By Neil Ellis Orts
Toni Tennille, half of the 1970s pop duo Captain and Tennille, sang and danced on weekly national television with her infectious smile and boundless energy while her quiet, seldom-smiling husband, Daryl Dragon, played banks of keyboards. They looked like the perfect example of “opposites attract.”
A new book, Toni Tennille: A Memoir, written with her niece, Caroline Tennille St. Clair, tells another story. Their breakthrough hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” might have better been titled “Music Is All We Have in Common.” The couple divorced in 2014. Now 75 years old and living happily in Florida near her family, Tennille finally feels able to tell the world her story—not only about a difficult marriage in the shadows of the spotlight, but also of a childhood in 1940s and ’50s Alabama, just as the civil-rights movement was beginning to take shape. It’s a more interesting read than the average celebrity memoir.
As a fan of Toni Tennille since 1975, it was a thrill to be able to talk with her for an hour. Our conversation covered a lot of ground, and what follows are just highlights. Despite the difficulties she reveals in her book, she remains upbeat and personable.
Neil Ellis Orts: I generally have a low expectation for celebrity memoirs, but this was really well written, particularly the childhood section.
Toni Tennille: Thank you. I owe quite a bit of that to my niece, Caroline, who is really a fine writer. I can write what happened at any given time, and then she has the ability to put it into a setting, paint the picture, and then weave my life through what was happening historically at the time. I was really pleased with Caroline.
That’s great that you have someone in your family to work on this with you.
I wouldn’t have worked with anyone else. I wouldn’t have written it. I wanted someone who kind of understood. In 1976, we did a Christmas episode of the Captain and Tennille Show. Jane flew out to be on it, along with my two other sisters who were regulars. Caroline was six years old. There’s a video of Caroline sitting on my lap while I sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Who knew we’d end up like we are right now, which is wonderful.
You grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, at a really interesting and volatile time in history. In your book, you keep it pretty close to your family. I was wondering what you remember of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott.
I was at university by that time and out of Montgomery. I just knew what happened when our nanny, Denny, would go with Jane and I to the park and we’d ride the bus together and Denny would have to sit in the back.
So you were already out of the town by the time the really big stuff started to happen.
Yes. There were rumblings going on, but my parents sheltered all of us girls when we were young. I don’t know if they understood what was going on. One of our housekeepers—the last one we had, Lucille—when Jane and I would drive her home to the other side of Montgomery where the black people lived, we would drop her off at her house and she would always turn to us and say, “Now you girls lock these doors and get out of here.” We weren’t really scared, because we were so sheltered. We never thought anyone would ever harm us. We thought she was being extra-careful because we were her charges. So we drove off and did things we weren’t supposed to do before we went home. But she knew. I know now, looking back, that she lived where the unrest was coming to be. We didn’t know. As kids, we didn’t know.
Funny how we can live in our enclaves and never know what’s going on in other parts of our communities.
Segregation was heavy in the south then. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in central Texas, naïve and idealistic. It was the ’70s, and I wanted to believe all the things they had on TV at the time, that we were all the same, but of course, we were so very separated in our community.
It’s true. It’s amazing. I’m 75 now, and I’ve lived a long life, and I can look back through the lens of years and experience and see what was going on much more clearly than when I was in it. When you get older, you can look back and you can understand, Oh my gosh, this is what was happening! I was there with black bathrooms, white bathrooms, black water fountains, white water fountains, white schools, black schools—I was there through all of that and just kind of accepted it.
I guess sort of like how I never questioned that there was a white part of town and a black part of town and there was literally a railroad that separated them.
Yeah! In Montgomery, there were several very prominent families who were Jewish. My parents socialized with them all the time. We were members of the Montgomery Country Club, which of course was all white, but our Jewish friends had their own country club, called the Standard Club, I think. I thought they preferred to have their own club. It never occurred to me that they would not be accepted as members of our club, because my parents socialized with them all the time; they were friends. That just shows you how naïve I was about the way things were.
As you started to play music after your family moved to California, it appears you took opportunities that came your way and you had a work ethic, but I don’t sense you had a drive to succeed at all costs—the way it seems when I read about someone like Madonna. Am I reading that wrong?
No, you’re reading that absolutely right. I never, ever in my life had the rage to succeed, which is something that I know a lot of other people in various artistic and other careers have. I just didn’t. The reason that I did the things I did—the music and the songs and writing—was because it was joyful to me. I loved it. I loved making music, and I loved being in theater and acting. It wasn’t that I ever expected or wanted to be famous. That happened because Daryl and I happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right music.
I loved how Bruce Johnston told you that you were too old to get signed to a label. I’ve been saying for a while that these days if you’re not a superstar by the time you’re 17, you’re not going to make it.
Yeah, it’s true. That happened after MTV came in. There was a lot of emphasis—not so much on the guys, frankly, but on the women—they had to really look good. They had to be able to dance, they had to be sexy, so if there was anything about you that wasn’t pretty or sexy, that was something that the record companies thought about before they signed you. Thank God it happened to me when it did, because I could never do what these gals do today—it’s just not my style. It sounds like I’m square and old-fashioned, which I’m really not, but I just don’t like that part.
I’m a square farm boy who gravitated toward you because of that. But you had a sensuality to your style.
Thank you for recognizing that! Well, it was the way I was raised, I guess. As a woman, I just didn’t feel like I needed to do certain things that other women did. I preferred my sensuality to be covert rather than overt. I have it, it’s there. I thought about it when I wrote lyrics. I preferred to let my listeners have their own emotional response to what I was saying. I always preferred to go to a movie and have the love scene fade to black than actually watching it happen, because then it gets kind of gynecological. [Laughs] I like some mystery.
I found it funny that some people thought your song ”Gentle Stranger” was a hymn to Jesus.
That really surprised me! I wrote it, frankly, about a one-night stand I had with this lovely young man on the beach in Malibu. We never saw each other again. He was lovely. The whole experience was ideal and gentle and kind—it was just a beautiful, beautiful thing. I didn’t want to pursue it any further, and, besides, Daryl and I had met, but he hadn’t shown any interest in me, and he was off with the Beach Boys. I was trying to figure out what was going on—I was vulnerable and kind of lonely at the time. That’s what I was writing about. I thought, well, it could work for Jesus if you thought of it that way—and a lot of my Christian friends did, I guess.
Well, because it wasn’t explicit, as a naïve and very religious young man I pictured this very chaste evening of dinner and conversation into the late hours, and then you just drifted off to sleep “softly in your arms.”
No, no, there was more to it than that. [Laughs] And Neil, that’s fine. That’s the way you saw it and it meant something to you, and that’s lovely.
I have to tell you a really darling story about “The Way That I Want to Touch You,” which was the first song I wrote for Daryl—“I never wanted to touch a man the way that I want to touch you.” After it became our second gold record, I got a call from a gay women’s chorus from Palm Springs, California. They said,” Would you mind if we sang this song in our concert?” I thought, well, wait a minute—“I never wanted to touch a man the way that I want to touch you.” And I went, Ooh, that works! And I said, Of course! I wasn’t thinking of it that way, but the gay women thought of it that way, and I thought, That’s perfect, go ahead!
Speaking of gay subjects, you became close friends with gay lyricist Howard Greenfield.
One of the dearest men I ever met in my life. When we recorded “Love Will Keep Us Together” and it was first being aired on the radio in Los Angeles, and Howie and his partner, Tory Damon, lived in Beverly Hills, he called A&M and asked who the group was [who had recorded his song]. Of course, he wrote the lyrics with Neil Sedaka, who wrote the music. And he said, “I want to meet them.” So we met, and Howie and Tory invited us over to their beautiful home, and we got to know them quite well. They were lovely, elegant gentlemen. They would have small gatherings at their house—they were never these big things. Tory would cook. We’d talk and laugh. It was always a lovely, relaxed time. And I truly adored that man. And when I think about it even now, it kind of makes me teary, because when we lost him to AIDS, and then Tory a little bit later, it was devastating. We had moved up to Tahoe, and I used to do a lot of hiking, and I would get my ideas while walking. I was thinking about him when I wrote one of the songs that I’m proudest of. It’s called “Love Survives.” The line came to me, “love survives in a song and a memory.” That’s the way Howie would always survive—through his music. He was a dear and wonderful man, very special to me.
Turning back to your memoir, and specifically your relationship with Daryl, after reading the book, it occurs to me you might have called it “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.”[Laughs] I have a recording of that out there somewhere.
I know, and I have to say I’ll hear it differently now, after reading your book.
I know how to deliver a torch song—I know what that’s like!
A few years ago, you had a blog on the Captain & Tennille website. You always seemed protective of Daryl even as you were sometimes exasperated with him. Then you sort of said, “I don’t know what to say any more. We’re retired, we live a private life.” I have to wonder if you stopped because you didn’t know how to write about this relationship.
I had fun writing that blog. And you’re right, I stopped. That’s interesting that you would suggest that I stopped because I didn’t want to say too much about Daryl. I wasn’t sure what was happening with him. The thing is, here I am, always thinking I can make everything fine. I grew up in a very loving family. Even though my dad was an alcoholic, he adored his daughters. We had a very loving family, and Daryl did not. His family was extremely difficult, and he has a lot of reasons for the way that he is. I don’t want to dis Daryl, because he can’t help the way he was. I don’t blame him for the way things turned out. It’s not his fault—it’s mine, because I saw this man who I thought, “Oh my God, this is the man, he’s deep and dark and mysterious. And we’ve got this wonderful musical thing going on between us!” So I spent [my earliest] time with Daryl stubbornly thinking, “I can bring him into the light, I can show him what love is. I know I can. It’s just going to take time and it’s going to be slow, but I’m patient and I’m stubborn.” I was living on hope and a sense that I could make him a happier person. I tried and tried and tried, and then we started having hits, and people were saying, “Oh, they’re so in love,” and then I thought, “I can’t say what it’s really like.” What they were saying was what I hoped it could be. And then it went on and on and on. And then finally it dawned on my thick skull that I’m not ever going to change this man. I’m not ever going to bring him into a good place. Eventually, I just gave up. I realized I wasn’t going to change him, and then I spent the rest of my years with him trying to decide what I was going to do. The last years, we lived in Prescott, Arizona, where I spent most of my time working with my dogs. My dog Smokey and I worked in a hospital as a therapy team. I showed my dogs, and I had my doggie friends, and that was a kind of a life that was mine. But all that time, I was saying, “Look, you’re getting older and older.” I was 70 and then I was 72, and I said, “I have to make a decision. If I’m lucky, I have maybe 20 years. Do I want to spend them like this?” So I finally made a decision, and I did it with a lot of help with family and friends and therapy. I went to a wonderful therapist in Prescott.
You know, I talk to Daryl every week to 10 days. We still have a business together—we still own our publishing company together. I still care about him. I ask him, “How are you doing?” and it’s always [she makes a moaning sound and then laughs]. But he’s been that way since I’ve known him. He’s just his own worst enemy.
I find that creative people seldom ever really retire, so after this book, do you have other projects?
I’ll tell you something I just thought about in [these past few] weeks since Harper Lee died. She lived all her life in Monroeville, Alabama. She lived a quiet life. She never had the kind of career that I had, where I was on television and all that stuff. But I loved the way she lived. I want to live a quiet life. I want to do some gardening, I want to watch birds, I want to enjoy my friends—just do simple things. It’s time now. I lived my life in the public eye for so long, I just want a quiet life. After all this is done and we have the book launched and Caroline has her shot at being a published author, which she richly deserves, I think I may just be Harper Lee for the rest of my life.