Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tony Orlando

An album that endures

Tony Orlando's inspiration

During my youth rock and roll supplanted my father's music. He took it in stride. Occasionally there was a small victory. Take Louis Armstrong's hit "Hello Dolly!" or the music of Bacharach and David. That provided some respite for the grownups. But for the most part the proverbial rug had been pulled out from under him. Until along came Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Tony Orlando was a song and dance man in bell bottoms. He first emerged as a hit maker with the Latin-flavored "Candida" and "Knock Three Times", but it was his partnering with two black women and their subsequent blockbuster "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" that sent them into the stratosphere in 1973.

Capitalizing on their popularity, CBS gave Tony Orlando and Dawn a variety show in 1974. My father adored it. Looking back, I can see how their show, like Sonny and Cher's, kept a traditional show business form alive. By the Watergate era, the variety show was in trouble. The Ed Sullivan Show had gone off the air in 1971, and Dean Martin and his Gold Diggers had fallen out of fashion. Sure, comedians like Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson could still get shows, but what about the singers?

Rock and roll was less dependent on TV to market its product. Instead it had the monster stadium concerts. Besides, these musicians were far less comfortable as traditional entertainers. Could you imagine James Taylor doing a standup routine, for example? That kind of presentation was viewed as utterly inauthentic and old school by the younger set. They'd rather retreat into themselves and acquire a Bob Dylan-like mystique, communicating very little with their audiences. (Why did they have to? At that time the kids just flooded the gates!)

So Tony Orlando and Dawn were an anomaly. Their patter before songs was of the standard-issue variety: Tony would say something foolish and egotistical, and the gals would roll their eyes and offer some sarcastic comeback. (Sonny and Cher followed the same model. Cher had one of the best eye-rollers in the business!)

My family watched this show together. It provided a nice bridge in a time of changing values. As kids, we delighted in how shows like "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" tackled racism and sexism. My parents must have felt besieged at times. But then there was Tony Orlando making nice. He had long hair and a thick mustache. He looked Hispanic - which indeed he was, with a little Greek mixed in. He was backed by black women, just like Ray Charles. But he had my parents' values.

I mean, Tony Orlando had Jackie Gleason and Jerry Lewis on his show. He loved the entertainers of the previous era. That was obvious in his hoary humor. What was most striking about him though is a quality that still draws me to him today: it was clear that Tony Orlando admired Al Jolson.

Jolie set the standard for entertainers who gave their all to an audience. Much of Judy Garland's repertoire was inspired by him. Jolson, who appeared in the first movie with sound (The Jazz Singer), was famous for leaving it all on stage (his slogan was "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet") and songs like "Mammy" and "Swanee" which recalled his early years in vaudeville doing blackface entertainment.

Al Jolson wanted to be loved every time he hit the floorboards. I love his persona and I was delighted to find Tony Orlando aping it. (Of course, this insight comes upon reflection.)

Tony Orlando and Dawn's New Ragtime Follies (1974) made the connection clear. Here was an old-time show committed to vinyl, complete with a prelude and postlude. I still love to listen to it - and I can get eye rolls from my wife when I do! "Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose?" and "Steppin' Out (I'm Gonna Boogie Tonight)" and a host of other songs would lift my father's spirits the moment he touched needle to vinyl.

This album is paid homage by a site called All Music. I hope that you'll take the time to read their remarks. Looking on Amazon, I see that this album was finally digitized a few years ago and has received 8 breathless customer reviews that place it on a well-deserved pedestal.

"You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet" until you purchase this release!

Here's Tony Orlando and Dawn singing "Sweet Gypsy Rose" on their show.

Enjoy this clip of Tony Orlando & Dawn accepting the "Best Musical Group" award at the 1976 American Music Awards show. (I love the moment where George Burns says to him, "And I want to kiss you!")

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Art Garfunkel

Every morning I check out the celebrity birthdays in the newspaper. Yesterday was Art Garfunkel's 70th. My thoughts have lingered upon him.

Although Art has released some fine albums and acted in at least one great film, he is mostly a sad and slightly comic figure in mind--and it's not just the hair that prompts this comment. (The hair was indirectly memorialized in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Check out Mike Myers telling his kid to put his noggin down.)

I'm also thinking about Art Garfunkel claiming that he's read over a thousand books. (They're dutifully cataloged on his website.) Or perhaps it's the image of him walking across America, or across Europe (as he's currently doing, apparently). Here's a famous guy who has always struggled to assert himself as an artist.

In regards to his acting, Garfunkel's best was his first: Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge. Sharing the screen with Jack Nicholson is definitely a career highlight, even though his departure from the studio to work on this film led directly to the breakup with Paul Simon. (Think again about the song "The Only Living Boy in New York" from Bridge Over Troubled Water and the lines "Tom, get your plane right on time/I know you're eager to fly now". (Tom was Garfunkel's name when he and Paul first started out as the duo Tom and Jerry.)

Garfunkel's acting career fizzled after the 1970s. His performances weren't embarrassing and his films were well-received: witness Catch 22 and Bad Timing.) But it seems he simply dropped out in the 1980s. That's when the walking and the writing poetry began in earnest.

His departure from the pop scene was spurred not only by the dismal sales of his solo releases in this period, but also by the suicide of his long-time girlfriend. His thoughts during this period are captured in Still Water, a collection of poetry that you can enjoy on his website. (It's pretty good, although there are some embarrassing moments.)

There's no middle ground in regards to liking his music. You either think it's unbelievably wimpy and begin immediately to ridicule it, or you fall into it because you're a sucker for soft sentimental sounds. I fall into the latter camp.

My favorite albums are 1975's Breakaway and his collection of Jimmy Webb songs that followed it, Watermark.

The former features outstanding versions of "I Believe When I Fall in Love" (by Stevie Wonder) and "Rag Doll" (by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys--who would later pen Barry Manilow's immortal classic, "I Write the Songs").

Breakaway was initially a commercial flop. Columbia pulled it from the market and fortified it with a single ("What a Wonderful World" with Paul Simon and James Taylor providing backup vocals) before rereleasing it and enjoying a better outcome. I simply love Jimmy Webb, and there are great versions of his songs on this album, especially "Crying in My Sleep", "All My Love's Laughter" and "Marionette".

Art Garfunkel has always worked with people that I admire. Kenny Rankin provided vocal backup for him on 1988's Lefty. Richard Perry, whose name as a producer appears on many albums in my collection (since he worked with Carly Simon and Ray Charles), has produced Art Garfunkel. Why, even when Art chose to try his hand at songwriting in 2003, he selected a contemporary singer I adore, Maia Sharp, to work with him.

I've been a faithful follower of Art Garfunkel (although I declined purchasing his latest collection of standards, thinking such a sleep aid is unnecessary for me these days). I hope that he recovers from his vocal problems that may be partly due to smoking. I urge you to spend time checking out his work, as I've done for the past couple of hours it took me to put this entry together!