Tony Orlando and Dawn

A tribute today to Tony Orlando (Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis, b. 1944).

When Orlando and his pseudo-group “Dawn” burst on the scene in the early 1970s, I imagine few people knew he’d been a player for over a decade by then. He was only 15 when he started out with a doo-wop group called The Five Gents in 1959. Don Kirshner liked his demos and put him to work in the Brill Building. Orlando worked as a songwriter, demo singer, record executive, record producer and occasional charting vocalist before he broke through as a star with “Candida” in 1970. When I say he was a record executive, I mean he was literally a “suit” for a while, signing artists to Columbia records. He signed Barry Manilow, for example, and co-wrote and produced tunes with him. Orlando’s highest charting tune as a vocalist prior to “Candida” was “Make Believe” which he recorded with a group named “Wind” in 1969 — it went to #28.

“Candida” was recorded as a demo, with one of its songwriters Toni Wine, and a third singer named Linda November. It was recorded anonymously under the name “Dawn” so as not to conflict with his work behind the scenes in the business. When the record shot up to #1, it became a different ballgame. Then came a string of hit singles including “Knock Three Times” (1971, #1); “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” (1973, #1); Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose (1973, #3); “Steppin’ Out” (1974, #7); “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” (1975, #1). Meanwhile backing vocalists Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson had been hired to be “Dawn” for the live act and began recording with him as well.

My Lord, look at this new-vaudeville disco concept album they made! Dawn’s New Ragtime Follies (1973). Folks, this kind of thing is what led your correspondent down the Primrose Path:

As a kid, my friends and I loved this group — we didn’t have the albums, but the singles were on all of the K-Tel and Ronco compilation albums (we wore down the grooves with repeated plays). And naturally they were played to death on the radio. And then in 1974, they came to us through yet another medium. The act had gotten their feet wet playing tv variety shows like the Hollywood Palace in support of their records. Then, in 1974, Tony Orlando and Dawn got their own tv variety show as a summer replacement for The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. The show was so successful it remained on the air for three seasons, through 1976.

Basically the show consisted of banter among the three stars, comedy sketches with that week’s special guests, and segments where they performed their hit songs. Orlando was and is an extremely likable guy, but definitely no comedian nor no thespian. Half Greek/ Half Puerto Rican, with an exceedingly funky mustache and flashy disco jumpsuits and tuxedoes, he was more a “personality”, very much in tune with the times. No one knew it at the time, but these were the last days of television variety. Trying to fit post-vaudeville pop stars into this genre was undoubtedly among the factors that killed it. Audiences aren’t critics, but on some level, even if its subconscious, they can tell when someone is actually funny, or whether they are being assisted by mechanical canned laughter. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it heartily, just that in retrospect, you can track what happened. After 1975 all the vitality had migrated to late night shows like Saturday Night Live. 

Anyway, things changed after the show went off the air. Orlando suffered a major depression after his best friend, comedian Freddie Prinze committed suicide, and retired from singing for a time. He later made a minor comeback as a solo artist, and became a perennial live stage act in Las Vegas. He’s still very much in the business doing his thing.

To find out more about vaudeville and its related forms such as television variety (and shows like Tony Orlando and Dawn)please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous