Hell’s Kitchen, a west-side Manhattan neighborhood, gazed west across the Hudson River at Weehawken and Union City, New Jersey. The third great wave of Puerto Rican immigrants began shortly after the Second World War and many of those seeking to leave their impoverished island headed north for the gold-paved streets of Western Manhattan.
To their dismay, the tired, poor, huddled masses that arrived prior…the Italians, Poles, Russians, Hungarians and others…were far less welcoming and congenial. Those opportunities, promised and imagined, were trampled and quelled by heated racism, by minimal economic circumstances and substantial violence. Best stated by an unknown immigrant, “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold, second, they weren’t paved at all and third, I was expected to pave them.”
The struggles, best depicted in the American film and theater tragedy, “West Side Story,” complicated the lives of those who traveled great distances to improve family circumstance.
Leo and Ruth Cassavitas raised Michael Anthony Orlando (Tony) and his younger sister, Rhonda Marie, in their working-class precinct of Hell’s Kitchen amidst the doo-wop and discrimination that enveloped them. While the newly-constructed Lincoln Tunnel facilitated physical movement in and out of the congested city, it did little to provide much-needed economic mobility for immigrants yearning to breathe free.
That aforementioned tunnel eventually led the Cassavitas family beneath the Hudson River and to a new subsistence in New Jersey.
The now-adolescent Tony Orlando, at the unfledged age of 15, determined that his pathway out of Union City was built upon a remarkable singing voice and a passion for entertaining. The reverberation of acapella in the subway or within a sidewalk doorway energized Tony and by gaining the attention of “The Man with the Golden ear,” Bronx-born music publisher Don Kirshner, Orlando was paving a far brighter and lucrative road for himself.
Two platinum and three gold albums later…with five number-one hits…three American Music Awards…two People’s Choice Awards…Tony Orlando brings his unending affection for music and his unparalleled dedication to the needs of American veterans to the Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee on Saturday, March 24.
And while millions of fans of popular music will forever associate Orlando with his plethora of heartening and cheerful Billboard hits, there are an untold number of American veterans who see far more than a man with a microphone. Additionally, in honor of his sister, Rhonda, who struggled with Cerebral Palsy, Tony worked annually on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association for roughly three decades as the host of the New York City segment of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon on WWOR.
Always friendly and amenable, Tony was kind enough to take time out of an exceedingly demanding schedule to chat with us and to reveal and expound upon his perpetual devotion and commitment to those who have served in our nation’s military. The transcript below has been lightly edited:
Gary Levine: Tony…let’s go back, a bit, to the beginning…to the early and mid 1950’s on the west side of Manhattan and to your family’s subsequent move to New Jersey. Growing up in those areas, with the rise in popularity of what would later be referred to as the “doo-wop” genre of music, it appears that you were enamored by the sound and harmony of this music. Would you mind sharing some of your recollections of that time, maybe an anecdote about The Five Gents…or perhaps tell us about your parents and how that passion for music laid the foundation for the wonderful career that you have enjoyed?
Tony Orlando: “Well, I come from a household where music was very prevalent. My mother and her sisters had a group, the four sisters, they would sing in the house. They were phenomenal! Great harmonies. My grandfather was the head of Latin Local 802. He was a first trumpet in the Desi Arnaz orchestra.”
Local 802, the American Federation of Musicians, is the largest union representing professional musicians, vocalists, writers, arrangers, etc. With a history dating back to 1860 (then called the Musical Mutual Protective Union), the group sought fair wages for the members.
“But, what really struck me was when living in New York in 1957, 58, I was just taken by Doo-Wop, as you put it. Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers was my first exciting…you know…’Why Do Fools Fall in Love.’ I couldn’t get over it! I fell in love with The Spaniels and The Dells. Then Doo-Wop literally became my life. To quote Paul Simon, ‘All Roads Lead Back to Doo-Wop.’ It’s so true…it’s so true…although people don’t realize that that form of music was a very, very important component to what we call Rock and Roll and popular music. So, I was part of a group called The Five Gents. The guys were older than me. I was the ‘Frankie Lymon’ of the group…the little kid with the high voice. And, unbeknownst to me, it was going to school…it was going to college…it was learning harmony…it was learning how to perform. It was learning how to cooperate with other singers. Then, when the group broke up because one of the members of the group had Cancer and died at a very young age, the group was stranded. I went on to try to find myself a record company.”
“So, I would take my guitar…I think I knew three chords on the guitar…so, I played ‘La Bamba’ every time I showed up. I walked into offices, starting on the top floor of the Brill Building, and worked my way down.”
The Brill Building, seated at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan, was the brick and mortar home of popular music. Her 11 stories of offices served as the early workplaces for future legends such as Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Hal David, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mercer…to name but a few. The designation “Brill Building Sound” emerged as a result of the torrent of exceptional American pop-music that emanated from the building’s occupants and hallways.
“I’d knock on the door and audition. ‘Pass!’ Knock on the door…audition…’pass.’ I’m nervous! I was 15 years old. So, I’d walk from my house on 21st Street to Broadway, which is forty-some-odd blocks…almost 50 blocks.”
Just over 400 feet to the northeast, at Broadway’s intersection with West 51st Street, stood the 1650 building.
“Then, finally, I went to a building called 1650 Broadway…which is right near the Winter Garden (Theatre)…where really all of the younger writers were. The ‘older’ writers were at the Brill Building. And, so this one building fit my age demographic. Finally, I ended up on the sixth floor of that building, auditioning for Don Kirshner…thanks to my friend, Brooks Arthur.”
“Brooks Arthur, by the way, is now the main music person in Adam Sandler’s life. He was my first manager and brought me to Don Kirshner who then got my first record deal…put me together with Carole King…recorded ‘Halfway to Paradise,’ a number one record…and, I was on my way at 16 years old.”
While Tony mentioned his fledgling success, it is worth noting that the youngster joined extremely rarified company having three Billboard Top 100 hits prior to reaching his 17th birthday.
Gary Levine: So, let’s put this into perspective. At the age of 16, you’re rubbing elbows with the likes of Berry Gordy, Carole King and her husband, Gerry Goffin, Don Kirshner and the folks at Epic Records. Aside from being extremely talented, how were you so fortunate to gain the recognition of these industry giants?
Tony Orlando: “We were all with that office, Gary. Carole King and myself and Neil Sedaka and Connie Francis and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil…we were all part of that office. I was paid $50 per week. Remember…I’m 16 years old…$50 a week in 1961 was a lot of money. He (Don Kirshner) would say ‘If you make it, I get my money back. If you don’t, it’s my loss.’ And that was the way he approached it. He and his partner, Al Nevins, had us all on one floor, the sixth floor, and everybody from Paul Simon to Carole King and all these great artists…we were together before any of us had a hit! The only one that was having a hit, at that time, was Neil Sedaka. Paul Simon (and Art) were called ‘Tom and Jerry.’ They weren’t even called ‘Simon and Garfunkel.’”
After a brief pause, Tony continued.
“Carole used to take me to her house in Brooklyn, with her husband Gerry, and I used to do all of the demos for the songs that she wrote…like ‘Up on the Roof’ and ‘When My Little Girl is Smiling’. So, I used to do all her demos for the Drifters. I would do demos for her. She’d say ‘Sound like Bobby V. on this,’ and ‘Sound like Ben E. King’ and I’d try to sound like Ben E. King. And, by doing so, she was really giving me a college education in popular music…but, I didn’t realize it then.”
Gary Levine: You were hired as General Manager of April Blackwood Music. You were all of 23 years of age working with Clive Davis. I would imagine that accepting such a position would inhibit you from recording. This is quite a bit for a young man that age to handle. Could you take us back to the time around 1967 when all of this was happening?
Tony Orlando: “I stopped recording…on purpose though, Gary. I wanted that job because I had gotten married. I had to support my family and I was a kid. I was married at 20 years old. But, at the time, The Beatles, The Stones, the English Invasion stopped a lot of American acts from working. And I couldn’t afford to stay home. There were no bookings for me. So, I went to work for Clive. I worked my way up to General Manager/Vice President of CBS Music for four years…April Blackwood Music. He (Clive) was responsible for giving me a great opportunity that I’ll never forget him for.”
Gary Levine: You appeared compelled to record “Candida” a few years later. If I understand the circumstances, Hank Medress asked you to sing and, at the time, you might have had concerns regarding a potential career conflict. It was 1970 and a whole lot was going on in your career. What made you decide to record “Candida” with Toni Wine and Linda November?
Tony Orlando: “Well, I signed Barry Manilow. I was producing his first records. I was representing James Taylor. I was representing ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears.’ I was Vice President of CBS’ publishing division and I was only 23 years old. So, when I met Hank (Medress), he came to me in 1969. I was still with Clive and he said ‘Tony, you gotta do me a favor. I’m broke.'”
Medress, like Orlando, was a Doo-Wop vocalist from New York. He performed with the Linc-Tones…a Lincoln High School (Brooklyn) group that included Neil Sedaka. The group eventually re-emerged as The Tokens, included brothers Mitch and Phil Margo and Jay Siegel and, in 1962, released “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
“‘I (Medress) need $3,000 to pay my rent.’ I must tell you…Hank also produced The Chiffons, he produced a lot of hits as a record producer. But he was in trouble financially.”
Apparently, Medress believed that if Orlando could sign one of his clients, he would be eligible for a cash advance.
“But we were a publishing company, not a record company. So, he plays me ‘Candida,’ as you’ve heard it. Only…the lead singer wasn’t me…it was another singer. I said that I would take the record over to Bell Records and maybe they’ll like it. So, I take the record over to my friend at Bell Records. And, Larry Uttal, who’s the president of the company…I said ‘How about this record? It will cost you $3,000 to buy it.’ He said, ‘You got a deal.’ I said, ‘Oh, wonderful.’ Larry said ‘Under one condition…you have to change the lead singer. I love the record, I love the song, I love the production…I don’t like the lead singer.’”
Tony continued. “‘Let me go back and tell Hank.'”
“‘Tony, you record it,'” replied Hank Medress. “‘You used to do all of the demos for Carole King! No one will know it’s you!'”
“I said, ‘Hank, I can’t do that! I work for a different record company.'”
“‘Please, Tony, I need the money. I’m broke'”
“Finally, I said, ‘Hey Hank, I’ll tell you what. We’ll go in the studio tonight and we’ll learn the song. I got one hour to learn the song and put my vocal on it. If we don’t put it on in an hour, I’m outta here.'”
“So, I go on into the studio and he’s helping me. He gives me the first line, ‘The stars won’t come out if they know that you’re about.’ I’d stop the tape, ‘What’s the next line?’ And, he’d give me the next line. I’d stop the tape. “What’s the next line?’ So, I recorded my vocal within the hour and walk out of the studio. I said, ‘You got your three thousand, now, leave me alone…but don’t call it ‘Tony Orlando.’ I don’t care what you call it or the group name but it’s not me! I don’t want to lose my job.”
Over my snickering, Tony continued.
“So, what does he do? He puts the name of the group on the label after the name of the daughter of the president of the record company…Dawn…her name was Dawn. So, he called the group ‘Dawn.’ Not Tony Orlando and Dawn…just Dawn.”
“Well, the record comes out, three months later, and I look on the charts and I see this record that seemingly going up to number one…and, it’s me…and I couldn’t tell anybody!”
“And it goes to number one, Gary. And, I’m hearing, on the radio ‘And, that’s number one, Candida, by Dawn!’ And, no one knows the story. I had no contract with Hank. I have no record deal with him. I’m not making five cents…not even a penny off of that record. He finally comes to me and says ‘I really owe you, but you gotta do me a favor. You gotta cut this song ‘Knock Three Times.'”
Tony kindly waited for my giggling to subside before continuing.
“I said, ‘Hank, this is not right.'”
“Well, I cut ‘Knock Three Times’ for him…still, no one knows it’s me. It goes to number one! Two number one records in a row…six million sales.”
Following a conversation with Medress, record sales through the roof, Tony decides that he needs to speak with his boss, Clive Davis.
“So, I go to Clive and tell him that I’m leaving the company. He says, ‘I know why you’re leaving…you’re ‘Dawn,’ right? I said, ‘You’ve known all this time that I’m Dawn?'”
“‘It’s the worst kept secret in the record business, Tony'” Clive replied. “‘Go find your dream! And, if it doesn’t happen for you, you can always come home.'”
Gary Levine: While we’re on the subject of Candida, here’s a trivia question for you: do you recall who the original singer was on the “Candida” track?
Tony Orlando: “Forgive me, I don’t remember his name.”
Gary Levine: It was Frankie Paris.
Tony Orlando: “Oh! Okay, Frankie Paris. And, Frankie Paris was an excellent singer. He was a great singer. But, he didn’t match the song. That happens all the time. It wasn’t that he was bad! Frankie really was a great singer!”
Paris was a Boston-born tenor with a strong voice, however, that voice was far better suited for soul and for the blues. Paris became a fixture in Greenwich Village, was a regular band member on the Dana Cravey Show and has performed and with and opened for a number of prestigious musicians including the great B.B. King.
Gary Levine: So, things are going well at this time. After “Knock Three Times,” you recruited Joyce Wilson and Telma Hopkins and began touring. Irwin Levine co-wrote “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” I just wanted to mention that he had co-written “Candida” along with Toni Wine and also co-wrote “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose.” Sadly, Irwin passed away at a very young age but not before writing some wonderful material.
Tony Orlando: “By the way, Joyce and Telma had an unbelievable career in Detroit!”
Tony reminded me of the prominent work of both women. Hopkins had done extensive Motown work that included performances with the likes of The Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. Additionally, she sang back-up for Isaac Hayes and appears on the “Theme from Shaft” album. Joyce Vincent Wilson was originally asked to replace the irreplaceable Mary Wilson of “The Supremes.” She ultimately performed with remaining members, Susaye Greene and Scherrie Payne, in a backing capacity.
“I asked them if they wanted to be part of the group and continue to record with me and go on the road. They said yes. And, we went out and became ‘Tony Orlando and Dawn.’ But their careers and backgrounds…forget about it…it’s historical!”
Tony paused, then went on.
“Toni Wine is still in my band. We’ve been working together for 50 years!”
Also a Brill-Building legend, Toni Wine is a classical pianist and a Julliard prodigy. The singer-songwriter co-wrote for “The Shirelles,” worked with singer-songwriter, Carole Baker, with whom she co-wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love,” which has been recorded and covered by…ummm…everybody, including “The Mindbenders.” Toni later became a member of “The Archies” and performed with Willie Nelson and Gene Pitney.
“Toni married Chips Moman and Chips produced all of the Elvis records,” Tony continued. “But she’s been on the road with me know…oh, my God…I can’t count how many years.”
Gary Levine: So…it’s 1973 and your popularity is escalating at an incredible rate and I assume that you were approached by CBS regarding a weekly television show. How did that come about?
Tony Orlando: “Well, the Westbury Music Fair was a theater in Long Island. It had a lot of big names working there. ‘The Fifth Dimension’ was supposed to open for Cher. Cher got sick with the flu. That put ‘The Fifth Dimension’ in the star-spot. We were managed by Marc Gordon…who was the manager of ‘The Fifth Dimension’ at that time. And, so we opened for ‘The Fifth’ and the President of CBS, Fred Silverman, happened to come to see Cher…not knowing that she canceled that night. He comes backstage and he says ‘How would you like to have a summer replacement show?’ I was dumbfounded. I’ll never forget.”
“’When you walk through the audience, can you do that on a TV show,’” Silverman inquired.
“I said, ‘sure.'”
“‘Well, how would we rehearse that…because that’s ad libbed?'”
“Well, you don’t rehearse it,’ Tony responded. “I guess you treat it like a football game…follow the ball.”
“So, he said, ‘I’ll tell you what. We have a replacement spot, in July, on CBS. We’d like to have you.’ And, that’s what started it. All because Cher got sick, God bless her. She got the flu and we got cast in the right moment…at the right time…with the president of CBS there. He was also the guy who discovered the ‘Sonny and Cher’ show, by the way.
“And didn’t your show kind of replace ‘Sonny and Cher,” I asked.
“No, no, no. Cher was divorced from Sonny. She had her own show, if you remember. But Freddy (Silverman) really shaped our show to a carbon-copy, kind of, like that of ‘Sonny and Cher.’ In other words, the humor between Telma and I was very much the kind of humor between Cher and Sonny. She (Telma) would knock me and put me down. If it wasn’t for ‘Sonny and Cher,’ there would be no ‘Tony Orlando and Dawn’.”
Gary Levine: You experienced some difficult times, later on in the 1970’s, which included the passing of both your sister and your friend, Freddie Prinze. While these issues could have easily ended practically anyone’s career, you appear to have refused to allow that to happen and renewed your prosperous career in Las Vegas. I’m confident that many of our readers are dealing with difficulties. What’s the secret to getting oneself upright again? Can you tell us a bit about this period and how you found the strength to return to music?
Tony Orlando: “You know something, Gary? There’s an old expression: you gotta be far enough down to want to look up. Quite frankly, it was time for me to look up to a much stronger power. And, I gave up my heart and soul to the Lord. I felt that I was not being obedient. I felt that I was being self-destructive. I lost three of the most important people. I lost my sister, Rhonda, who was the cornerstone of my life. And, I lost my grandfather the same year, who raised me like a dad, and then I lost a first-time good buddy-friend of mine who was almost like a brother to me when I lost Freddie Prinze…all at the same time. And, I lost Freddie Prinze in front of my very eyes.”
Freddie Prinze, the father of actor, Freddie Prinze, Jr., was another product of the Hell’s Kitchen/Washington Heights area on Manhattan’s west side. Prinze, the funniest and potentially only “Hungarican,” rose from streets of New York by way of a remarkable stand-up comedy career that led to television appearances with Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Dean Martin…and many others. It was, however, his portrayal of Chico on the sitcom, “Chico and the Man,” alongside Jack Albertson, that made him an American treasure. Suffering from severe depression, soon to be divorced, the 22-year-old Prinze tragically ended his own life. He survived, on life-support at the UCLA Medical Center until the following day, when his family decided to remove him from life-support equipment.
“The last pair of lips to kiss his lips were mine. And they pulled the plug. So, those kinds of moments have a great impact on people’s lives. Everybody has something that impacts them that is life-changing. I realized that I had been through a very self-destructive period in my life. It was time to take a sabbatical. It was time to pray. And, it was time to start looking at the simpler things in life. My sister taught me, growing up…she had Cerebral Palsy…and she had an IQ of an 8-month-old child until the day she died at 21, but she taught me a great lesson. She wasn’t able to scratch her own itch. I had to find it for her. And that said something to me. It’s the simple things in life that matter. The ability to scratch your own itch. Well, it was time for me to get simple…and to back off. What I did was, I took a year to…to put it bluntly…to find God, to find my soul, to reconstruct myself as a man, to reevaluate myself as a human being, to realize how many people I had let down and try to make it up to them. And, then it was time to dust yourself off, get back up on my feet and start all over again. My faith in God and my ability to put the brakes on, like I did, I was able to motor up again. Now, it’s my 57th year in this business.”
And, while Orlando emerged with the same extraordinary talents and with the same canorous voice, it was his sensitivity towards the needs of others and a commitment to work tirelessly to utilize the popularity gained from one yellow ribbon to improve the lives of thousands of others.
Tony Orlando will be performing on March 24 at the Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee. Another excellent Jay Goldberg Events and Entertainment event, some tickets remain for this upcoming performance.
Click here to purchase tickets.
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