He was a kid from New York, N.Y., with just an eighth-grade education—yet Tony Orlando has had an incredible music career, both as an executive and a recording artist.
While he hasn’t released any new material since 1979, he continues to perform across the country to sold-out audiences. He’ll bring his current tour to Spotlight 29 on Saturday, Jan. 14.
During a recent phone interview, I asked him if there was anything he would change.
“Nothing,” Orlando said. “What would I change? I’ve been in this business for 56 years. I started when I was 16 in 1961 with Carole King. I think that’s a pretty good run. I don’t think I’d change anything. I’ve worked for six presidents. I’ve had a television show, and I have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I found myself as a vice president of CBS for four years, running the music division at 23 years old, and me and the girls sold 150 million records in the ’70s. How could I want to change anything? God bless me!”
Orlando’s experience as a music-company executive helped him fully understand how the music business worked.
“I only have an eighth-grade education, so for me to find myself in that position with a company like CBS, representing some very talented people like James Taylor and Blood Sweat and Tears, and signing Barry Manilow and producing his first records, I enjoyed that. It taught me that sometimes, you can’t sign a talent, and the talent walks away thinking that they’re not talented, but it had more to do with where the company is going, what can the company really afford, and: Would it fit within the structure of where the company wanted to go? You can honestly pass on a talent that’s a great talent, because it might not fit within your company. Young people don’t realize that; they get depressed and go, ‘Oh my God! The guy didn’t sign me!’ In essence, it had nothing to do with their talent. I always tell young performers that 99 percent of this business is getting turned down, and 1 percent is the part where they say, ‘Sure, we’ll sign you.’”
However, Orlando stressed that in the end, the music business is all about talent—not image, and not gimmicks.
“When you look at some of the young artists who were on American Idol, they were amazing,” Orlando said. “Imagine you go on television and face 50 million people, and you have to sing live. You can’t goof up. Talk about nerve-racking! They were performing songs that weren’t even in their growing-up years. Most of those songs were old ’70s songs, and they went out there and slayed people! We got some great artists out of that experience.
“The truth is, it’s always about talent in the end,” Orlando said. “Take someone like Nick Jonas—the progress and his growth from the Jonas Brothers to now. … People don’t realize he was on Broadway when he was 10.”
He credits the many hits he had throughout the 1970s to his producer.
“I didn’t really pick them,” he said. “I had a record producer named Hank Medress who had an incredible song sense. I had an awesome respect for his knowledge and instinct when it came to songs. … My role was to listen to my producer and deliver that as an artist. The song sense and song picking didn’t come from me, except ‘He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)’ by Curtis Mayfield, because my basic heart is for rhythm and blues, and I always loved Curtis Mayfield.”
Orlando has worked with many great musicians, he said.
“My band has been with me for 21 years,” he said. “My keyboard player, friend and only female in the band, Toni Wine, she has been with me for 56 years. She was married to Chips Moman, who produced all the ’70s Elvis songs, as well as Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings and BJ Thomas. Her husband is a legend in the business and just passed away.”
I asked him which current stars he, as a former music executive, thought would still be big in the future.
“There’s a pretty wide selection. I really think Nick Jonas is a raw, incredible and well-rounded performer,” he said. “He’s the only one I know of at his age who has done five shows on Broadway in the last 10 years. If you listen to songs like ‘Jealous,’ I told Steve Wonder: ‘Hey, Stevie, wouldn’t you have liked to have written this one?’ He’s a very soulful young boy. Lady Gaga will probably be around for the next 50 years. Madonna has already been around forever. You have Britney Spears, who has been around for 20 years already.”
What can fans expect from Orlando’s performance at Spotlight 29? Don’t anticipate anything surprising.
“I hate to tell you this, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Orlando said with a laugh. “It’s working too well!”
Tony Orlando will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 14, at Spotlight 29, 46200 Harrison Place, in Coachella. Tickets are $25 to $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5566, or visit www.spotlight29.com.