Mr Yellow Ribbon and his anthem of hope

Mr Tony Orlando (holding microphone) sang with the inmates of a Singapore prison. His hit song, Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree, inspired the Yellow Ribbon Project, which champions second chances for former offenders by urging society to accept them.

Would you like to come on stage and sing your hit song, the master of ceremonies asked Hollywood Walk of Fame singer Tony Orlando. Now 70, he obliged and walked up the stage at the Singapore Prisons last week.

The crowd of inmates waited for him to sing his famous song Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree, a global anthem of acceptance, hope and homecoming.

The song was him and he was the song. But not that day.

He took the microphone and asked the inmates, who were performing for him minutes ago, to sing one of their songs - Heart And Soul - again. And he playfully chimed in with impromptu lyrics during breaks in the song.

"What we did just now was to improvise and create our own moment that is totally ours, something that came out of the spirit of each other," he explained to the inmates later.

"I didn't come in to sing my hit, I sang part of your hit."

It was this same spirit that propelled the success of the Yellow Ribbon song that starts with, "I'm coming home, I've done my time. Now I've got to know what is and isn't mine."

It became the Everyman hit as everyone found something in it after its release in 1973.

More importantly, many prisons, including Singapore's, named or modelled their rehabilitation programmes after the symbolic yellow ribbon.

At the start, the jaunty song was a chorus for American prisoners of war returning from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Later, it has been applied to anyone returning home after a crisis, with yellow ribbons sprouting up on trees during wartime or when someone is missing or held against their will.

In the Philippines, for example, supporters tied yellow ribbons along the streets to welcome then-opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr from his self-exile in the United States in the 1980s.

More recently, the families of three kidnapped Israeli boys also asked Mr Orlando to tie yellow ribbons to the front of their houses. The boys were later found dead.

Here in Singapore, the song inspired the Yellow Ribbon Project which champions second chances for former offenders by urging society to accept them. When it started 10 years ago, about 300,000 people bought the ribbons to support ex-offenders.

The song was written for Mr Orlando's band by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, who based it on an apparently true story of a prisoner in Tampa, Florida.

When the convict was about to be released from prison, he wrote to his wife, asking her to tie a yellow ribbon around a tree near their house if she still wanted him. The passengers of the bus he was on later cheered when they saw not one yellow ribbon, but a hundred, tied around the tree.

The song topped the Billboard charts and sold three million records within three weeks of its release in 1973.

Mr Orlando told The Straits Times that the song allowed him to effect social change.

"It allowed me to go round the world to visit prisoners, raise millions of dollars for different charities and start programmes that are vitally important for offenders and their families," he said.

"My whole purpose is to take my career and turn it into good, so that it is worthwhile."

And the message that has kept him on the road for the past 40- plus years is one that speaks of second chances.

He holds strongly to this philosophy, especially after meeting prisoners worldwide. He once met a prisoner nicknamed "Buckethead" from a prison in California who was serving a life sentence.

"He said to me, Tony, I was bad for only five minutes, I was never bad before that five minutes and I was never bad after that five minutes, and for that five minutes I am paying for it my whole life."

He continued emphatically: "We all have five minutes of bad in us. All of us. And all of us deserve another look."

The prisoner later played for Mr Orlando what he said were some of the greatest songs he had heard. That is why, as a singer himself, he approves of the music programmes offered by the Singapore Prison Service which train inmates to sing and write songs.

A group of Singapore prisoners played for Mr Orlando last Monday. That night, ex-offender turned artiste Nicodemus Lee, 30, sang alongside Mr Orlando at a concert at Marina Bay Sands.

As Mr Lee hummed the lyrics of the Yellow Ribbon song to this reporter, he said it took him back to the day of his release in 2005.

"The bus was dark and the metal seat under me was so cold, until the bus headed out to the sunlight and I saw my parents," he said.

This article was first published on July 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.