Saturday, November 12, 2011
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!")