This may be hard to do, especially if you’re under, say, 45 years of age.
But imagine yourself back in the 1970s watching one of the many weekly variety series that aired on major TV networks like ABC, CBS or NBC and starred musical hosts such as Sonny & Cher, the Jacksons, or Donny & Marie.
It was a time when singers like those and others who’d rarely displayed anything beyond their vocal talents (and dancing in the case of the Jacksons) were instantly transformed into multi-talented masters of ceremonies, vaudevillian acts, stand-up comedians and sketch comedy players – all in the name of providing millions of viewers with entertainment while their namesake variety shows racked up TV ratings for the networks.
Now imagine yourself being in the studio audience during one of those show’s tapings.
That’s what it felt like during the highly entertaining Tony Orlando & Dawn reunion concert held here at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL, on Tuesday, December 11.
Before you ask… yes, that Tony Orlando and that Dawn – Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent – who, when they were together during the better part of the 1970s, made some of the most popular – and admittedly cheesiest – music in a decade full of cheese.
Oh, and Tony Orlando & Dawn were among those acts with their own variety television show back in the day, with theirs running from the summer of 1974 through the end of 1976. It was that show whose footage was shown on the big screen to “warm up” the audience at the Arcada Tuesday before the band appeared on stage.
Tony Orlando, 74, hasn’t lost an ounce of the charisma that made their TV show a success and which helped make him and his group famous beyond their immensely popular hit records. On Tuesday night, his grace and showmanship were on full display as he often played the role of the doting big brother to Hopkins and Vincent, repeatedly showering them with one compliment after another and making sure they and the audience knew that the many years that had passed since their 1977 breakup hadn’t diminished any of the love and appreciation he had for his two Dawn companions.
Billed as a “Christmas Reunion,” the threesome spent most of the musical part of this show pouring through Christmas songs; in all they sang 19 holiday-themed tunes either in whole or in part. Orlando even dubbed the backing musicians as the “Great American Christmas band,” causing this writer and likely others to wonder whether we’d even get to hear any of their big ‘70s pop hits.
The answer came about midway through the set list when, much to the crowd’s delight, the group launched into their five biggest hits – “Candida” (whose songwriter Toni Wine was on stage as a keyboardist), “Knock Three Times” (their first Billboard No. 1), “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose,” the Jerry Butler cover and a personal fave “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” and their biggest “Tie A Yellow Ribbon (‘Round The Ole Oak Tree).”
Aside from those, the only other non-Christmas music they performed on this night were a couple of Motown covers: The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” The connection there? The little known fact that Telma and Joyce had provided backing vocals on the original recordings of those and many more classics as Motown/Stax session singers before they formed Dawn with Orlando in the ‘70s.
Ahh, Dawn. The two singing beauties have definitely aged well, as Tony O. pointed out at least three times (not while knocking, of course), plus they still sounded great!
Telma Hopkins, now 70, has even developed a convincing, Ruth Pointer-like, lower vocal register, which she showed off during a solo turn on “Christmas Time Is Here.” In a bit of a role reversal, the ever gracious Tony Orlando retreated to playing tambourine in the background while proudly yielding the spotlight to Hopkins.
Joyce Vincent, 71, whom Orlando referred to as having a “quiet strength,” also had a solo turn with an operatic take on the medley of “Ave Maria” and “Oh Holy Night.” Her voice was as sweet and emotional as the two songs merited.
But it was Telma’s sassiness that best complemented Tony’s playful banter between songs. Telma, who became a very successful sitcom actress (Bosom Buddies, Gimme A Break! and Family Matters) after her Dawn days, frequently hammed it up with Tony, telling stories and jokes that were most reminiscent of their TV show where the two Dawn singers often had fun at Orlando’s expense. Of special note were all the exaggerated facial expressions, head tosses, and eye rolls that Hopkins employed for comedic effect… and they still worked as well as they have throughout her career.
Tony Orlando, who was also still of good voice, had his comedic moments, too, as unwitting as some of them were. Like during the lead-in to “White Christmas” where he innocently asked the nearly all-white audience, “does it ever get white in St. Charles during Christmas?” As one of only a handful of people of color in attendance (with the trio making up part of that handful), I could not ignore the irony.
If those moments weren’t enough to give the event its ‘70s variety show feel, the other non-musical moments certainly were. Like the elder, white-bearded guy in the audience who was on hand for an impromptu exchange with the trio while they reminisced about what Santa brought them during their childhoods. That part seemed a bit much, particularly when it became apparent only seconds into the skit that it was indeed a planned skit. That same bearded guy later joined them on stage while in full Santa regalia and performed as “Santa Claus & Dawn” on the song “Grown-Up Christmas List.”
The show’s best moment, arguably, came after all the music stopped. That’s when the Arcada’s popular local promoter Ron Onesti conducted a 30-minute post concert interview with the trio, one where those audience members who stuck around were treated to a very candid Q&A session. In it, we learned how the group met, where the name Dawn came from and what it was like behind the scenes of their popular TV show from 40-plus years earlier, among many other facts.
It was that TV show, however, whose memories were evoked mostly on this night. Tuesday’s show was about as complete an event as one could imagine given none of us likely expected to be as thoroughly entertained as we were.
But we were entertained indeed, and kudos to Ron Onesti for putting on such a show.
And thank you to Tony Orlando and Dawn for giving us the unforgettable music and a lifetime worth of memories. You’re one guilty pleasure I’m not ashamed to put on full display this holiday season!
Tony Orlando & Dawn’s Set List for the Arcada Theatre on December 11, 2018:
- Great American Christmas
- Savior’s Day
- Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…)
- Christmas Time is Here
- I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) (Four Tops cover)
- I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Marvin Gaye cover)
- Silent Night
- Mary, Did You Know?
- Because of Christmas Day
- Christmas in New York
- Jingle Bell Rock/Santa Claus Is Coming to Town/Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- White Christmas
- Knock Three Times
- Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose
- He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)
- Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree
- Feliz Navidad (snippet)/ We Wish You A Merry Christmas (snippet)
- Grown-Up Christmas List (performed by Santa Claus and Dawn)
- Feliz Navidad (reprise)
- Ava Maria/Oh Holy Night
- O Come All Ye Faithful