Tony Orlando & Dawn. You say the name and it just reeks of avocado shag and Love’s Baby Soft. But what always struck me was the fact that this anonymous studio concoction, whose members weren’t even fully formed until after their first few hits, became such a visual presence and representation of the 70s. In fact Tony Orlando & Dawn wasn’t even used until after seven Top 40 hits and two #1 song were racked up, including their biggest, Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. They actually had as many hits with their iconic name than without. I don’t think Tony Orlando minds at all because without this weird run of luck, he would have just been a guy who had a Top 20 hit called Bless You, way back in 1961.
All of this was luck and timing, for the artists, writers, producers, anyone who made a living off of this record. The history before this song hit #1 for 4 weeks in 1973 is amazing, but it’s impact afterwards is truly astonishing. It propelled the group in having 7 more Top 40 hits, 3 of them Top 10s, one of which hit #1 (He Don’t Love You). It gave America a visual to match the songs when they were given their own variety show, which ran from 1974-1976. Tony had his own theatre in Branson called the Yellow Ribbon Theatre and while some may roll their eyes at it, it nevertheless kept Tony performing through the 90s & 00s. You may even recognize Telma Hopkins, one half of Dawn, as Steve Urkel’s Aunt Rachel or from the other various TV roles she landed from the 80s’ Bosom Buddies & Gimme A Break to the current version of Are We There Yet.
The song itself may have brought on the 20’s/40’s revival of musical styles, which the group expanded on with their next album, Dawn’s New Ragtime Follies (see, still clinging to the Dawn name, even after a mega-smash). It’s the kinda song you’d imagine you’d hear in Shakey’s Pizza or during a carousel ride. The Great Gatsby movie was only a year away and platform shoes, a 40’s throwback, were becoming more mainstream fashion. When you hear that organ and banjo intro, you either want to dance the Lindy or jam metal rods in your ears. What are you gonna do? Irvin Levine & L. Russell Brown wrote a catchy tune. And they had already had some Dawn hits, Knock Three Times & Candida. Irvin also co-wrote This Diamond Ring with Al Kooper, a hit with Gary & the Playboys in 1965.
The meaning and origin of the lyrics have taken on a life of their own. Supposedly inspired by a true story from a New York Post article about a convict riding a bus home from prison awaiting a yellow handkerchief on his arrival, this was also been widely disputed. In fact the songwriters were sued by the author of that newspaper story until they proved that they got the idea from additional sources in the military. The significance of a yellow ribbon has its origins date back to the Civil War. A woman would wear a yellow ribbon in her hair in honor of husband or ‘sweetheart’ who’d be off to war. In this song, a guy is getting released from a 3-year prison stint. He writes his lover ahead of time to let her know and ask if she still wants him. Rather than await an answer, he asks her to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree. I’ll assume she knows which one. That’s pretty much the song. And during a time of military strife in Vietnam, I wonder how many soldiers coming home, facing the scorn of many for their duty served, heard the song and asked the same request. It’s a simple of song of redemption and forgiveness, such by a guy who only 3 years before used an alias on a song which hit the Top 10, because he was afraid of what folks might think.
Hearing this song as a kid appealed to me because of it’s childlike musicality and it’s sing-song nature, even though the lyrics are better fully understood by adults. But the part near the end which slows down and the whole damn bus is cheering cause the guy can’t believe that not only did he get one yellow ribbon, he got 99 more….damn that still gets me. I have no idea why. But if gets a hardened soul like me, it makes sense why it got 2 million others that year. And why the yellow ribbon symbol was used during the Iran Hostage crisis, during the Gulf War and for suicide awareness as well as a symbol used around the world.
Oh I forgot the best part. Tony was about to give up the music business after the hits starting drying up in 1972. But he decided to give it one final try with a song he wasn’t that thrilled about recording – a song which 40 years later continues to have a global impact.