Night & Day — Few artists can pull off seven shows at a Western New York venue. Tony Orlando is one of those special performers, the singer and television star begins a mini-residence at Seneca Niagara Casino that began yesterday and continues through this weekend.
Anyone who grew up in the 1970s remembers Orlando as a singer and performer and host of a variety show with Telma Hopkins and Joyce Wilson, known collectively as Tony Orlando and Dawn.
The trailblazing variety show came at a time when the nation was divided over the Vietnam War and Watergate.
“When Fred Silverman hired us to do a variety show, the writers said that variety shows were dead. Back in those days there was something called the family hour. That hour was between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., he thought that a variety show had a place for the family to come together. He knew it wouldn’t get the biggest of numbers, but he thought it would get respectable numbers,” Orlando told me Monday from his room at the Seneca Niagara Hotel.
“He tried out three shows that summer vying for one spot, The Hudson Brothers, Bobbie Gentrie and Tony Orlando and Dawn. The one with the highest ratings won. We were the first multi-racial group to host a variety show. There was a lot going on at the time, we had the biggest records of the three but Silverman also realized we attracted African-American audiences. We were like the Jackie Robinson of prime time variety shows.”
The idea of a multi-racial variety show may seem benign by today’s standards, but back in 1973 there was still major concerns over how audiences would receive a show featuring two African American females and a half Puerto Rican, half-Greek male.
“There were some people that were nervous, just a few years earlier Petula Clark had touched Harry Belafonte on prime time television and all hell broke loose. I’ll tell you though, we were on four seasons and never received a single piece of hate mail, not from the south, not from anywhere.”
Orlando’s four years on television represent a small part of his legendary career. His first hit record as a solo artist was “Halfway to Paradise” written by Carol King. That was back in 1961, before either The Beatles or The Rolling Stones even charted.
“This whole journey for me has been very rich, 52 years in the music business and I am still two years younger than Paul McCartney. How is that possible?”
In addition to the parade of hits like “Candida”, “Knock Three Times” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”, Orlando spent four years at Columbia Records on the corporate side of the business.
“In the four years I was there I represented some great artists like James Taylor, Barry Manilow, Laura Nyro and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Even though it was a big business, we all knew each other. Those four years catapulted me into the music business.”
No discussion of Orlando’s career is complete without touching on his relationship with the late Freddie Prinze. Orlando and Prinze were ten years apart in age but had strikingly similar physical characteristics and on screen charm.
“Freddie Prinze had no boundaries to his future, he was 22 years-old and had already sat in Johnny Carson’s chair and hosted “The Tonight Show,” and he hosted an inaugural ball for Jimmy Carter.”
Prinze’s son, Freddie Prinze Jr. has established himself as an actor, and I asked Orlando what he thinks of as he sees his Prinze Jr.’s career develop.
“I held Freddie Prinze Jr in my arms when he was a year old. He had his first birthday party at my house. He has gone on to a great career as an actor. His mother deserves all the credit, she moved him to Albuquerque, N.M. and gave him a normal life. I have great respect for her and I’m sure his father is proud of him as well. Freddie Prinze Sr. was like a younger brother to me.”
Tony Orlando performs at the Seneca Niagara Casino Thursday-Sunday with tickets starting at $15. For showtimes check senecaniagaracasino.com. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at the Seneca Niagara box office.Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.