The San Andreas Fault troubles him deeply: Like all easterners, he sees L.A. as an Eldorado with the sun roof stuck open, a pastel pimpmobile with a serious shimmy, and he feels to some degree each of the 543 yearly earth tremors noted by La Jolla seismologists. “You think you dreamed it and the next morning somebody says, ‘Feel the little tremor last night?’ There is no such thing as a little tremor! God, they’re so cool about it!” Tony Orlando offers that over dinner in his house in Encino.
In two hours, at the end of his taped CBS show, he’ll be seen with a hand mike out in the middle of the auditorium, singing an old song to a new TV studio audience: long-haired kids on their feet singing with him, an audience once seen in such numbers only at outdoor rock concerts. And at any moment, on AM radio, some cut from his several current charted albums may be heard. He is one of the unique success stories of the Seventies, but that knowledge doesn’t stabilize him. Incredibly, three bites of steak after he’s said the word “earthquake,” the glass doors behind him rattle faintly, a ripple traverses his swimming pool. It’s the wind, his placid, satirical wife Elaine assures him, but he won’t buy that. “Now we’re supposed to sit here, calmly eating! Okay, I will now assume the California attitude. I will pretend to be cool.”
He trembles, though; he’s not by nature detached, a pretender, which is really why his music and presence are so ingratiating and why, to CBS’s amazement, he’s done so well in TV variety, a form considered by media experts to be almost moribund. It is at least in trouble — though the networks don’t perceive why because the reason’s obvious: TV variety has cooled itself out. In the Fifties, Uncle Miltie and Sid Caesar sensed what the culture would require of televised musical comedy and evolved a format based on old-time vaudeville, which is traceable backward not to the cool Palladian drama of Greece but to the pig-bladder Orpheum-circuit farce of Rome. Roman promoters simply took the high-blown Grecian style and broadened it for mass audiences and, of course, Rome eventually beat out Greece in the ratings.
Carol Burnett, a Sixties phenomenon, took Milton Berle’s aura and refined it to a high-comic level not seen before on the screens of Des Moines; but Burnett increasingly based her humor on chilly satirizations of Des Moines, first in her whining, soap-opera-addict hausfrau characters, next in the nasal, carping, small-minded “Family” sketches. Even her opening studio-audience chats became so patronizing that Des Moines noticed, and Des Moines does not really cotton to being satirized on TV.
What the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher, together and then separately, gleaned from watching high-rated Burnett was only Carol’s cool (unfortunately, Mac Davis never learned anything from anyone and the Hudson Brothers aped Magilla Gorilla). How contained and effortless was Burnett’s ambiance! Except that when the Smothers and Bonos tried to reproduce it, it came out contrived, remote, somnambulistic (take that Smothers show, in which they found themselves with two final minutes’ extra time, informed the audience of this, filled the time with smirking, catatonic silence and coolly aired this humorless taped faux pas).
Tony Orlando, fortunately, never studied the way his peers were handling their shows because it never occurred to him he’d need to. He and Dawn — Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson — were too preoccupied singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” to the tour-circuit clientele, proving there was something, musically, to leave the house for besides transvestite rock and George Harrison’s sloe-eyed purveying of Eastern philosophies. Tony and the girls never even watched television; they were never near a set, except when they’d collapse in hotel rooms after gigs in time for the Late Late Show. When CBS suddenly offered them a summer-replacement spot in July of ’74 (a last-minute effort to fill the time slot vacated by the maritally defunct Bonos), they’d taped the shows, signed on for the fall and were into winter taping literally without a 24-hour introspection break.
This showed in their shows: At first their comedy was nowhere near Burnett’s or Sonny and Cher’s or even Sonny’s, even Cher’s; their early style was pure Midnight Special but they were clearly aware of this and unembarrassed by it. Frankly inexperienced, they began by offering what they already had, a loose sunny friendliness. They’d never read comic lines before, anywhere, ever, and you could witness their growth week to week, a quickening grasp of comic delivery, a developing instinct for the seasoned entertainer’s trick of making arid material look landscaped and irrigated by a controlled, throwaway satirizing of it. By kidding their own racial mixture, they kidded all of TV’s new ethnicity. All their songs were not attempting to be anything; like their comedy, like Tony, Telma and Joyce themselves, “Yellow Ribbon,” “Sweet Gypsy Rose” and “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch with Sally?” were never hyped because somebody feared that without hype, vacuity would be detected. The music was very innocuous and very pleasant, after years of pop music’s striving for significance.
Not that you bothered, watching them, to define any of this: You expected from them nothing worth defining and got something amorphous but somehow welcome, and not at all cool. Neither is the thought of having to analyze it very attractive: It’s not an enlivening prospect, being cleared by the intricate security system which protects all TV stars, especially new ones, only to find, backstage at Television City, Hollywood, a smiling bubblegum entrepreneur. The Farmers Market next door, with its Hollywood souvenir racks and tourists from the Farmer’s Daughter Motel across Fairfax Avenue, is equally inviting.
The appointment with Tony is for noon sharp, the start of his quick-lunch break. Television stars, especially new ones, can be counted on to be very late for appointments with the press, and to enter looking inconvenienced, still in conference with their new, indispensable entourages. Tony simply explodes, that is the right word, into the office CBS has provided him, alone and precisely on time; explodes because his energy’s as keenly focused as a laser’s and as powerful because it’s genuine. Energy, like a smile, is often rehearsed by stars for interviewers, and when you’re used to that, the ersatz is a Farmers Market souvenir, the real something out of Cartier’s window. (With his enthusiasm, Tony also breaks a cardinal interview rule: Never seem anxious to speak to journalists or to be mentioned in their publications.)
“This is terrific, Rolling Stone, but I’m curious, why’d they want to write about me, my music is hardly what they’re into, is it? You’re from New York too, right? You feel the earthquake Tuesday? Yes, there was one. Look, I’m sorry I’ve only got this short break today but we tape tomorrow. Whenever I’m not on we can talk and I’ve got the next taping off.” Manhattan street sounds press subtly on certain words, like his “right?”
“Come over to the house if you want. It’s really funny, I’m finally in Rolling Stone, and I’ve been in this business since I was 15. You remember ‘Halfway to Paradise’? Right, that was me — 1961! I’ll tell you about that, it’s a long story; look, the point is, I got used to lousy reviews very young, a bad review does not destroy me, a critic knocks me to death and I don’t like it but I can read it and think, maybe the guy has a point, you learn nothing from reading that you’re terrific. I always picked my own music; for this show I’ve picked the comedy, the songs, the approach. If it’s lousy, I’m to blame, tell me right here it’s lousy, I’ll say, why? Let’s figure it out, this is a new medium to me, maybe I’m still just scared, maybe I haven’t meshed, which element is off? But to say what Newsweek did!”
Jesus Christ, he adds untypically, goddamn; he doesn’t seem to smoke much either but suddenly he’s chain-smoking Kents, pacing the small room like a ferret after a garter snake. “Newsweek sent this guy, I told him, print anything you want about the show, say we stink if you think so, but one thing: The proudest thing in my life is that we are the first black and white group ever to have our own prime-time network show, a Puerto Rican Greek and two black girls. And you saw what he wrote?” The large face detonates into a gargoyle smile. “He actually said that because Telma and Joyce are black, they’re paid less than I am. They had to hold me back from murdering him. To have that in print! A lot of people read Newsweek, don’t they?”
Not seriously. But this doesn’t placate him. “You’d expect it from the National Enquirer, but Newsweek? Ask the girls: Telma, Joyce and I have breathed together on the road for four years, we’ve spent every cent we’ve made to build to where we are, I can show you the account books. I did show ’em to Newsweek and they print I’m a racist! Look, I’m being redundant and melodramatic, but the pride of my life is that the girls and I together climbed mountains from Top 40 bubblegum bull to here, and each of us started in ghettos…”
To ease him out of Newsweek wrath, you compliment him on “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” the writing of it. With marked grace, he eases you out of that error. “You like the song? Yeah, I can tell you really do, it’s kind of New York jazzy, kind of Broadway, it’s fun; one problem, though, I didn’t write it. But listen, it’s okay, everybody thinks I did, that just happens when a song becomes identified with you, becomes a signature. It’s about an actual guy who was in jail in Jacksonville, Florida. ‘I’m comin’ home, I’ve done my time……’ I did a POW benefit and when I sang that line, 53,000 guys were on their feet cheering…”
The intercom has begun complaining and he must go back upstairs to Studio 31 which is, the day before the audience files in for the taping, still a tangle of half-finished sets and chain-smoking technicians shouting at each other over paper coffee cups. At the center of the big stage, Telma and Joyce wait calmly smiling for a cue, the eye of this hurricane; Tony grabs an astounding Afro wig and takes his place between them, soul growling the opening bars of “St. James Infirmary.” Joyce the gentle instructs him, “Tony, you don’t just sing the blues. It’s a way of life. Our people lived the blues a hundred years ago, picking cotton.”
“I’ve picked cotton.”
“Q-tips don’t count,” terrible Telma offers. “I been eatin’ chicken all my life, that don’t mean I can lay an egg.” Regarding their three birth signs, Tony recites, “Scorpio the scorpion, Sagittarius the archer, and me, Aries……”
“The Puerto Rican.”
“Aries has nothing to do with Puerto Ricans.”
“Neither did we till we met you.”
No, it isn’t Noel Coward, but they’re having fun with it, with pervasive ethnicity, with their own origins. Even the cynical technical people laugh. Of course, in the control room, no one’s amused, especially on the last rehearsal day, absorbed in coordinating three cameras and dozens of separate shots, live sound, recorded sound and six child actors who, by law, can’t work past 6:00 p.m. Control room dialog, shouted into mikes to the cameramen and stage managers, consists of “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, cue Joyce, Camera Two, goddamnit, hit Tony, One, hit Telma, aw shit, Telma’s out of range, hit her, Camera Three, Shot 19 head-to-toe on Tony, stand by, music, 4, 3, 2, the son-of-a-bitching lights are off! Shit, cut! Tell ’em all to take five for coffee. Stow the fucking kids in the prop room…”
In the mellow leather-and-chrome living room of Tony’s dressing-room suite, he laughs into a diet-soda can. “Insanity, the control room, I’ve been in there, I want to learn exactly how the show’s shot.” Behind him, his smiling black dresser arranges the studded, sequined costumes the public sees; off camera, he wears quiet sweaters and pressed dark slacks. “The lines the girls and I were just doing, the attitude — we did do that schtick one other place: in buses, planes and hotel rooms. Telma’s skepticism, Joyce’s gentle prodding, we just fell into that, the three of us, on the road, that’s exactly how we’d always kid around, and when we started this show, I wanted the writers to pick up on it. Like in that exchange you heard, silly as it is, I’m the white guy into the black man’s sexual mystique; I’m the guy who’s always heard that black guys sing blues better, dance better, fuck better, and what’s funny is me coming out imitating that and the girls saying,’No way, white boy.’
The Superfly outfit’s funny, so is a white guy wearing it to be sexier. You’ve got that going in the sketch, also a bow to black pride, because Joyce and Telma, like a lot of blacks now, are confident enough of their blackness they can kid it. When the audience comes in tomorrow, you’ll see a lot of young white longhairs. It still amazes me they’re into my songs — they’re the ones buying “Yellow Ribbon” and “Sweet Gypsy Rose” — but I’m not surprised that they’re into the humor of this integrated group. And the humor’s natural, honest, because those kids you cannot kid ……”
His manager, Dick Broder, hardly older than those kids, hovers politely in the doorway, awaiting a pause to announce Tony’s needed onstage. When he’s gone, Dick nods awhile, silently smiling. “I think I know why they’re into Tony’s music,” he offers tentatively. “In the Sixties, musicianship was what counted — the progressive rock artists were musicians first, entertainers second, except they finally got so self-indulgent, the audience got secondary, an artist did a 45-minute guitar solo for himself, his head. I think audiences just want to be entertained again. Music had to go back to something theatrical, where it started, and Tony’s got a good theater sense. They’re not out there to marvel over his vocal ability — though he is a musician, if you’re coming to the prerecord tonight, you’ll see ……”
Tony’s been present for this in an Orwellian sense: The color monitor over the sofa transmits him from his rehearsal outside. Dick exits discreetly when he returns. “Did you ever see a guy who looks less like a manager? Tom, he was the only one who stuck with us when we were nowhere, who really cared about us, who I could trust; he’ll always be with us, getting a commission whether we’re up or down. We were playing the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island two summers ago, it was Dick who called to say Fred Silverman was going to catch us. I didn’t even know Fred Silverman, like, ran CBS! Fred came backstage after the show and gave us the summer spot right there. I went nuts, cried, ran into the girls’ dressing rooms, picked both of ’em up and swung ’em around, they didn’t believe it till the day we walked in the Artists’ Entrance outside. Then they had to believe fast — we’d never even read a cue card — and we had two weeks to tape four shows, you’ve seen what it’s like out there to tape one a week, even after you know something about TV, and we hadn’t a clue.
“And the producers and writers, they didn’t know what a Tony Orlando and Dawn was. I was very naive, I described right away what we should do — like the girls’ two characters, Lou Effie and Moreen, they’d come from that hotel-room kidding; I talked about doing what I called a ‘Walter Mitty’ spot — like singing the blues in the Afro wig — and the concert spot at the end, where I go out into the audience, like I’d always done in live performance. Naive, because TV, I found out, never trusts one individual’s concept of a show, especially a novice’s — except mine! They actually let me go with this! Even the concert spot: They let me go, that first taping, one hour with the audience, knowing it’d have to be edited down to two minutes, knowing what it would cost in extra tape and union overtime. TV is not a place you experiment and they let me! You gotta believe, I have very few bad things to say about CBS ……”
As he talks, the dresser’s gotten him into a vaguely Regency tux: He must supervise, prerecord and make the Golden Globe Awards by 8:05. Outside, there’s a limo for him and, at the Artists’ Entrance, the usual loitering TV fans, clutching Farmers Market trophies, which they sometimes use as weapons to gain closest proximity to entering or exiting stars. Other big CBS names find secret exits from the building or use entourages for a flying-wedge offense. When tonight’s crowd shouts “Tony, Tony!” he embraces them, not quite literally, but his affection for them, like his energy, is unprogrammed. As soon as he’s in the limousine, the driver accelerates. “Wait, please,” he says. They have rushed the car, and one girl is kissing the glass next to his head. This is when stars, inaudible behind glass, snarl through steel-trap public smiles, Look at them, Jesus Christ, let’s split. Tony lowers the window and kisses the girl. A cheer goes up.
“What’s this mean?” On the way to the recording studio he studies the Golden Globe’s special instructions to presenters. ” ‘Pause,’ this says, ‘so the ladies can be photographed.’ Pause where, when? I’m supposed to present the best TV actress in a series, I think. ‘And a special pause to give Valerie Harper equal time.’ That means she’s already won, I thought this stuff was supposed to be secret. Equal time for what? God, it’s like high school commencement.” He’s jittery, though he tries hard not to carry his nerves into the studio, where his show’s orchestra already waits. “I wonder,” he says, sotto voce, hurrying in, “do people know that TV shows prerecord all the musical numbers and then lip-sync on camera, to save the expense of an orchestra rehearsing and performing with you? I don’t like it but it’s one rule I can’t break. I guess people know. I wonder, though, if they think we’re ripping them off?”
Clearly, the question nags him as he smiles, pleasantly supervising the orchestra through their background track for “Abraham, Martin and John.” In the control booth, Dick Broder whispers, “I don’t think there’s another prime-time TV entertainer who ever bothers with what the orchestra does in prerecord, the musical director always does it, then the star comes in and just lays his vocal on top.”
Through the booth’s window, the musicians seem sealed in a dim pastel aquarium, Tony a caricature in his tux, the tasteful tuna of the Star-Kist commercial. “Fellas, that next-to-last phrase is a retard, and could the guitar please give me the plunk-plunk until the last fourth, then the electric guitar, would that feel comfortable? I’m not getting a modulation there but I’m the one missing it, not you guys.” An hour of this and he announces, “The girls’ll be over by the time I get back, fellas, we should have the voice track by midnight,” and we’re back in the limousine.
In its dark recesses, where no one watches, he permits himself a single long weary growl; then, with curious bright urgency, he explains about Bobby Darin. He’d idolized him as a kid, got introduced to him; Darin gave him a gold necktie which he wore in his first publicity picture for his first record, “Halfway to Paradise.” His first employer, Donny Kirshner, was Darin’s partner and best friend. His first album happened to include the song “Splish Splash” and the album happened to be given its first push by Murray the K, who’d written “Splish Splash” with Darin. Tony’s present musical conductor, Bobby Rozario, was Darin’s. Tony closed the old Copacabana in New York, which was Darin’s home base, and was singing “Yellow Ribbon,” which Darin was going to record, at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans, another Darin base, the night Darin died.
There’s more, and he recites the whole, odd litany, which seems without significance or point except to him. Entertainers are fond of tracing these parallels to the lives of other entertainers; they lend a sense of continuity to progression through a schizophrenic professional maze.
Like the one at the Beverly Hilton. Inside the hotel, at the Golden Globes, he’ll be seated, significantly, with Lucille Ball, Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Carol Channing, Merle Oberon, Richard Chamberlain; when it’s time to honor Valerie Harper, he’ll do so with smiling grace, introducing himself with, “First, I am not Freddie Prinze.” The award given, he’ll hurry out, back to the recording session, commenting in the car, “I never saw all those people together in person before, blew my mind. My real name’s Michael Anthony Orlando Cassivitis, with an ‘i,’ but I think my grandfather changed it from ‘e’ when he came from Greece. I told John Cassavetes just now, blew his mind.”
He repeats this absently, his mind still on our chilling entrance into the Hilton, where mobs of celebrity watchers, frenzied in klieg lights behind police barriers, resemble the extras John Schlesinger hired for The Day of the Locust. As Tony steps from his limo, Burt Reynolds steps self-cherishingly from his, and Valerie Perrine, stoned, from hers, and the overwhelmed crowd chews away the wooden police-line sawhorses, splintering them to touch Tony, Burt, Valerie; and down topples a big Hilton foyer lamp, its splintered glass shredding one fan’s eyes.
No one heeds this but a Hilton employee, apprehensive of a lawsuit, and one waits outside a moment to see if an ambulance comes — a mistake, for one’s been observed by the mob in Tony’s car and is instantly surrounded. “You know him! Let us take your picture! Sign my autograph book! Take it inside and make him sign it, please, please!” One’s sleeve is torn by a hunchbacked, effeminate boy as the screaming ambulance arrives.
He’s good at staying sane,” Dick Broder says when this is described to him. “I think Tony works at it. I think a lot of guys become good performers before they become good people, and with Tony it didn’t happen in that order. My opinion, anyway.”
We’re in the dressing room again, the next day; shortly, Television City’s gates will open to the locust swarm, the taping audience. Dick has remarked that he’s been living in a Hollywood apartment but has got to find something out of town, in the mountains, the desert, anywhere breathable. It tells on him, the highly concentrated, totally enclosed tensions of weekly taping, the Dante-esque sealed sound stage where time is measured only in prime minutes used and there is no exit to reality or daylight. Clearly he’s not accustomed to it, bafflement passes behind his eyes by week’s end, and like others connected with Tony who’ve been with him awhile, Dick likes to reminisce about the old loose road days; as when Tony bounds in from the stage for a break, accompanied by Kevin Davies, his drummer since 1971.
“When we’d all get on a bus, even a new bus, it’d instantly break down,” he explains. “Tony, remember, in Mississippi?”
“Right, Greenville, Mississippi, on the way to it from Memphis, the bus stops dead in a cotton field, we start walking …”
“Mosquitoes big enough to fuck turkeys!”
“Finally, one gas station with one diner in it; for five hours, 16 long-haired music freaks, all white except for the two black gals with ’em, drink coffee waiting for the repair truck. The locals could not cope with this, if there’d been less of us, it’d have been Easy Rider. And state fairs, where you cannot see the audience for the mosquitoes …”
Tony especially hates to be drawn from these recollections but he’s needed again without. “Tom, you’ve been around movies, I haven’t — is making movies as crazy as TV?” Infinitely worse. “But isn’t there less dialog?” He means less script shot in a day; yes, good directors don’t shoot more than two or three pages in nine hours. “Three pages? All day? God, that sounds easy.”
When he’s gone, Kevin adds, “Once I saw Tony do something I never saw another artist do: At a state fair there were 30,000 kids in the audience and, when we got there, about that many state troopers lined across the front of the stage with clubs in their hands. Tony was amazed, but he quietly told these guys that in crowds he draws, we never had problems. They weren’t impressed. ‘You can’t intimidate my audience this way,’ Tony told ’em — he can get very tough — and he went out onstage and said through the mike, ‘Please, tell these officers there’ll be no problems,’ and thousands of kids yell, ‘There ain’t gonna be no problems!‘ The cops moved back a bit, until the end of our show, when everybody always comes down front.
“The troopers freaked, the kids start yelling, we’re close to a riot; and Tony calmly takes the mike and says, ‘Usually, you hear me sing the last song, say goodnight and watch me leave the stage, but tonight we’re gonna reverse it, I’d like you to sing the last song, say goodnight, and I’ll stand here and watch you guys leave.’ They stopped in their tracks. ‘Right on,’ they yelled, and they sang ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’ to him and walked out still singing, happy as hell! And I’ve watched the biggest stars, Harrison, for instance, handle crowds horribly when they were really trying to handle ’em well. A crowd always becomes one person to Tony, a mob becomes one individual personality, very real and serious to him, and he’s got respect for that individual’s rights and needs.”
Naturally you wonder, about here, if anybody ever says anything negative about Tony, anything at least satirical. Later, you make industrious inquiries in TV and music — nobody ever does. A totally genuine and liked performer is, after all, hypothetically possible; just improbable if you’ve closely studied lots of them. As watchful as you’ve become of him, you’ve so far not made one critical note, and you don’t make one talking to Telma and Joyce either, though you’re alert for armor chinks.
Down the hall, in Telma’s dressing room, they’re eating Colonel Sanders suppers, and for openers you confront them with Newsweek‘s charges. They consider this politely a moment, then the couch they share shakes with their laughter.
“I’m sorry, we shouldn’t laugh, I know, it wasn’t really funny,” Telma, the spokeswoman, begins, “but at the same time, it was. So ridiculous! Tony gets a bit more than we do — he should, he’s the lead singer, the reason for all this — and neither of us could have gotten through one week of the last four years if we weren’t happy with the money and pretty damned devoted to Tony.” They laugh again, apologetically, knowing they’re not supposed to break up, as the CBS nurse hurries in and hurries Joyce out for a vitamin B injection. “Well, that was a nice interview, Tom, really enjoyed it,” and they both break up again. Telma says, “Excuse us, laughing, but it’s just our natural reaction to the idea of Tony as bigoted.”
When Joyce returns, she offers, with her soft, smiling reserve, “In a way, the crazy atmosphere of this studio was more familiar to Telma and me than it was to Tony: We’ve spent our lives in studios.” They both started singing in high school glee clubs and met in a Detroit studio in the late Fifties, each a member of a rival backup group. “Telma, what was the name of that first one you were in? I always forget.”
“The …… Debonnaires! I still have to think: In those days, for some reason, every group’s name started with ‘Deb’ something. And when Joyce says ‘rival,’ she means it! I think we were the only two Motown background singers who liked each other.”
They were also two of the biggest: Separately and together, they’d sung most of the background for Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, the Four Tops, Johnnie Taylor, Freda Payne, could be heard on “Band of Gold,” “Shaft,” “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” double etcetera. “It’s true, we were doing fine in background work, but we both were also getting a little tired of that closed in, hostile, studio-singer thing.” Joyce has added that; watching, it strikes you there may be no other current singer with eyes as remarkable as hers.
“We both liked Tony when we met him but neither of us exactly jumped at it when he proposed forming Dawn,” Telma concludes. “Everybody was always trying to get together a performing group, we’d heard lots of promises and seen no results. But Joyce and I had always talked about seeing Europe — and when Tony said our first tour together would start there, we jumped at it. Europe? Right on! We were still suspicious: We thought, well, after Europe, it’ll be over but so what? We couldn’t believe it when we started rehearsing, how quickly and well our voices blended, how we instantly got on as people, how much fun we were having, after those sour studio days.”
But then the days of buses and mosquitoes? “We could write a book about that,” Joyce asserts, “three books, but they’d be funny, because it was all somehow terribly funny to us. At least at first. Two years of Holiday Inns and you do get a little ugghhk. The regularity of this schedule now, of television, is fine with us.”
“Except,” Telma says, nodding, “it’s gone so fast that for one thing, we have no real way to see if we’re funny enough, or even singing right, until we watch it at home Wednesdays, when it always looks like it could have been better. Maybe we look cool out there but there’s Kleenex stuffed under our arms to catch the water.”
Come on, girls: Isn’t there any complaint at all about Tony? Anything will do. You just say that to them suddenly, interrupting. Very seriously, for once, Telma answers, “This will sound pretty sugary, so just leave it out of what you write if you want. But having our own TV show was something we never dreamed of. This whole career we never dreamed of, and we have Tony to thank for it, totally — not agents, managers, record companies, certainly not ourselves. It was his determination, along with this …… seriousness he has about people. I don’t know how else to say it. But I know we’ve both leaned on it, like it’s going out of style.”
One leaves them nodding in concert.
The taping that night doesn’t finish, counting several painstaking retakes, until 1:00 a.m. and Tony’s still signing autographs and talking with audience die-hards at 1:30. His wife, Elaine, a beautiful, wry, New York woman, watches the taping on his dressing room monitor with a smile that’s simultaneously proud and sardonic. “He’ll sign autographs as long as they want them, then on the way out he’ll have to speak to the security guards. We’ll get home sometime before dawn.”
Home in Encino the next afternoon, she answers the front door of their big contemporary ranch house, stifling an amused yawn. “Sorry, it was dawn. Tony’s with the music arranger, he called to tell you he’s on his way, how about a drink?” Another yawn. “Tony does overdo it. My opinion is, he could stop with courtesy. We’ve discussed it, he agrees, but…… I’m not antisocial, it’s just that the moments alone have become so precious. It was simpler when he worked in an office are we lived in Jersey. Also, I did like it better there, as opposed to California — where they screw you with a smile on their face and you’ve got only five words to learn — ‘groovy,’ ‘far-out,’ ‘fantastic,’ ‘super’ and ‘really.’ Oh, and your rising sign. I think Tony’ll settle down more when we move — we put this place up for sale a month after we bought it.”
She surveys the big living room, the fireplace, the Olympic pool outside. “The yard’s not really big enough, I have a son, 16, by a previous marriage, and John, our boy, is four. Oh, I don’t know if it’s really just the space: L.A. feels so transient, it’s in the air here. Maybe we’re already victims of that. Selling your house here is the principal hobby.”
Tony’s come in for the last phrase, grinning. He’s happy at home; clearly, Elaine’s presence rejuvenates him. “We both have to get back to New York for a visit, soon. God, it’s so complacent here, beaches, palm trees, you come in from the East and think, ‘Hey, paradise,’ and a week later, ‘Where is everything, what’s the world doing, I gotta get a newspaper!’ What I miss most is the New York street attitude. Grew up with it. When I do the concert spot at the end of the show, I try to feel that, moving out into the audience, the whole boisterous ease of it. I make the studio aisle my New York street. Street humor communicates everywhere, the nice basic feeling of hanging out, you know?”
Elaine’s gone to see to the new housekeeper; it’s her first day. “You want me to tell about that — I mean, start back on the streets and work up?” Deep breath, satiric grin. “Okay, but I warn you, it’s gonna sound corny, just the facts will: born, Manhattan. Song cue? Raised in what’s now called Chelsea, then it was Hell’s Kitchen, a true ghetto. You’ve heard this bit from Freddie Prinze, right? My folks were very poor, divorced when I was little. Mom remarried and they had a child, my half-sister, who was born with cerebral palsy. Mentally retarded. You’ve heard about that from Geraldo Rivera, But my sister’s important because she was the key to it all. She’s 20 now, has the mind of an eight-month-old child, she’s deformed from lying in bed so many years. She never grew. My stepfather was away a lot, I had to devote my life to her, had to become her father, carried her everywhere. At night she’d have terrible convulsions unless she could sleep in somebody’s lap, in a rocking chair. I was elected. I didn’t sleep much and quit going to school.
“My sister couldn’t understand words but she loved music. When I sang she’d smile, rock, kick her legs. I learned the guitar and played her songs I wrote, she was my first audience — and it made a huge impression on me. If I could communicate with music to this kid who couldn’t think, what could I do to people who could? Down in the streets, I was not bad as a fighter, but I was better at forming do-op street-singing groups; me and four guys, we were the Five Gents, we’d entertain the guys on the corner, and all the time sing in the subways ’cause the echo in there was so good.”
At first music was mostly a way to echew ghetto switch-blade duels; it was also a way to start eschewing the ghetto and he and the Gents made cheap demos and took them uptown, “to the top floor of the Brill Building and worked our way down, through every record company office. Nobody listened, so we’d sing in the halls, which had a good echo, like the subway.” Eventually the other Gents went back to switch blades, “but I was in that goddamn Brill Building every day nine to five, hanging out, meeting songwriters. Finally guys’d let me sing their demos, $20 a cut. I was 13, this was 1958, it was a start — and I owed it all to an idiot. I told you I’d sound corny.”
So did the songs he wrote, but writing them was a necessity: Promoters wouldn’t listen to a new singer doing somebody else’s hit; they’d listen to masters but he couldn’t afford to cut one. “Finally I got in to see Donny Kirshner, of the TV rock concerts. Donny was really cooking then, though not for TV. He handled just about everybody writing. Hated my songs but liked my sound. I’d listened to a lot of R&B on the radio and sounded black; everybody then who was white sounded like Elvis or Buddy Holly. Donny thought it might be time for a white vocalist who sounded black.
“That first day, he takes me, this dumb kid, down the hall past all these cubicles in which writers were pumping out songs. In one was Neil Sedaka — in another was Carole King and her husband then, Gerry Goffin. Donny said, ‘Go in there with Carole and work up something with ’em.’ For a year I sang everybody’s demos and one was Carole and Gerry’s ‘Halfway to Paradise.’ And Donny, who was 26 then, I think he invented the independent record deal with that song. Carole and Gerry wrote and produced it and Donny sold the demo to Epic, a subsidiary of Columbia. This had never been done before. I was 16, I had a song out on Epic! Except they didn’t put my picture on the record sleeve — 45 rpm sleeves always had artists’ pictures — because they wanted R&B station play and didn’t want it known I was white!”
When “Halfway” hit the Top 40, Kirshner, King and Orlando (more euphonious, to Kirshner, than Cassivitis) followed it with “Bless You,” another winner. “And Epic sent me all over the country on Dick Clark tours, GAC tours, even to England and Europe, where both records were smashes. The road in those days was unbelievable. The album market hadn’t opened yet, nobody did concerts or even played colleges. GAC would throw a band together for you and pile you all on a bus, you stayed in cheap motels ’cause nothing was plush, nobody was thinking plush yet. Nobody had long hair or was smoking and sniffing everything.
“You played ballrooms, the same ones the big bands played in the Forties — whole chains of ’em, the Palm Ballroom, Cedar Rapids. And you did a lot of freebies for local disc jockeys: Local stations were always throwing ‘hops’ in the high school gym. The station made a percentage of hop ticket sales; all the performer got was a chance to yell at the kids, ‘Hope you’ll buy my next record!’ And if you didn’t do hops, you didn’t get local airplay. I remember one 40-night hop tour, every night a different town; 90% of the year you did that free. The ballroom weeks you got $600, paid in cash, counted out on a table by the ballroom owner. You had to pay your expenses out of it, but for a kid who’d just made it through eighth grade, it looked fantastic.”
In three years, though, it was over: The British came and stayed. “I recorded lots more songs but had no more hits. I was touring on the strength of two records. By ’64, I was playing oldie-but-goodie nights in Rah-way, New Jersey; so was Gene Pitney, Timi Yuro, Freddie Canon. I was 19 and it was over: If you weren’t British you didn’t get airplay. Suddenly the Dave Clark Five was packing Madison Square Garden — which Top 40 groups never dreamed of. The record business started its incredible Beatles-album hype, the British Invasion transformed the industry before our eyes ……”
Elaine comes and goes, smiling at his story, delivering Cokes and chips to the slate coffee table. He doesn’t turn to her but he’s keenly aware when she’s present. After one of her exits, he says, with a kind of reverence, “Elaine. She was working for Hill and Raines, the big country-music publishing firm; in ’62 I worked a show for Murray the K at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. She was there with the headliner, Jerry Lee Lewis. I asked her out, took her to Howard Johnson’s for coffee, we sat there six hours ’cause I didn’t have enough to pay. Eventually, in that funny, quiet, sharp way she has, she asked for the check herself. We got married a year later.”
Elaine was one reason why, in 1964, Tony did an agonizing reappraisal. “I had a wife to support, I’d washed up as a performer and a recording artist, I was broke, had no formal education, all I knew was the record business.” Deciding he’d never sing again, he got a $125-a-week job at Robbins, Feist & Miller, the oldline movie-music publishing firm. “I really wanted to learn the business, from the folios to film scores to Top 40 to Broadway. I was assistant to somebody’s assistant’s assistant but Elaine and I bought a bottle of champagne the day I got hired — it was the first real job I ever had. I was also scared shitless. My first day, I discovered I had a secretary — me! I said to Elaine, ‘How the hell do you dictate a letter?’ The first day, my boss asked me to get a demo from the filing cabinet, I stood in front of it and thought, ‘How the fuck do you open a file cabinet?’ I had enough sense to ask the secretary to get me the demo, so I could watch how she opened the thing. I was still too dumb to know the best way to learn anything is to be vulnerable, admit you’re a fuckup, be out-front. That’s also the essence of communicating with an audience, at least for me.”
Though he wouldn’t test that theory for another seven years, what he’d already learned from performing was going to take him far from assistant’s assistant’s assistant. “In all those demo sessions, working with arrangers, I’d heard stuff like, ‘Okay, guitar, you do ching-ching-a-ching, you play a 16th, you do a two-four, you play straight-four.’ I also learned what the words actually meant and I’ve got a good ear, and suddenly I’d become a record producer myself; I was producing most of the demos. It was my idea to put full rhythm sections on demos instead of just piano or guitar, then to sell the demo as a master and sweeten it later. I left Robbins, Feist & Miller after a year for a better job at April Blackwood, CBS’s music division, and worked up to vice-president. My boss was Clive Davis. I’d sign writers and make sure they were recorded right. I had James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Taj Mahal. And one day, I was sitting at my desk and… …”
Inhale, laughing: The-day-that-changed-my-life, it-began-like-any-other-day. “Two guys named Hank Medress and Dave Appell — they’d produced, for Bell Records, a lot of the Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell hits, the Happenings, the Chiffons, Melissa Manchester’s albums. They’re still our record producers — because, that day, they casually dropped in and told me they had this master sold to Bell but they didn’t like the voice on it and asked if I’d sing it, ’cause it reminded them of ‘Halfway to Paradise.’ I freaked. ‘What a memory you guys have! You actually remember that?’ Turned out they’d heard all the demos I’d done for Carole King, for the Drifters — ‘Up on the Roof,’ ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’ I said, ‘Hank, thanks, but there’s no way, I haven’t sung in years, this is my life now, I’m happy in it.’ I thought I meant that, too. I was lying to myself, I did miss performing. I said, ‘Hank, it’d be a conflict of interest. I can’t record for Bell when I’m working for Columbia, Bell’s a big competitor.’ ”
But, of course, he looked at the song and, of course, he thought it would go nowhere. “It sounded dated, I was working with James Taylor, guys who didn’t sound at all like 1961. So I thought it’d be okay to record this as a favor to Hank, nobody’ll hear it. I did call Clive, though, and explained. He said, ‘Go, man, long as you’re not going to leave us and go out on the road.’ I told him I wasn’t even using my name, that we’d use Joe Schlep and the Nailbiters, anything. And I forgot the song the day I recorded it.
“Two months later I pick up Bill Gavin’s tip sheet and it says the hit of the week’s ‘Candida.’ I actually thought it was something I’d published and forgot, asked my secretary to check it out. One reason it didn’t ring a bell with me was that the tip sheet said it was by ‘Dawn.’ What they’d done was, Hank and Dave had flown Joyce and Telma to New York from Detroit and had them do a track to put on the master behind my solo, and called us all ‘Dawn’ because that happened to be Bell’s promotion man’s daughter’s name. I just had a straight two-percent deal with Hank, two percent of the 90¢ the record sold for — except I never thought anybody’d buy it. I said to Clive, ‘We’ve all seen these Number One records come and go, I don’t want back into that crazy performing life, I’m secure here.’ He just smiled.
“Hank wanted a followup: He gave me ‘Knock Three Times on the Ceiling if You Want Me.’ I told Clive there was no way this one could hit — who outside New York was going to relate to a chick telling a guy to signal by hitting the ceiling with a broom handle? I record it, Telma and Joyce again do the background, overnight it’s gigantic. Now I start getting calls from Bell because all the DJs are saying that the music world’s best-kept secret is that the lead singer of this Dawn group is really Tony Orlando, from the old days. Bell is freaked because they have no credibility, no act to go on the road — because Dawn doesn’t exist! Oh, there were Dawns all right, about 50 of ’em, and more every day, every one of ’em bogus. Every smart small-time booking agent was throwing together some singers, calling ’em Dawn and booking ’em on the strength of the two records. That really got to me! I started talking to Elaine …”
Telling her he wanted to try assembling the real Dawn; that he’d try the road for no more than two years. “Audiences were throwing things at these bogus Dawns, even offstage people were getting ripped off, that freaked me. Sure I was interested in the money in it; but I did care about the audiences getting what they were paying for. Elaine said just one thing. ‘If you’re gonna do it, do it all the way and not just for money — we’re already comfortable enough. Do it because you want to make it grow, because it matters to you.’ Clive Davis just said, ‘You’ve sold eight million records, go with it!’ “
And he didn’t mention Columbia’s possible profit cut? “I worked for Clive four years and that’s not his style. I never saw Clive rip anybody off and I’d have seen. All he said was that ‘go.’ Okay, so I’ve never met the girls, I contact Telma, who’s working with Isaac Hayes up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, we talk, she calls Joyce, they’re interested. Big meeting at Bell; everybody’s ready to sign a deal except Hank and Dave’s manager, who suddenly said, ‘You can’t be Dawn unless I manage you because I own the name.’ I said, ‘I manage myself.’ He said, ‘Then the name Dawn will cost you $50,000.’ I said to Bell, ‘I haven’t collected any of my royalties yet, how much do you owe me?’ They said, ‘$50,000.’ I said, ‘Fine, give it to this guy.’ Hank and Dave fired him but that was the start of what was to become the Tony Orlando Very Long-Term Floating Debt to Practically Everybody.”
Bell did advance him another $50,000 to get the show on the road, figuratively and literally. Instantly he signed on Marc Gordon as business manager because, while expensive, Gordon also supervised the Fifth Dimension, Bell’s biggest, and Tony wanted the company to perceive how serious he was about Dawn’s future.
“Next, I flew to London, where three bogus Dawns are booked simultaneously in the West End. I spend days there meeting the press, telling ’em the real Dawn is coming. I hire British lawyers to tell all the fake Dawns — they were all over Europe — that they could not say they’d recorded our songs, which they were doing, or refer to the songs in ads or billing. I told the lawyers to tell clubs that booked ’em I’d sue their asses off. Oh, and I’d brought a New York attorney with me. Thousands already in air fares and fees. I bring my lawyer back to threaten all the bogus American Dawns, and start spending on more plane tickets for a conductor and a whole orchestra, for the girls’ clothes, then for everybody’s expenses when we get to Europe, where we could earn very little. The bookers there said, ‘Why should we pay you $1500 a night when we got this other Dawn group for $300?’ Until the British lawyers got to work, audiences saw the real Dawn but we had to take bogus-Dawn pay.”
And for three more years, prognosis negative. After paying travel agencies, airlines, hotels, clothes designers, music copyists, music arrangers, musicians, lawyers, managers, agents (a partial list which does not include, among others, the IRS), he found Dawn, the real one, had made and spent over $800,000. “We kept recording hits, but the more hits, the more bookings; the more bookings, the more air fares, clothes, hotels, musicians. I think you’ve got the picture. But I had to keep it my candy store — didn’t ask Bell for extra money because whatever happened, I wanted the credit or the blame. I had to prove to them, to everybody, that we weren’t a bubblegum act. Maybe I’m obsessed but that was vital to me — that we’d have style, polish and respect.”
They got those, also new problems: Crosby, Stills & Nash could, at the dawn of the Seventies, still sell out Madison Square Garden, but Top 40 acts, even those who’d scraped off the bubblegum, had to settle for packing Vegas lounges and state fairs. “For four years, we were never off the charts — “You’re a Lady,” “Summer Sand,” nothing we did sold under half a million copies — but we were not a rock act. The revival of our kind of music hadn’t happened, we were working constantly at a constant loss and, I kid you not, I was almost $1 million in debt. And scared shitless.”
“Take ten for dinner,” Elaine calls lightly from the dining room. As the new housekeeper is gingerly serving the steaks, Elaine says, “I always knew he’d get back to performing, especially when he gained all that weight: The way he ate, it was clear he was frustrated being an executive.” Tony is listening politely, yet not listening, still absorbed in the unfinished story. “Does the movie business have its jargon?” he wants to know.
“I always loved music-business talk,” and Elaine laughs through a bite of meat. “So hilarious but you had to keep a straight face. You don’t hear it so much from the younger guys, like Dave Geffen — we recently signed with Elektra Records. I went to meet Geffen with my dukes up because of what I’d heard about him, but so far he’s really straight, no games, he seems to care about his artists and he doesn’t push. When we signed, we still owed Bell, contractually, about 20 sides, which means Dave gets no product from us till we cut those, even though he should have something from us to promote now because of the TV show. We’ve got five albums on the charts and not one’s Elektra’s. And not once has he said, ‘Where are my albums?’ It’s been, ‘Whenever you’re ready, Tony,’ and you don’t hear that in this crazy business. It’s always, ‘We want it yesterday!’ In fact, that’s one of the magic music-business phrases!”
Here, the alleged earthquake occurs and he doesn’t really relax again, even back in the living room with coffee. “Anyway: We’re doing the state fairs, we’re in debt and ‘Yellow Ribbon’ comes to me. I thought it was corny. We were cutting an album at the time, a real turnaround for us. I’d said to the girls, ‘Let’s try everything on this one, let’s search,’ and we’re recording gospel, blues, soul, country, everything on one LP. Hank Medress wanted ‘Yellow Ribbon’ on the album, I didn’t — except I found it was stuck in my head, I kept singing it around the house. Against my will, because my taste, musically, has always been what I don’t necessarily do well, rhythm and blues. Fortunately, Hank’s always had an instinct for what I can do; he saw in ‘Yellow Ribbon’ something else, too — that it’s a nice satire of the American dream, that it gently kids the fact that we love stories about turmoil, lyrics with suspense, doubt about a happy ending, as long as we know we are gonna get the happy ending in the last line.”
The number is Dawn’s happy ending, he adds, not smiling. At least it’s one of 1973’s biggest songs, it becomes his property, his signature, it finally establishes the group, somehow provides them a whole new audience; and then Fred Silverman turns up at the Westbury Music Fair. Tony is smoking persistently now, still glancing at the windows that rattled, toward the reassuring sound of Elaine’s voice in the kitchen.
“I’ll tell you, I feel like I’ve walked a hundred miles through a desert to get here. I’m not out of debt yet, the problems aren’t over, the show’s got to improve. I don’t rest, in my head, but resting’s always bored me. Listen, in a year, it might all be over, I know that. I’d have to start again, somewhere else …”
It’s almost 8:00, he turns on channel 2, laughing, to lighten the dim room, “I’m never satisfied, Elaine says, like my car thing: When I made the Elektra deal, I treated myself to a luxury, a Jag XK12. The thing never worked, it actually blew up on me! So I bought a Cadillac, an American car; I said to the dealer I just wanted a gray Coupe de Ville. It’s delivered and it’s this obnoxious pimpmobile, you saw it outside. Jesus, a glass roof, it’s silver, with that red pin stripe down the side! I’m embarrassed, truly, to drive it. Elaine saw it, shrugged, like she does, and said, ‘Well, you paid for it, have fun with it.’ But I’m driving this thing that eats a tank of gas a day and they’ve trained the L.A. police to handle possible food riots! I’m seriously considering this: taking the car to a wrecking place and putting it in the pulverizer, so it comes out a big square of crushed metal — and putting that on a pole in front of my house, as a reminder. To myself.”
“But you haven’t done it yet.”
He is up, adjusting the picture for his show’s opening credits. “Hmmm?” he says.
“Don’t talk about it till you do it.”
This stops him, the vertical line between his brows deepens, as if pressed with the blade of a dull knife. He nods and says something, agreeing, but it’s inaudible against the ‘Yellow Ribbon’ theme and the studio audience going wild at his entrance with the girls, the same kind of audience present at the taping the night before, a young audience with opulent hair, its eyes wiser than those of the elders present, yet clear.
One of the show’s staff, another young old-time Orlando loyalist, explains the delays between numbers, the changes of lighting and sets, intelligently, without the coy patronization usually soft-spread upon studio-audience rubes at tapings; and the audience responds intelligently. It’s the same age as the fans stampeding outside for autographs; but those who’ve waited to come in seem interested not so much in seeing television stars live as seeing them within a show’s context — specifically, surprisingly, in Tony’s music.
Two of them assert this, a blond boy and girl who could be twins. “I never heard songs like he sings before,” the boy offers, doing California things to his vowels. “I mean, I’ve heard them, on old records, but they’re a total new sound to me, a good sound. Tony doesn’t yell. I’m sort of sick of singers yelling. I never heard the words to songs before much. It’s good to hear cheerful, logical music. Nobody much is cheerful. Or logical. There’s too much psychological music, too much freaky thinking. It’s good not to analyze, and Tony’s music, you don’t have to… …”
In a few minutes, the show’s end begins, the long “concert spot.” Tony’s in his element — the audience, the middle of it, his jacket gone and his tie loose. He’s found, as he uncannily does every week, some audience member who gets up and sings with him willingly and well, this week a big woman with an Ethel Merman voice who harmonizes with him and with the whole audience, on the new sound of “Heart of My Heart.”