Toni Tennille tells it like it is
Wed. May 4, 2016 by Gregg Shapiro
I have found with all of my gay friends who love the music, they are passionate and they find what’s underneath.
Toni Tennille talks about her memoir and life as one half of The Captain & Tenille
As one half of the Grammy Award-winning, chart-topping married musical duo Captain & Tennille, Toni Tennille’s distinctive and powerful singing voice and radiant smile helped define the mood of the mid-to-late 1970s. Dominating the airwaves with inescapable hit songs such as “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Shop Around,” “Lonely Night (Angel Face),” “Muskrat Love,” and originals such as “The Way That I Want To Touch You” and “Do That To Me One More Time,” Captain & Tennille also had their own TV variety series and TV specials. However, the duo’s bubbly and romantic music had little in common with their actual relationship. In Toni Tenille: A Memoir (Taylor Trade, 2016), written with Caroline Tennille St. Clair, Toni Tennille not only shares enthralling biographical information (she played keyboards with the Beach Boys and sang backing vocals on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for example), she also opens up about her complex relationship with emotionally withdrawn ex-husband Daryl Dragon (aka The Captain). I spoke with Toni about the book in April 2016.
Gregg Shapiro: In your new memoir, you mentioned that before coming up with the name The Captain & Tennille, there were other names that didn’t make the cut. Do you happen to recall any of them?
Toni Tennille: The only one that we really considered at first, because Daryl’s last name is Dragon, we thought we’d call ourselves The Dragons, which was a name that he had used with his brothers when they worked together. They weren’t too happy anyway that Daryl went with me instead of them. Then we thought maybe that sounds like a group that plays in Holiday Inns all across the country, so then we decided on Captain & Tennille because Daryl was called The Captain by The Beach Boys and Tennille is my last name.
GS: Doesn’t The Dragons also sound kind of heavy metal?
TT: It does, doesn’t it? I never thought about it. We were just trying to get work. Did we really want to be stuck with The Dragons?
GS: The rise in popularity of Captain & Tennille occurred around the same time that Neil Sedaka was mounting his stateside comeback. Would you agree that it worked in your favor, considering that you had hits with songs such as “Love Will Keep Us Together” and “Lonely Night (Angel Face)”; that there was a synchronicity there?
TT: Absolutely! I talked to Neil when I was (recently) in New York. He’s been a friend for a long time. We both appreciate what it’s done for both of us. It’s really funny because so many of his songs are right in our sweet spot, but we did them differently from Neil. For instance, “You Never Done It Like That.” Neil, and Howie Greenfield, of course, wrote the lyrics, we don’t want to forget Howie, a dear friend. When Neil did it was this happy (sings), “You never done it like that.” I said to Daryl, “I want to make this work for my voice and do a little more sensual kind of thing. What can you come up with for a beat?”
GS: And Neil’s version of “Love Will Keep Us Together” is vastly different from your rendition.
TT: I know! That’s what makes songs work. Different artists put their own take on it. The thing was that Neil was so great about it. He just loved it. He especially loved that they were hits. He thought was great [laughs]. He’s just such a good guy. We’ve seen each other over the years. There’s this clip on YouTube when I had my talk show in 1980 where he and I did a medley of his songs and we ended with “The Hungry Years,” which just killed me.
GS: It’s such a beautiful song.
TT: Yes! I watched it and I hadn’t seen it since we did it. It kind of brought me to tears. To see that after all these years and to know where we both are is very special
GS: Captain and Tennille recorded Willis Alan Ramsey’s song “Muskrat Love” for 1976’s Song of Joy album and had an unexpected hit with it. The song appeared with different lyrics and a different title, as “Sun Down” on Sun Down Lady, the debut album by Lani Hall…
TT: Come on! I didn’t know that! I knew it was called “Muskrat Candlelight” at one time.
GS: You also mention the version by America in your book. But Hall, who also happened to be the wife of Herb Alpert…
TT: Of course! I know her!
GS: So it made me wonder if A&M label chief Alpert might have also had something to do with you and Daryl hearing and recording the song?
TT: No, it’s much more mundane than that. Daryl and I were working in clubs. We were your Top 40 cover band and occasionally threw in songs that I’d written. We were driving to The Smokehouse to do our club there one evening. We always had our Top 40 station on and I heard America’s version. I had to put my ear down near the speaker because the lead vocal is buried and it’s hard to understand the lyrics. But I said to Daryl, “I think this song is about muskrats and love. I want to go find the sheet music.” At that time you could still get sheet music in record stores. We found it and I started reading the lyrics and it made me laugh. I said, “Let’s work this up and put it in the club (act) and see what the people think.” They went nuts for it, totally nuts. Finally, we just had to cut it off at two times a night. I said, “I’m not going to do this all night long.” When we were getting ready to add another tune to the album (Song of Joy), we thought, people loved it in The Smokehouse so why don’t we see what happens.
GS: According to the book, Henry Kissinger wasn’t too thrilled with it.
TT: Oh, no.
GS: But who cares what he thinks.
TT: Who cares! I dedicate it to him every time I sing it. I don’t think he has any idea about his connection to “Muskrat Love.”
GS: People who read lyrics and liner notes discovered that Captain & Tennille were more than just a cover act, actually having hits with songs that you wrote, including “The Way That I Want To Touch You” and “Do That To Me One More Time.” As both a singer and a songwriter, how important is it for you to have both of those sides showcased?
TT: I love it! I always love it when it’s one of my songs that hits the charts, like “The Way That I Want To Touch You” and “Do That To Me One More Time.” Interestingly, it’s some of the songs that are tucked in to the albums, that were never released as singles, that I am particularly proud of.
GS: Would you like to name some?
TT: “Don’t Forget Me.” “Deep In The Dark,” which is a very sensual experience thing. “But I Think It’s A Dream” is another one that I love. The ones that were kind of for kids, “Circles” and “Butterscotch Castle.” I didn’t care if it was hip or not, I just wanted to write. If you go through the albums and look at the ones I’ve written, I’m proud of all of them.
GS: In the early to mid-1980s, artists such as Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt recorded albums of songs from the great American songbook. You did something similar with the album More Than You Know in 1984. In addition to exposing a new generation of listeners to these songs, do you think your album, as well as Linda and Carly’s were also comments on the state of music at that time?
TT: I never thought of it that way. I know that Linda’s father loved that music and raised her on it. I don’t know about Carly’s family. My father was a big band singer and raised me and (my sister) Jane, in particular, on that music. He had every record that came out by the big bands and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie. He made sure that we listened to all that music. That music is in my heart always. A&M said, “No, no. You’re a pop singer. Don’t you dare mess with that formula.”
GS: Right, because you went to a different label for that album.
TT: I had to. A&M wasn’t interested at all. After that album was released, I went on to sing with symphony orchestras and big bands for a couple of decades; introducing that music to people who weren’t familiar with it. I would tell stories about the composers, about how the song came to be written. I think people learned a lot that way. Another thing, too, that those of us, like Linda and Carly and Rod Stewart who have done it, in those lyrics, by Rodgers & Hart and Johnny Mercer, there’s poetry and so much subtext that you get into. I mean, I wrote “Do That To Me One More Time,” so, come on [laughs]…at least it wasn’t “Do It To Me One More Time.” As I’m singing some of these great songs, you have this subtlety and subtext going on, you’re not just singing words that don’t mean anything. That’s one reason I think some of us were attracted to that music.
GS: In the book you write that during Captain & Tennille’s early years, you performed at a gay bar called David's in L.A.. You also wrote about socializing with Neil Sedaka’s gay songwriting partner, the late Howie Greenfield and his partner Tory. What does it means to you to have gay people in your life?
TT: Howie Greenfield was the first person who heard “Love Will Keep Us Together” when it was just released in L.A. He called A&M and said, “Who is this? Who is this group? This is great!” They told him who it was and he said, “Are they black?” [laughs]. That’s always a huge compliment to me. He got in touch with us and we got together. He was one of the most gracious, lovely men I have ever known. He and Tory had a beautiful home in Beverly Hills filled with things they had bought on all of their travels. Going to a party at Howie’s was not like some of these crazy Hollywood parties that you have to go to. They dragged me and Daryl to them kicking and screaming.
GS: You mentioned that you didn’t enjoy them in the book.
TT: I hated them! Howie and Tory ran a gracious home. The people that they had over were really interesting. They were good and lovely people. Of course, he introduced me to Neil when he came in from New York. That’s how Neil and I became friends. The experience at David’s (bar), with all those people who were gay and who loved with a passion what we were doing…
GS: That’s how you know you’ve made it, when you have a gay following.
TT: Absolutely! I have found with all of my gay friends who love the music, they are passionate and they find what’s underneath. They don’t just go with what’s on the surface. They’re also lovely and loyal people. When I found out that Howie had AIDS, I will never forget that. We were living in Lake Tahoe. It was happening badly then, as you may recall. I remember I went out and took a hike to think about him. I wanted to write something about Howie and how much he meant. I thought, “He’s probably going to die.” Because that’s what was happening at that time. It was a death sentence. I thought, “Howie’s love will survive in a song and a memory.” That’s what came to me. “Love survives although everything else is gone.” That was my way of doing a tribute to Howie. I wrote the song for him. I knew, at the time, that it wasn’t a song that was good for my voice. I used write songs that I wished other people would sing, but I was embarrassed and shy to say, “This is one of my songs. Are you interested?” Once I finished it, I was so proud of it and what it said about Howie, how his legacy would live on in the music that he did, even though it wasn’t right for me to sing. I think he died somewhere around 1986. I decided to send the song to Whitney Houston because she could sing the heck out of it. She had exactly the voice that I wanted. She was one of Clive Davis’ artists and I sent him the demo. [Laughs] after a while he wrote me back and said, “Thank you very much, Whitney already has her own filler material for the album.”
TT: And he said, “You and Daryl don’t have the cache we’re looking for.”
GS: That was so rude and offensive.
TT: I know! I thought, “Okay. You don’t have to say that I wrote it [laughs].” I just want this song I wrote for Howie to get out there. He had his hip group of people that he dealt with and we weren’t. I think she really might have liked the song. I haven’t really told this story. Maybe we just weren’t hip enough for his thing. But it was disappointing to me. There was me, again, too shy to put my songs out there, and “slam.” I thought, I just won’t do that anymore.
GS: Why was now the right time for you to write your memoir?
TT: When you get to be my age, 75, ugh, people – fans and friends – ask you, “When are you going to write your memoir?” I always said, “No, I’m not going to,” for two reasons. First of all, I spent the eight years I lived in Prescott (AZ) before I moved here (to Florida) trying to figure out what I was going to do about my marriage. It took me a very long time, with a lot of support to figure out what to do, to make up my mind. I didn’t know where it would go if I did write my memoir. Also, I am a good writer. I can say what happened. But my niece, Caroline (my sister Jane’s youngest daughter), she has the ability to paint the picture, set the scene with words, and weave my life through what was happening historically at the time. Mine would just be, “This is what happened.” But I think she did a lovely job.
GS: It’s got a great flow to it and reads naturally. Now, sitting here talking to you, the book sounds like you. You can hear your voice in it.
TT: One of the things Caroline and I did, and it took us two years to write it, she was here and I was a couple of thousand miles away, sometimes we did it in person but most of the time it was over the phone or over the internet, but one of the things we worked on was, I would say, “Here’s what happened at the White House” and she would do her thing and send it back to me. I would read it out loud and make sure that it sounded like me. We would change words and phrasings to make sure it was my voice authentically. Of course, she is my niece and she knows me.
GS: Was it freeing to be able to tell your story and write honestly about your relationship with Daryl in the way that you did?
TT: Once I made the decision, I knew that so many of our fans would be like, “Oh, my God! I thought they had the perfect relationship!” I wanted them to understand my thinking and how I got to this decision. I wanted to put out my case for why I did what I did. Some people might disagree. Most people understand. I’ve had a few who say, “Who cares what that old lady says.” When Carly Simon’s memoir came, I checked to see what people were saying, and they said the same thing, “Who cares what that old lady says?” I thought, “Wait a minute! You’re talking about one of the finest songwriters, one of the most iconic voices here, and what have you done?” [laughs]
GS: Aside from write nasty things on the internet.
TT: Yes! You have to consider the source for comments like that. When Caroline and I finished our (recent) trip to New York (to promote the book) we were heading back to JFK in the car. I gave Daryl a call to see how he was doing. I check on him every week or so. I said, “How are you doing?” He said, “I’m doing good” [laughs], which he never says. He said, “I saw your interview on the Today Show,” and I asked him what the thought of it. He said, “I’m proud of you!” We chatted about all sorts of things. We’ve talked before, but mostly it’s about business. It’s funny; I think he’s having a kind of epiphany. I care about him tremendously and he knows it. I just couldn’t keep on with the way things were. I know he was always incredibly proud of me as an artist. I was hoping he’d be okay with all this stuff going on and the interviews that I’d done.
GS: You were trending on Facebook.
TT: I know [laughs]. Who cares about that old lady? But anyway, I posted about it on Facebook so that my fans would know that he’s good with it. Bless his heart. In his own Daryl way, I think he’s excited about the renewed interest [laughs] in Captain & Tennille. When you read the book, I didn’t do a hit job on him at all.
GS: I recently saw the movie I Saw The Light, about Hank Williams, who, like you, is also from Alabama. Biopics continue to be very popular with moviegoers. If there was a movie version of your memoir, who would you want to portray you in it?
TT: [Laughs] we’ve been approached already. But I shut it down, at first. My agent, of course, thinks I’m a nut case. But as I told her, “Jennifer, my fear about this is that I don’t want Daryl to come out looking like a monster or a bad person.” She said, “You have complete creative control!” Right now, I’m still leaning towards no. My team and I discuss it all the time. I did tell Daryl about it.
GS: But if there was one, is there someone that you could picture?
TT: They talked about Taylor Swift.
GS: I knew it!
TT: Here’s the thing. Not that I don’t think she’s done a fabulous job with her career. But I would rather have a more mature person. When I met Daryl, I was 31. When I had my first hit, I was 35. She’s what, 26? I don’t think she could ever understand the subtleties of what I’m trying to say. I would prefer that an actress do it who is a fine actress who would get the subtleties. I would want the same thing for whoever played Daryl. I would want them to understand that this was a tortured man who pretty much tortured himself for years. Not without reason because of the way he was raised. That’s what I’m concerned about.
GS: Near the end of the book you write about your 2015 move to Florida. Because of its proximity to Alabama, did moving to Central Florida feel like a kind of return to your roots?
TT: Oh, absolutely! Because when we lived in Alabama, we’d come down to Panama City every summer and rent a house on the beach. We’d come to Florida all the time. I remember when Jane came to visit me in Prescott, which is in the high desert country, about 5,000 feet. I asked her what she thought about it and she said, “Well, it’s nice. But it’s so brown.” Then when I moved here and walked up the driveway and it was green and flowers. I got here in August when it was really hot and the dogs went right out back and started chasing lizards. I thought, “I have missed this.”
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.