As a child living in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, Tony Orlando used to climb up to the roof and dream of one day seeing his name in lights. “I used to create my own marquees,” the singer exclusively tells Closer. “In huge letters, it would say: ‘Tony Orlando.’ And then in little letters, ‘Also appearing: Frank Sinatra.’ ” He laughs, adding, “Sometimes it would be Elvis Presley.”
Of course, Tony, 76, would grow up to see his name in lights. With Tony Orlando and Dawn, he sold millions of records and enjoyed five No. 1 singles, including “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” “Knock Three Times” and “Candida.” From 1974 to 1977, Tony also hosted a hit CBS variety show with Dawn — aka Joyce Vincent Wilson and Telma Hopkins. “It was grueling, hard work, but in retrospect, I would do it all again,” he says.
Tony’s latest album, Timeless: The Big Hits, which includes a new bonus track, “America Is My Hometown,” is available now.
Keep scrolling below for Closer‘s exclusive Q&A interview with Tony Orlando.
So did you always want to be a singer?
I grew up in a musical family. My grandfather was an amazing trumpet player. He played in the Desi Arnaz Orchestra. As a young kid, I was trying to be Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. I started my own little doo-wop group. By the time I was 15, I was signed with Epic Records.
That’s crazy. You were so young!
I found myself in the recording studio with Carole King, who was writing songs for me with her husband, Gerry Goffin. I ended up with a huge hit record called “Halfway to Paradise.” I was just 16. Carole’s story became a Broadway show called Beautiful, but it was my childhood as well.
And then in your 20s, you became a music company executive, right?
Yes, it was never about stardom. I just wanted to be in the entertainment world. I represented people like James Taylor, and I signed Barry Manilow.
So how did you start performing again?
I was doing a favor for a friend, who eventually became my record producer. I walked out of the studio not knowing “Candida” was going to be my first 2 million selling record. I just didn’t want my bosses to know because I’d be fired!
“Candida” was released by Dawn and became a worldwide hit in 1970.
I couldn’t even celebrate! Nobody knew it was me! The next thing I know, I’m home thinking about that dream on the rooftop. So I went to Clive Davis, who was the head of Columbia Records, and said, “I have to leave my job.” He looks at me with a smile and says, “Why? Because you’re Dawn?” It was the worst-kept secret in the music business!
How did you meet Joyce and Telma?
They were doing all the background singing for Motown. They sang on Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft.” Telma’s the one who says, “Shut your mouth” — that famous line. I had used them on some of Barry [Manilow’s] sessions. They’re two incredible ladies.
And then you hosted the TV series Tony Orlando and Dawn together. Who were your favorite guests?
I had no favorites, but maybe Jerry Lewis. He was my idol growing up as a boy. The same thing with Jackie Gleason.
Were you upset when the show was canceled in 1977 after four years?
Yes, I was upset. But it also came at a time when something more important happened, the death of my friend Freddie Prinze. He was on the show Chico and the Man, and we had become show business brothers. He died at 22 of a suicide. I loved him like a younger brother, and I had never seen anybody die before.
It must have been difficult.
Yes. In one year, I lost my TV show — which was not important, really. I lost Freddie, and I lost my sister, who was 20 years old. She was born with cerebral palsy, but she was my first audience. I went through a depression that was unbelievable. I committed myself to rehab in a hospital for a year.
What helped you survive it?
It all came down to my faith. My faith in the Lord was my saving grace. I was ashamed of disappointing God, who had gifted me with all this. I’ve always told people to keep the faith. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. You have to keep the faith, so you are not alone.
And you began performing again.
In 1981, I got an offer to do Barnum on Broadway. For the role, you had to learn to walk a tightrope, hit a trampoline and land and juggle. I had only two weeks to learn all that, plus the script and all the music. But that brought me back to my dream on the rooftop.
Do you still stay in touch with Joyce and Telma?
Still do! I love them like they’re my sisters. Joyce has been out on the road with the Supremes. And Telma is the longest-running sitcom actress. From our show, she went on to Bosom Buddies with Tom Hanks. And then Gimme a Break! with Nell Carter, and then she was Aunt Rachel on Family Matters.
You’ve been married to your wife Francine since 1990. What is your secret to a happy relationship?
A long time ago, the comedian Danny Thomas told me, ‘Never go to bed angry. Always apologize before you go to sleep.’ I think the other key is keeping God in the family.
Did either of your two children follow you into music?
My daughter had no interest in being a performer, but she is my right arm. She helps with everything from PR to social media. She’s 28 years old and brilliant. My son worked as a comedian for a lot of years. Now he has one of the most successful podcasts in the country out of Las Vegas. It’s called “Vegas Junkeez.” He’s built a wonderful career in entertainment in his own right.
In addition to your new album, Timeless, you are also doing a radio show, Saturday Nights With Tony Orlando, streaming at WABCradio.com. How are you liking it?
To my amazing surprise, I am having a ball. I introduce my favorite records. I’m on the phone with Lionel Richie, who’s a friend. The show’s become a monster. And it’s being heard around the world because of streaming. I’m getting mail from Taiwan and London.
What else do you have on the horizon?
We were working on the story of my life called Rooftop Dreams and were scheduled to go to Broadway before the pandemic so, hopefully, that opening night will happen in the future.
— Reporting by Amanda Champagne-Meadows