By the Way

If the casino’s on fire, you better save Tony Orlando

Tony Orlando performs a medley of Beatles songs Friday at the Golden Nugget Casino in Biloxi.
Tony Orlando performs a medley of Beatles songs Friday at the Golden Nugget Casino in Biloxi.

We were hanging out Friday night in the green room of the Golden Nugget Casino in Biloxi with Tony Orlando and his lovely wife, Fran.

My favorite sister-in-law, Dena, who is my only sister-in-law but would remain my favorite even if I had 100, had gone with me to the show because she, much like myself, was a big fan of Tony’s music and TV show when we were kids. Tony would soon be playing a show at the Golden Nugget.

The great Toni Wine was also backstage chatting with us. Toni is Tony’s keyboardist — they’ve worked together in some capacity for about 56 years. She was married to the late, great songwriter and producer Chips Moman, who wrote “Luckenbach, Texas” and produced “Always on My Mind” for Willie Nelson among a million other things.

Toni penned the classic “Groovy Kind of Love,” which is such a great song that it was a hit twice — for The Mindbenders in 1966 and again in 1988 for Phil Collins.

Toni, who was in The Archies, was telling us a great story about the recording of “Sugar Sugar” and how she had to recruit Ray Stevens to lay down some hand claps on the song. Suddenly, emergency lights started flickering and a voice said over the Golden Nugget’s PA, “Please evacuate the hotel. There has been a fire.”

As a journalist, my first instinct should have been to text someone at the office to let them know, but it wasn’t — it never even crossed my mind until I was framing this story in my head on the drive home from the show. My first reaction was, “There are a lot of people I love in this room and I’m going to save them.” I knew I had to save Dena, because she’s my favorite and she’s my son Charlie’s godmother.

I also had to make sure my new friend Toni Wine made it out safely. And then there’s Tony’s lovely wife, Fran. I knew I had to get her to safety as well.

And you can’t leave behind a national treasure like Tony Orlando. No way. Even if I had to walk through a fire reminiscent of the one in the 1972 film “The Poseidon Adventure,” Tony Orlando was going to survive.

Although it was somewhat tense for a moment, we finally learned it was false alarm. And thank God. There was no fire, no one was injured, including my new friends and my sister-in-law, and Tony was going to perform his show as scheduled. It’s important to note there was a laryngitis scare — the great people of the Golden Nugget have no idea Tony was on the verge of canceling the show.

But he didn’t and it was fantastic.

From the show-opening cover of Neil Diamond’s “America” to the ending medley of Beatles hits, Tony performed a top-notch show. It was real pleasure to hear him sing “Candida,” which was written by Toni, and his version of George Harrison’s Beatles classic “Something.” He also made me part of a showbiz “bit” and for that I will always be grateful. It was one of those, “I was talking to my good friend Jeff Clark backstage when (fill-in-the-blank) happened...” It was a classic, old-school show biz move.

Tony told me several times throughout the night that I should write a book. He said it again in a note he wrote to me and it was the last thing he said to me before we said our goodbyes. This is the same sentiment my wife, Dayna, and my friend Brian Wilemon have been telling me for years.

Perhaps it’s time to start on the book I think I’m destined to write? It’s not like I’m getting any younger. Maybe I’ve already started?

Chapter One: The night I helped save national treasure Tony Orlando from a fire that never happened in a hotel casino.