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Tony Orlando's Brush With Death

By Dan Reany with Scott Ross
The 700 Club Tony Orlando’s career has spanned more than four decades, and includes number one hit songs and a long running television show now on DVD.  And he’s still going strong with concert and stage performances all over the country.  Like many performers, Tony got his start in the Big Apple. Recently, The 700 Club's own Scott Ross caught up with his long time friend, Tony Orlando.

Scott Ross: Are you a New York City guy?

Tony Orlando: Born and raised.  Manhattan. Chelsea. Midtown Manhattan, born and raised.

Ross: So, you were one of these guys that came out of that era back in the 60s, or even the 50s, is it?

Orlando: I started in 1961. I was 16.

Ross: Were you walking with the Lord then, back in those days?

Orlando: No, I was raised Catholic, and if I didn’t do what I said, I got my knuckles beat in. It was one of those kinds of things. I went to parochial grammar school, and I give thanks to the Catholic training because of course, they brought me to the heart of Jesus.  As I went, in the late 70s, through crisis, like all of us – you have to be far enough down to want to look up, and it got to that point where I was at the low end of my life. It was the Lord’s love and my recognition of His presence in my life that made me realize how important it was to give Him the glory and be there for Him.

Tony’s career hit a peak when he went from recording artist to television star with the "Tony Orlando and Dawn Show."

Orlando: We were the first multi-racial group to ever do a variety show primetime. We were very proud of that. We didn’t know what we were doing. My first guest was Jackie Gleason. My first sketch was with Jackie Gleason. That was horrific to say the least, because here is this great entertainer, and we hadn’t even done a high school play. I was from the streets of New York, as you know, and Joyce and Telma from Highland Park, though they had recorded background for practically every Motown hit you ever heard. "Heard It Through the Grapevine" was them, "Shaft" with Isaac Hayes was them. So they were experiencing some success in their own world as background singers.

Ross: When did the crash and burn period transpire, when you bottomed out?

Orlando: Well, I was being self destructive. The 70s was a very difficult time. Most people were disintegrating in that period. I was 28-years-old. I still don’t drink... never have. I was never a drug user. I experimented with cocaine for about a six to eight month period heavily, because if you didn’t, you weren’t in. And I wanted to be so bad it was one of those peer group things where young kids smoke or do other things they shouldn’t do. I wanted to be a rock and roller. I was the bubblegum singer who was getting put down as the bubblegum singer, but I wanted to be a rock and roller. I wanted to be Mick Jagger, you know what I mean? I wanted to be that tough, bad boy, at least for just a little period of time.  And the bad boy point of view got me into trouble, and I began to self destruct like probably half the performers of the 70s, if not more.

Orlando: Fortunately, I was brought up with the Lord as my Savior. And I put the brakes on because of that upbringing, because of what I got from my parochial grammar school times, and because of my grandmother who was Latina and Puerto Rican, and prayed every day, and sat with the rosaries. I didn’t want to embarrass her. I didn’t want to make her ashamed. And my mother, I didn’t want to embarrass my family. So I put the brakes on.

In 1977, Tony had an eye opener with the death of a very close friend, Freddie Prinze.  The 22-year-old star of "Chico and the Man" was incredibly successful, but constantly tormented by thoughts about his own death.

Orlando: When Freddie Prinze passed that had an impact on me, because I loved him. I still love him, to this day. And it was a great loss to all of us who knew Freddie.

While Prinze’s death was initially ruled a suicide, it was eventually deemed an accidental shooting.

Orlando: You know, I was in that room with his beautiful and dedicated wife, Kathy, and his mother, Maria, and his father, and step father, Mr. Prutzel was there. And my former wife, Elaine, and I were all in that room. I had never seen anybody pass. And to see this young, vibrant, brilliant, beautiful, young man leave us like that, shook me to my very soul. It took me a long time to get over that. Then, I lost my sister that same year, same period of time. My sister, Rhonda was 20-years-old. She had cerebral palsy. Then, all of these very important people... my grandfather [who was like a dad to me] raised me with my mom and grandmother.  As a child, he passed. There was all this passing away going on, and I was 32 then, hitting this stride in my career. I had this national television show. I had the hits. I had everything going, and it just seemed like everything was coming apart

Ross: How did it change subsequent to that experience? Was the encounter with the Lord, one on one, personal for you?

Orlando: I began to pay attention to Scripture and meet people who walked the walk, and little by little, I guess you could call me a born again Christian. 1978 is when I found my walk with the Lord. I hopefully do the best I can, in walking that walk, and maybe have inspired others to follow in it, and am very proud of my Christian faith. 

Tony says for the first few years, he didn’t really know what to do with his newfound faith.

Orlando: Then in 1981, I met a young lady named Susan Munao, who managed Donna Summer.

Ross: That’s another friend of ours.

Orlando: Donna and Susan were very much walking the faith, and they had a big impact on me. And Jack Hayford’s church in Los Angeles has a big impact on me, and it just grew. You know, The 700 Club has had a big impact on me. The more knowledge you’ve got, the more understanding you have, the better you are able to implement and pass it on to others.

Tony’s been in the business nearly half a century, and still plays 164 dates on the road every year. 

Ross: How do your old friends respond to you now, knowing the Tony from then, as my wife knew you, and Tony now who is pretty open now about your life in Jesus Christ? How do they respond to that?

Orlando: Some respond negatively, like, “What’s the whole deal? What’s the whole Jesus thing? What’s going on with you? What’s that?” And I just say, "It’s my heart. It’s what I feel." And they see my actions, and they see my lifestyle, and they see how I treat people and how I treat them and they get it. Those who know it need no explanation.


Scott Ross welcomes your feedback.

Read more of Scott's interviews.

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