Yellow ribbons, the ubiquitous symbol of hostage crises, evoke spine-chilling memories for Tony Orlando.

The singer-actor, best known for "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," said recently that he discovered its deep emotional meaning the first time he performed it in public.

It was in 1973, and Dawn, featuring Tony Orlando, was the opening act at a Bob Hope show at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. About 400 or 500 POWs were seated on the football field in front of the stage and 60,000 spectators watched from the stands.

"This song had been out -- I'm going to make a joke with you -- an hour and 15 minutes," Orlando said in an interview from Las Vegas. "It was out like no time at all and I was unaware that the POWs came home to yellow ribbons. And I'm on stage and I'm singing this song and all of a sudden it was the most spine-chilling moment... .

"Up they got, off their chairs, and they're coming toward the stage and they come on stage and they begin to sing the song. I looked at Hope and he looked at me -- Hope has never even heard of the song. It was that new. It was just starting to get played around the country."

From that first performance, the tune has become one of the most popular songs of all time. Broadcast Music Inc., a music licensing firm, says "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" is the most played song in history.

Orlando remembers the release of the hostages from Iran in January 1981, when skyscrapers in New York City were draped in yellow ribbons. "And I'm watching television and I'm seeing the president, and the White House is tied with a yellow ribbon," Orlando said.

"I can't tell you, you have to imagine yourself in my shoes," Orlando said. "I go back to that little moment in the studio, when I'm going 'Take 1' or 'Take 2' -- going back to the birth of this song.

"And here I am now looking at the whole world using it as kind of an anthem of freedom."

The song -- written by Erwin Levine and Larry Brown, who wrote such '70s hits for Orlando as "Knock Three Times" and "Candida" -- is based on a Civil War story about the homecoming of a soldier from the Andersonville, Ga., prison. The story was written by journalist Pete Hamill as part of the PBS series "The Great American Dream Machine."

Orlando said his interview with Knight-Ridder Newspapers was the first he'd ever done about the song.

"I never wanted to exploit this. It would be tasteless for me to do," he said.

"Normally, I duck it," he said. "This is a different situation. I just feel that we're in a posture of war. ... If there is a way, I don't know, that this song will help someone, if there is a show somewhere -- I see Jay Leno is going to Saudi Arabia -- I would love to do that. I would love to go out there and sing for those troops and do what I can."