GROTON, Conn. — Each generation has musical heroes who wash into relative obscurity against the rising tide of newer, real-time artists.
In that fashion, it wasn’t much of a surprise or even a disappointment that few students at Cutler Arts & Humanities Magnet Middle School were familiar with 1970s pop star Tony Orlando when he showed up Monday morning to sing a few hits and speak to students about the importance of dreams and hard work.
By the time Orlando had finished his presentation, though — including a rousing version of his biggest success, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," with the Cutler Choir — dozens of students and not a few faculty members lined up to have the 75-year-old star autograph shoes or bracelets or shirts or pose for pictures.
"I'd heard of him, but only through my grandmother," said eighth-grader Curtis Robinson, holding a T-shirt for Orlando to sign after the brief presentation. "I didn't know any of the songs, but I liked them. I'll download them."
Orlando performed Sunday evening in the Mohegan Sun Arena and agreed to stay over until Monday and meet the Cutler students at the request of old friends Thomas and Anissa Cantone and their daughter Tess.
Thomas Cantone, the president of sports & entertainment at Mohegan Sun, has booked Orlando in numerous gigs over the years. Anissa Cantone is a community coordinator at Cutler, and Tessa, a student at Cutler, is, as Orlando described it, “my honorary niece.”
"My wife and daughter came up with the idea of asking Tony to do a sort of motivational performance with the kids," Thomas Cantone said. "Many of the kids at Cutler are from military families and Tony does so much for our military. And Tony was happy to (to appear at the school)."
Of course, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," with its narrative of hope and homecoming — and with a super glue-strength chorus — has become an anthem for our servicemen and veterans.
With Orlando’s support and activism, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” has raised over $300 million for military personnel since the song was released 1973.
It’s also an internationally recognized symbol when individuals wear a yellow ribbon or, as was the case Monday with the landscaping in the entrance/exit drive in from of Cutler, trees are festooned with yellow ribbons.
"There's a yellow ribbon!" Orlando joked when he arrived at Cutler, getting out of a black suburban and pointing at one of the trees. "What crazy person did that?"
The answer was Cutler teacher Leslie Forbes, who, along with Principal Peter Bass, greeted Orlando in a light snowfall.
"His being here does so much for our program and what we're trying to do," Forbes said, describing Cutler's aims and goals as an arts and humanities school that, among other things, is preparing to move to a new facility next year.
“He’s not just a singer or a television performer, he’s an activist whose entire career is about giving back. We’re so happy the kids get to see and hear him.”
‘What’s your dream?’
Orlando, after checking in at the school office and charming everyone he met, including school employees who'd been at the Sun concert, was first escorted to a small music class taught by teacher/choir director Kathy Mitchill, who introduced the star.
"Someone told you to applaud!" Orlando laughed when he was indeed warmly greeted by the students. "I'm just some old guy with white hair, but my name is Tony Orlando and if you ask your grandmothers or great-grandmothers, they'd know. I was in a group called Dawn and we sold millions of records. One of them was recorded in 1973 and called 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon' and I know that means nothing to you and that's understandable.
“But I’m blessed and lucky that that song has come to symbolize the safe return and support for our military, who have done so much for us.”
Orlando then spoke a few minutes on the importance of dreams — as opposed to wishes — and emphasized that the only way to achieve the former is through hard work.
"What would you like to be?" he asked. "What's your dream? You don't have to know what it is right now. Maybe you do. But when you find it, you have to work as hard as you can to achieve it."
As the artist thanked the students and moved across the hall to the gymnasium to sing with the choir and address the whole student body, Mitchill reflected on what his appearance at the school meant.
"It's important for students because it brings the past to the present. It's reality," she said. "We talk all the time about musical genres in class, whether it's blues or rock or whatever. And they listen. But it's so different to actually meet someone who was very successful from another era. And he was so good with them."
In the gym, as the student body assembled and began seating themselves on the floor, Orlando, who got started in the music business as a songwriter in his teens, explained the magic of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," which he did not write.
"To be honest, I thought it was corny," he laughed. "But for the next several days, I couldn't get the chorus out of my head. I finally called my producer and said, 'This song is irresistible. We've got to record it!'"
‘The future of our country’
Tessa Cantone introduced Orlando with biographical background information that included five #1 Billboard hits, multiple platinum and gold records, and numerous industry awards. He's also an author, a record company executive and, with Dawn, hosted the first-ever ethnically diverse prime time variety television show.
Orlando then took the microphone and said, “Here’s the deal. I know Taylor Swift very well … (Disney star) Raven-Symoné is my goddaughter.”
There were exclamations of awe and applause.
He grinned and added, “And I know very well that very few of you know who I am other than an old guy with white hair … But what I want to share with you today is that I respect you for listening to me today.
"I’m 75 years old, but I’m 16 in my heart. I don’t consider you kids. You’re in a tough place because you’re not quite adults but you’re not exactly just young people, either. But I envy you because you’re the future of our country.”
He asked how many students were from military families and nodded appreciatively at the large display of raised hands.
“It means so much,” he said. “Your parents, when they signed up, were making a commitment that means they would die for this country.”
Orlando then described the history of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” and the evolution of its military symbolism — from the first-ever live performance of the song at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, to welcome prisoners of war home from Vietnam to the Iranian hostage crisis and Desert Storm to present-day conflicts, where yellow ribbons are tied around tank turrets on every base.
"If this song has become an anthem of freedom and hope, I'm lucky," Orlando said. "They're singing it right now in Taiwan and China in the hopes they'll soon enjoy the same freedoms we do."
At that point, the Cutler Choir took the stage, clad in black and white, and joined Orlando in a version of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."
Under the direction of Mitchill, the group had less than two weeks to master some fairly complex harmonies and contrapuntal arrangements. The crowd beamed in recognition of the tune or just appreciation of the hooks — or maybe the legacy.
"That was amazing what they did," Orlando said, gesturing at the choir and repeatedly asking for the audience to reward the group for their work.
He then did two more of his biggest hits, “Candida” and “Knock Three Times,” getting plenty of audience participation on the latter, and then spoke a few more minutes, re-emphasizing the theme he introduced in the earlier music class: That dreams require hard work.
"There are no banners or walls that can stop you," he said. "We got to know each other a little bit today. When your hair gets this color, you at least gain some wisdom. I hope I maybe passed a little on. That's all of our jobs. Pass it on. Meeting you today has made me feel great about the future."
This story was distributed by The Associated Press.