Forget pesky yellow ribbons for a minute. A good decade earlier, with his fabulous R&B-tinged voice and the finest material Al Nevins and Don Kirshner’s stable of hip young Broadway-based songwriters had to offer, Tony Orlando was one of the very best of the early 1960s teen idols. Of Greek and Puerto Rican parentage, he grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, where as a kid he sang under a streetlamp in idolisation of Frankie Lymon. Later he hung out with the Isley Brothers and Solomon Burke – hence the R&B chops, eh? Tony was just 16 when Nevins and Kirshner signed him to Aldon, their publishing/production company. They put him on a diet and assigned him to work with Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who had him record demo versions of the songs they were writing for the Drifters and Bobby Vee, etc.
Once svelte, Aldon clinched him a recording contract of his own with Epic Records, appointing Jack Keller as his producer. For his debut Tony had his eye on Will You Love Me Tomorrow, but when that gem went to the Shirelles, Goffin and King presented him with another classic instead, Halfway To Paradise. Carole King not only arranged the track, but also sang “sha da dap” in the background, along with that cool girl group the Cookies, another Aldon act. The record landed him in Billboard’s Top 40 in the summer of 1961. He then hit the road as part of a package tour with fellow teen idols Gene Pitney, Brian Hyland and Bobby Vinton – what a cavalcade of quiffs that must have been! Talking of suchlike, over in Britain, Billy Fury covered the song, stealing Tony O’s thunder. The number intended for his follow-up was pulled from under him by Phil Spector, who slowed it down and turned it into a smash hit for the Paris Sisters. As consolation Tony was given Bless You, which became the first hit song to be written by the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, reaching #15 on the Hot 100 and the Top 5 in Britain, where he was booked to tour with the Springfields, Bobby Vee and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. At the time, Dusty of the Springfields was purveying cheerful folksy pop: Tony bought her a pile of current R&B singles, for which we must all be eternally grateful. He notched up his third US hit with Happy Times (Are Here To Stay) later in the year.
In all Tony released 27 tracks for Epic Records, all of which are present and correct on this CD. Fans of the Cookies are in for a treat, as the trio sing back-ups on 18 of them. Carole King, as well as arranging 14 of the songs, penned seven with her hubby Gerry Goffin, who co-wrote another three with the great Jack Keller, the producer of all but Tony’s final Epic single, and the co-writer of a further three. Other featured songwriters – Brill Building buffs take note – include Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, Brooks Arthur, Helen Miller, Freddie Scott, Mark Barkan, Ben Raleigh and Bobby Darin, to name just some, while Chuck Sagle, Alan Lorber, Matt Maurer, Garry Sherman and Tony himself supply arrangements.
The fact that, after those first three hits, not one of Tony’s Epic singles reached the Hot 100 is almost impossible to believe, so great were tracks like I’d Never Find Another You (another hit for Billy Fury in the UK), Chills (Bruce Channel meets Maurice Williams with a popeye beat), What Am I Gonna Do, Beautiful Dreamer (the old Stephen Foster song done Little Eva-style), The Loneliest, She Doesn’t Know It (could pass for a soul group from Chicago or Philly) and Tell Me What Can I Do. Tony closed his account at the label with To Wait For Love (Is To Waste Your Life Away) and Accept It, a Bacharach and David double-header.
He cut some sides at Atlantic Records with producer Bert Berns in 1965, but they were never released. Hit-less for three years, Tony then hung up his stage clothes and took a job in music publishing, at which he worked rather successfully for several years. Occasionally he’d be lured back into the studio to record under a variety of pseudonyms, one such example, a great song entitled Candida, leading to a fulltime comeback, old oak trees and all. But hey, let’s not go there.
BY MICK PATRICK