mix down let's say a vocal track and string track to open up a track to put another instrument on. So, we were only working with four tracks. Can you imagine? Four tracks with thirty pieces. (laughs)
Q - Producers had to be good in those days.
A - You're right. There were no Pro-Tools. You had no pitch controls. You had to sing on pitch. You were singing 'live'.
Q - You had Alice Cooper on your TV show and you were very surprised to hear that he spent most of his time backstage talking with George Burns.
A - That's right.
Q - What did you think Alice would be doing?
A - Well, first of all he had the image of being this character. I said, "Alice, where are you going right now?" He said, "I'm gonna go play golf." I said, "You're gonna go play golf?" He said, "Yeah. I play golf with George Burns." I said, "Wait a minute. Alice Cooper plays golf with George Burns?" (laughs) It seemed like strange bed partners to me. And they were strange bed partners. But Alice turned out to be such a tremendous guy, such a great man. Such a nice guy. Talented and really was a trailblazer for all that stuff to come with the make-up. He was something. One thing I loved about Alice Cooper is he understood old school and new school and brought them together.
Q - You were ambitious as a kid. You made the rounds of all those buildings on Broadway, working from the top floor down, asking for an audition. That's the drive you need.
A - Absolutely. Definitely. As in any business. One of the things I see, maybe I'm getting older, is I see less of from young people today is they lack that drive. The ones that make it, there are no accidents out there. These kids that make it, the ones I talked about, the Nick Jonas and Justin, these kids are dedicated, hard workers. If you look at their tours, no human being should be able to work that long, that many hours, plus going into the studio, plus doing their social media work, plus going in and doing photo sessions, plus going in and doing meet-and-greets, plus going out and doing the dance moves, plus going out and rehearsing that and going back on stage and doing shows. It's unbelievable. That drive that I had as a kid, you add a hundred thousand times more, that's the drive you need today.
Q - These days you're touring around with a Christmas show.
A - Well, I've been touring around with that Christmas show for twenty-five years. To be honest with you, I didn't realize it, but it might be one of the longest running, if not the longest running Christmas shows by a recording artist or a Pop artist. It started for me in Branson, Missouri in 1993 when I had a theatre. I used to have a theatre there. Because it was a two thousand seat theatre I decided to write a Christmas musical. We're playing it at the Mohegan Sun in the arena. It's our third time there. Of course we've played the show in Vegas and twenty-five years around the country, including Branson. It's been a wonderful, joyful time for me to play this show so many years and to still see it sell out. It's a great feeling.
Q - Kenny Rogers had a Christmas Show. Andy Williams had a Christmas Show.
A - Well, Andy's Christmas Show and my Christmas Show both played in Branson at the same time. I know Kenny's Christmas Show came well after mine. In fact, he came to see our Christmas Show and then he went and wrote his and he's done great with his Christmas Show. I don't know if he's still part of his show, but it's been twenty-five years for us. I'm just happy to be able to do it.
Q - I believe you're the last man standing. Kenny Rogers isn't doing his Christmas Show and of course Andy Williams has passed.
A - Well, I'll tell you what happened with Andy and I. Andy was at Branson. There was no Christmas period in Branson because when I first went there he had his theatre there. Branson actually did close down at the end of October, so they didn't even go into November, December. I had mentioned to the City Fathers why don't we try and do a Christmas Show between Andy's legendary Christmas Show and The Osmonds, who were in town at that time, and myself. And they said, "There's no Christmas period here." I said, "There will be. All we've go to do is build it and they will come." So, we did that and I opened the Christmas season in 1993. I asked Bob Hope to come into Branson and he did and we kicked off our Christmas season with our first Veterans Show honoring our veterans. That's post Desert Storm. It wasn't during any war time period. I wanted to give back to veterans because I've been working on behalf of veterans for forty-three years, since 1973. So, I wanted to put a free show on for veterans in Branson in this beautiful state of the art, two thousand seat theatre I had. And Bob did graciously come and turn the lights on at my theatre for Christmas and we kicked off a Christmas season, Andy, myself and The Osmonds, and thanks to Bob Hope who came in to help us. Since that day 170,000 veterans come through Branson on the weekend of November 11th to reunion with each other, the largest gathering in the country.
Q - Did someone in your family have a military background?
A - Well, every member of my family served in the military. But, I started my love for veterans and commitment to veterans when "Yellow Ribbon" came out. Bob Hope had me come to The Cotton Bowl in Dallas to perform, to welcome home our POWs. And I have reunioned with them every single year for forty-three years since that day. The first time I ever sang "Yellow Ribbon" was at Bob's show at the Cotton Bowl, 70,000 people, to welcome home our POWs from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. After meeting them it changed my life. I realized I was going to dedicate whatever God blessed me with in terms of celebrity where I can raise money for veterans. Ever since that day I've raised hundreds of millions of dollars. It's something I'm proud of because of "Yellow Ribbon" on behalf of veterans causes since 1973.
Q - That's a lot of money.
A - One of the reasons most people don't know it is I never wanted to make it look like a publicity thing, so I never talked about it. I always felt if you made it about publicity it would lose its impact. It's about the veterans, not about me. I wanted to do something for veterans, stay off the radar but raise as much money as I can and have probably, as I say, for the last forty-four years.