Toni Tennille: A Memoir
By Toni Tennille with Caroline Tennille St. Clair
Taylor Trade Publishing
214 pages, $21.95
By Robbie-Ann McPherson
The 1970s enjoyed a Golden Era for “cheesy” AM-radio hits, and pop duo Captain and Tennille rode the frothy crest with their infectious super-hit “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Written by the legendary Neil Sedaka, the song featured Daryl “The Captain” Dragon’s funky keyboard stylings and a jaunty vocal by singer Toni Tennille.
The fact that Dragon and Tennille also were a couple in real life made the song an even foamier alternative to furrowed-brow art rock and the cynical politics of the day.
But in her new autobiography “Toni Tennille: A Memoir,” a reflective Tennille untangles the many dichotomies that the song’s success split open for her.
Being at the top of the charts was exhilarating, but the toll it took on her marriage – the very essence of her brand – was defeating. Her love for Dragon and the need to please him was at constant odds with what she thought was the right thing to do – with their home, their relationship, her music career and even her daily diet.
She describes with slight irony the “Love Will Keep Us Together” 1974 album cover shoot, which featured the couple in a cheerful California-casual pose with their pet bulldogs.
“It was, everyone agreed, the perfect picture of a quirky, happy couple simply having fun – the very symbol of optimistic, modern romance that Americans in the mid-’70s, beleaguered by the Vietnam War, rising divorce rates and inflation, were desperate for,” she writes.
But behind closed doors Dragon was withdrawn, cold, and in her word, “difficult.” Dragon required himself and Tennille to eat nothing but grapefruit for weeks to “purify” their bodies. He withdrew into moody rages that eventually led her to divorce him after 40 years together. She writes that Dragon always wore the gimmicky sea captain hat not for fun, but to cover hair loss and a poor hair transplant surgery.
Tennille recalls Dragon’s neurotic behavior with pity more than anger or regret. Reading about the loveless void that was their marriage doesn’t come across as shocking; it’s more like watching a yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face slowly morph into a frown.
Tennille is, however, careful to credit Dragon as the love of her life, and the inspiration behind Captain and Tennille’s hit “Do That to Me One More Time,” which she wrote as a plea for his rare affection. In keeping with her resilient personality, she almost blames herself for loving a man who couldn’t love her the way she wanted him to.
Over their successful career Dragon and Tennille made a series of hits that were the music equivalents of big fat yellow “Have a nice day” stickers. Disco was even cooler than they were.
But Tennille reveals with characteristic humility that she indeed crossed paths with many big names, including Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Chevy Chase and many others sprinkled throughout the book. She dishes, albeit briefly and kindly, on her many celebrity encounters in their 1970s heyday.
Her chance encounter with the ultra-hip Joni Mitchell in the mid-’70s goes a lot like most of us mere mortals imagine it would if we bumped into a folk goddess in the ladies room.
“Joni possessed the kind of effortless cool that made me feel like the girl who comes to the party in a dress when everyone else is in jeans,” she writes.
She is careful to credit Dragon’s significant musical talent, which often gets lost in the sudsy bubble of the pop music they made, but she describes her own substantial gifts with typical modesty. She downplays her legendary backup vocal turn on Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album so much with so few details, it’s almost a tease.
Yes, you read that right – Toni Tennille contributed backup vocals on Pink Floyd’s artistic triumph, and not only that, Pink Floyd asked for her. Well Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and David Gilmour asked for the exact backup vocalists who sang on Elton John’s soaring “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” and Tennille’s smoky contralto was one of those voices.
As she headed to the studio, she recalls wondering if the mysterious British rock band would be in a haze of drugs and groupies, or even show up, since they were rumored to be at each other’s throats. Instead, she found four clear-eyed, polite, focused, businesslike musicians trying to make a masterpiece, with no drugs or fighting in sight.
In 1979, Dragon and Tennille built the renowned Rumbo Recorders studio in Canoga Park, Calif., and until they sold it in 2003 it was one of the most respected studios in the industry. Megadeth recorded the famed “Rust in Peace” album there, and Rumbo was also the choice for Guns N’ Roses to record their breakout “Appetite for Destruction” album. The studio was sought-after by A-listers from Rage Against the Machine to Celine Dion. Tennille credits Dragon for his vision, and his long-held dream of owning a state-of-the-art recording studio.
Toni Tennille comes across like the sunny neighbor who always has a smile on her face even in terrible times, and who might say things like “H-E-double-hockey-sticks!” instead of cussing. As she winds her way in the book through her Alabama childhood, to meeting Dragon, to their early salad days playing gigs in a restaurant-bar in Los Angeles, up and down the stardom ladder, to a difficult life alone with Dragon after the glitter faded, she presents every detail with a sweet lack of self-awareness, and even-handed positivity.
Toni Tennille now lives in Florida and speaks with Dragon every few weeks on the phone, but is no longer under his thumb. Her memoir is a fun, light read; along with the sad surprises about her marriage, there are joyful surprises too. And, in the end, a lesson in how it’s never really too late to tell the truth about yourself – especially to yourself.
Robbie-Ann McPherson is a freelance Buffalo writer.