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INTERVIEW: A Talk With Legend Tony Orlando

T.J. Clemente

Tony Orlando is headlining at the Suffolk Theater. (Courtesy Photo)

Tony Orlando is appearing at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead for the first time in his long illustrious career on Friday, June 14 at 8 p.m. The New Yorker, who has been to the East End many times, was very forthcoming when we spoke to the Grammy nominee about his iconic career. He is beloved as the man who sang, Tie a Yellow Ribbon around the Old Oak Tree along with so many popular hit songs. He was in the Brill Building writing songs with Carol King and the others, but to him, his career really started in 1960 when Frank Sinatra anointed him: "The new kid on the block."

It started with Tony being born as Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis in Manhattan, NY, the son of a Greek father and a Puerto Rican mother. Tony takes it from there, "It's been a great journey. My music has been my life. It started when I was a kid, I'd go to the roof of the 221 West 21st, stand on the tar paper roof and sing out the rhythm and blues songs of that time." He added, "But I loved to sing Gene Kelly's, Singing in the Rain."

Tony never completed high school because, "I had a number one hit song when I was 16!" I asked him when he first heard that song on the radio. He replied, "It was in 1961, we [mom and dad] were driving into the Lincoln Tunnel, when Bruce Murrow (Cousin Brucie) played 'this new one' and we were so excited but we entered the tunnel and back then the radio signal ended as you went in. I only heard two stanzas before the radio went dead, I wondered if I'd ever hear it on the radio again."

I asked him for a defining moment. Tony paused and said, "It had to be at the Friars Club (East 55th Street) in NY. They were believe it or not honoring Gene Kelly. Frank Sinatra was the emcee and I was invited. There was Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, real big stars. Frank Sinatra called out my name first. So I asked him, why my name first? Frank Sinatra asked, 'Who's the new kid on the block?' I said, 'I am,' and Frank replied, 'Well kid, we always take care of the new kid on the block.'"

We spoke about the great success of Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree song and how much it has meant to veterans and their families over the years. Then I asked him about his most powerful moment performing the song. He instantly said, "The Cotton Bowl (Jan 1, 1973) in front of 70,000. Bob Hope introduced all the 500 POWs who had only been home from Vietnam for two weeks. It was special. I stayed in touch with as many as I could, I still stay in touch with them." It was then I told him my brother Elia served two tours in Vietnam and asked me to ask that question. He replied, "It's sad most Vietnam veterans didn't get the same welcome the POWs did. They were cursed, spat on, it was very sad." Then he said, "Play this tape back for your brother, Elia, Tony Orlando says welcome home!" It was touching Tony Orlando is that kind of guy.

Lastly, I told him he has had longevity and now at 75-years-old he was lucky his mom was able to live a long life and enjoy his success, (she passed in 2013) and he told one last story. "She did get to share in my success, the hit songs, the TV show...but the greatest moment for me was when I got my Hollywood Star of Fame in 1990. You see I went to California as a 10-year-old boy and we, my mom and I, visited Hollywood Boulevard to the see all the stars and palm prints in the cement. That day I told my mom, "Mom, someday my star is going to be here and she said, 'Mickey,' (my folks called me Mickey back then for Mikey), she said, 'Mickey you're a big dreamer.' Then in 1990 there we were with my dream."

Go see the dream continue on June 14, at the Suffolk Theater at 8pm! Witness a terrific entertainer celebrating his "great journey" with "music as his life" and hear his wonderful hit songs and feel the magic that is Tony Orlando on stage singing live.

Suffolk Theater is located at 118 East Main Street in Riverhead. For more information, visit www.suffolktheater.com.

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