Between 1970 and 1975, singer Tony Orlando was one of the biggest stars in the music business, thanks to such highly polished pop-R&B tunes as "Candida," "Knock Three Times" and "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," which he recorded as part of the vocal trio Tony Orlando and Dawn. The act, which featured singer and later actress Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, offered bright, sunshine-soaked pop music. But personal issues, including a struggle with substance abuse, forced Orlando to retire from music, bringing the act to an end before he resurfaced as a solo performer in the late '70s. He proved a capable actor in several TV-movies, as well as a popular attraction on the casino circuit. Orlando and Dawn reunited on several occasions in the 1980s and beyond, which underscored their lasting appeal as one of the more personable acts of the 1970s.
Born Michael Anthony Orlando Cassivitis on April 3, 1944 in New York City, Tony Orlando was the son of a Greek father and Puerto Rican mother who raised him in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood before relocating to Union City and Hasbrouck Heights in New Jersey. He began his music career as a teenager with the doo-wop group The Five Gents before striking out on his own at the age of 16. A successful audition for producer Don Kirshner led to his first single as a solo artist, the Carole King-penned "Halfway to Paradise" (1961), which later became a hit for Billy Fury and Bobby Vinton, among others. King also wrote its follow-up, "Bless You," which reached the Top 20 on the singles chart. But subsequent releases failed to find listeners, prompting him to take a job in the promotional department at Screen Gems, which had absorbed Kirshner's publishing house, Aldon Music. By 1967, Orlando had moved to Columbia, which owned Screen Gems, to serve as head of April-Blackwood Music, the publishing division of CBS Music.
Orlando returned to singing in 1970 after producer Hank Medress, who had helped to launch the Tokens and Chiffons, asked him to provide a lead vocal for a demo of the song "Candida," co-written by Detroit singer Toni Wine. To prevent any conflict with his duties to April-Blackwood, Orlando agreed to record the track under the name "Dawn," which featured Wine and Linda November on backing vocals. The song became a Top 5 hit in the summer of 1970, prompting Orlando to reunite with Wine and November for a second single, "Knock Three Times," which shot to No. 1 on the strength of its easygoing blend of pop and R&B. Both singles were released by Medress's label, Bell Records, which persuaded Orlando to leave his job at Columbia and join the act on a fulltime basis. He was soon joined by singers Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, who adopted the name Tony Orlando and Dawn to avoid confusion with the six other groups that were also using the "Dawn" moniker. The trio toured throughout 1971 and 1972 before releasing their third single, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," in 1973. It surpassed the extraordinary success of the group's previous releases, reaching the top of the charts in the U.S. and U.K. as well as Australia and New Zealand, which helped to make it the highest selling single of the year. The song would be revived numerous times over the next two decades, particularly in times of national anxiety like the Iranian hostage crisis, where its theme of remembrance for an absent loved one struck a chord with listeners.
Tony Orlando and Dawn's appeal to mainstream, middle-class audiences led to an eponymous variety series, which debuted in 1974 as a summer replacement series on CBS in the time slot previously occupied by "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1971-74). The series hewed closely to the format of its predecessor, with Orlando serving as the square but likable butt of sassy barbs by Hopkins and Vincent. Audiences responded positively to the series, which became a ratings hit in its first season as well as a weekly showcase for the group's growing list of chart hits, including "Steppin' Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight)," which reached No. 7 in 1974 and "Look in My Eyes Pretty Woman," which capped at No. 11 the following year. Orlando and Dawn scored the third chart-topping pop hit with "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)" in 1976, but by then, the group had begun to unravel due to internal pressures. Orlando had developed a significant drug habit after the deaths of his sister and the suicide of comedian and star of "Chico and the Man" (NBC, 1974-78) Freddie Prinze, who had been a close friend. Additionally, the show's popularity had gone into decline and subsequent singles failed to reach the Top 20. By 1977, Prinze had announced his retirement from show business, with Dawn folding soon after.
However, Orlando's retirement lasted just four months before he returned to the stage as a solo act in Las Vegas. His attempt to launch a recording career with Casablanca Records failed to generate much interest, but he found greater success as an actor, first in a 1980 production of "Barnum" on Broadway, and later on television, making an impressive debut as lead and producer on "Three Hundred Miles for Stephanie" (NBC, 1981) as a police officer who sought God's help for his terminally ill daughter by undertaking a 300-mile pilgrimage to a religious sanctuary. Orlando also played singer Rosemary Clooney's first husband, the Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer, in "Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story" (CBS, 1982) for director Jackie Cooper.
During this period, Orlando remained a popular attraction on the casino circuit, which soon added reunion dates with Hopkins, Vincent and occasionally Wine in 1988. He also served as the New York City host for the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon until 2011, when he left the position in protest over Lewis' dismissal from the yearly event. In 1993, Orlando opened the Tony Orlando Yellow Ribbon Music Theatre in Branson, MO before teaming with Wayne Newton at a new venue in 1997. The partnership ended on an acrimonious note two years later when Newton was allegedly caught recording Orlando's conversations, prompting an exchange of lawsuits that were eventually dropped. In 2005, Orlando and Dawn released A Christmas Reunion, their first album since 1976's The World of Tony Orlando and Dawn. In 2012, he made his feature film debut as Adam Sandberg's boss in the critically reviled Adam Sandler comedy "That's My Boy."
By Paul Gaita