Don Kirshner, the owner of Aldon Music, hired Tony in 1960 to sing some demos for then unknown song writer, Carole King. The two worked together for seven months, turning out many cuts, one of which, "Halfway To Paradise" was released as a single and became Tony's first hit record, reaching #39 in 1961. The follow up, called "Bless You", did even better when it went to #15, and Tony was suddenly a teen star who even appeared on American Bandstand. But a third hit was harder to come by and he faded from the Pop scene just as quickly as he had arrived.
In the Fall of 1963, Tony landed a job at April-Blackwood Music and by 1970, had risen to general manager. It was then that Dave Appell and Hank Medress (of The Tokens) presented a demo to Tony called "Candida". He was impressed enough to forward the song to Bell Records, but they rejected it, saying that the vocal was too weak. Dave and Hank asked Tony to record the demo again and sing the lead himself. Tony told them that his demo making days were behind him, but they persisted and he finally gave in, as long as his name wasn't used. It is here that history becomes a little muddled about the origin of the group's name that was assigned to the record. The first story says that after the recording, Hank attached the name of the daughter of Bell Records founder, Wes Farrell - "Dawn". A second version says the name came from Bell Record executive Steve Wax's daughter, Lisa Dawn Wax. Both of our sources insist that they are right.
The background singers on "Candida" were Sharon Greane, Linda November, Jay Siegel and the song's co-writer, Toni Wine. After the single hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and topped the Cashbox Best Sellers list, Orlando was anxious to record again. Fake groups calling themselves Dawn began to spring up and Bell records pleaded with Tony to sign with them, finally convincing him with a cheque for $100,000. That money was eventually spent suing phony groups over the use of the name.
Tony, Toni Wine and Linda November recorded the follow-up song "Knock Three Times", which went to number one on the Billboard Top 40 in January of 1971. Calls began to come in from promoters wanting to book them for personal appearances, but no actual group existed. At this point, Tony recruited Motown / Stax backing vocalists Thelma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson to become Dawn.
By 1973, the group had come a long way. They had become the second biggest seller of singles in America, without ever having made a major concert tour or appearing on a television show. They were voted the Number One Vocal Group in Europe and Most Popular Group in England, Italy, France, Germany, Australia, South America and Japan. Their very first 'live' performance was at Carnegie Hall.
Although their first two recordings were smash hits, the biggest was yet to come. Early in 1973 , Tony Orlando And Dawn cut "Tie A Yellow Ribbon", a song based on an American folk tale where a passenger on a bus told the driver that he had just gotten out of prison. In a letter to his wife, he told her that he would understand if she was no longer interested, but if she did want him back, she should tie a yellow ribbon around the only oak tree in the city square. The song writing team of Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown read the story and set it to music. "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" was released by Bell Records in February, 1973, and by April it was the number one record in the United States. In all, it spent more than five months on the charts and sold more than seven million copies. The song proved so popular that over one-hundred cover versions were cut by other artists around the world. Although the tune sounds simple, it contains many chord changes.
The trio followed "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" with "Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose". which rose to #3 in America. Following that success, CBS offered them their own four week, Summer replacement show. After "Who's In The Strawberry Patch With Sally" stalled at #27, "Steppin' Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight)" became a US Top Ten record in the Fall of 1974. In 1975, three more singles cracked the U.S. Top 40, "Look Into My Eyes, Pretty Woman", "He Don't Love You", and "Mornin' Beautiful".
The Tony Orlando And Dawn Show had been re-born as The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour on December 4th, 1974 and ran until December 28th, 1976. The following Summer, while playing at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, Massachusetts, Tony shocked the crowd and his partners by announcing his retirement from show business. He suffered a breakdown on stage and spent two days at Paine Whitney Hospital in New York. When he was released, he recovered at home, attended to by a private physician. Tony was back at work two months later, but could never find the chart success he once enjoyed.
Thelma Hopkins went on to enjoy a career in film and television, co-starring in Bosom Buddies in 1980, Gimme A Break from 1984 to 1987, Family Matters from 1989 to 1993 and Getting By in 1993. She also made several guest appearances, including, Women of the House in 1995, The Nanny in 1997, E.R. in 1998, The Hughleys in 1999 and Half and Half in 2003. Thelma also appeared in the film, Rain for the Showtime cable network as well as the Mike Myers 2008 movie, The Love Guru. In the Summer of 2010 she returned to TV on the TBS network sit-com, Are We There Yet? and in August, 2014 she joined the cast of Partners, with Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence.
In 1993, Tony became a resident of Branson, Missouri, where he has performed more than 2,000 shows and was named Branson's Entertainer and Vocalist of the Year. In addition to Branson, Tony wrote and produced critically acclaimed musical productions. In 1998 he created and starred in the show Jukebox Dreams, where he took the audience on a doo-wop serenade showing the power of one man's dreams. The show premiered at Harrah's in Atlantic City and later toured to some of the top venues in the country.
In June, 2005, Tony Orlando And Dawn were back recording together for the first time in 28 years. Orlando, Thelma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson reunited to make a Christmas album. That project went hand in hand with the release of a three-disc DVD set featuring highlights from the group's variety show and the trio's musical catalog, available for the first time on CD.
In late 2008, Tony was a featured guest on comedian Larry The Cable Guy's Christmas show, in which he was continuously promised a singing spot that never materialized.
Tony Orlando And Dawn occasionally reunite for television and benefit performances. In 2009 Joyce Vincent Wilson joined Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence in Former Ladies of The Supremes to tour and perform all over the world. Tony, who had hosted the New York City portions of the MDA Labor Day Telethon since the 1980s, resigned in 2011 in response to Jerry Lewis' firing from the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Tony Orlando still lives in Branson, Missouri and had a busy touring schedule across the United States in 2013 and 2014.
Thanks to Elaine Orlando and Dawn Farrell for their help with the accuracy of this bio.
For more, be sure to read Gary James Interview With Thelma Hopkins