By Warren Kurtz
Toni Tennille was half of the Grammy Award-winning duo, Captain & Tennille, recording six albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s with her husband Daryl Dragon, nicknamed “the Captain” due to the cap he wore when the two of them were back-up musicians for Beach Boys’ tours. After 39 years of marriage, Toni Tennille divorced Daryl Dragon in 2014. Taylor Trade publishing, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, has released “Toni Tennille: A Memoir,” which Toni Tennille co-wrote with her niece Caroline St. Clair. On the back cover, Neil Sedaka reflects on Captain & Tennille’s recording of his composition “Love Will Keep Us Together” as “the most perfect production and performance of a pop song that I had ever heard.” He comments, “I marvel at what a great singer Toni Tennille truly is. Certainly in the league of Ella Fitzgerald and others from years before.”
Goldmine was able to catch up with the singer/songwriter, not only on the music of Captain & Tennille, but also other artists Toni Tennille has worked with including The Beach Boys, Art Garfunkel, Elton John, Pink Floyd and Heart.
GOLDMINE: Forty years ago, “The Way That I Want to Touch You” was in the Top 40 as your second single from your debut album “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Toni Tennille: I was so inspired by Brian Wilson’s unusual chord progressions and used that as a basis for writing the song at a New Jersey airport while Daryl and I were on tour playing keyboards for The Beach Boys.
GM: In your memoir, you mention that you thought “The Way That I Want to Touch You” was too risque to play at the White House when asked to perform at a bi-cenntenial event.
TT: I did until Betty Ford requested it when she met us and said, “I hope you are going to play “The Way That I Want to Touch You.” Gerry and I love that song!” I told her, “Well, of course we will!” The song went back on our list.
GM: At our inverview session in the ‘70s, turning over your debut album, I asked you, “What will be your next single?” You replied with a big smile, “I’m not telling you. The last time I did that, someone took it from us.” I always assumed you were talking about “I Write the Songs,” from your album, which had just been released by Barry Manilow that month.
TT: Well, Barry Manilow did a great job with that Bruce Johnston composition. We had another situation after that, too. Daryl and I had an understanding that we both had to agree on songs to record them. Musically is where we sparked, perhaps only where we sparked. Daryl’s strength was musical, a great producer and arranger. He brought out the best in me musically. We were presented with a composition by a lesser known songwriter named Randy Edelman. I really wanted the song but Daryl didn’t think much of it for us. Barry Manilow ended up having a big hit with that one, which we passed on, “Weekend in New England.”
GM: Instead of a third single from your first album, perhaps another Bruce Johnston composition “Disney Girls,” you moved on to your second album, “Song of Joy,” with three more Top 5 gold singles in a row, “Lonely Nights (Angel Face)” and covers of “Shop Around” and “Muskrat Love.” After that string, what surprised me is that the title tune from your third album, “Come In From the Rain,” wasn’t a big hit.
TT: A&M didn’t promote it, but we did in our concerts. It was our closing number, both powerful and meaningful, written by Melissa Manchester and Carole Bayer Sager. It was one of the few numbers we performed live where I accompanied myself on piano. Getting back to “Disney Girls,” I had done background vocals on Art Garfunkel’s version on his album “Breakaway,” and that was one of the first songs we did live at the Smokehouse music club, where Daryl and I often played. We recorded a local single of it with “The Way That I Want to Touch You” as its flip side, but it was that flip side which became a local hit and brought us to the attention of A&M.
GM: Your fourth album “Dream,” in 1978, was one of the final recordings released publicly on reel-to-reel tape, with “Dream,” in that format, on display at the Vintage Radio & Communications Museum of Connecticut.
TT: That album brought us back to the Top 40 with two hits, “You Never Done It Like That” in the Top 10, written by Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka, and one my sister Jane, Caroline’s mother, found in Nashville from songwriter Dana Merino, “You Need a Woman Tonight.”
GM: The flip side of “You Need a Woman Tonight” was “Love Me Like a Baby” and that gave you a chance to write with Howard Greenfield, with the recording being your piano and vocal only.
TT: The message I was conveying was at the end of the day, with a high stress job, dealing with the sharks, coming home you want to be with a person who can make you feel safe.
GM: In your book you wrote that A&M felt you couldn’t produce any more hits and released your “Greatest Hits” album despite your objection. You proved them wrong with a label change to Casablanca and your first single for them “Do That to Me One More Time” going to No. 1, and writing both sides of the single, including one of my favorite flip sides “Deep in the Dark.”
TT: When “Do That to Me One More Time” was out, from our “Make Your Move” album, a favorite jazz performer of mine, Joe Williams, called and sang it to me over the phone to congratulate me and show me that he liked it. I was thrilled. I wrote “Deep in the Dark” about sensual awakening where “secrets are unfolding” at the beginning of the song and by the end “mysteries are clearing.” Tom Scott provided a great saxophone section. I would love to hear this covered by a jazz vocalist.
GM: Kerry Chater asked me to thank you for recording his composition “Love on a Shoestring.”
TT: Kerry is a really good writer. Please thank him for me as well. This is another case where a powerful single should have done much better but lacked label support. The label president, Neil Bogart, was leaving Casablanca right as the single was released.
GM: Its flip side, “How Can You Be So Cold,” is a fun dance number.
TT: We signed to a disco label, so why not do a disco song? The lyrics I wrote expressed a frustration, obvious to me, when I sang the opening line, “How can you be so cold when I’m so hot” and it built from there.
GM: Your final charting single was one you wrote, “This is Not the First Time.”
TT: It is a powerful rock number from our “Keeping Our Love Warm” album. I was too shy to offer it to another artist. I envisioned Cher making a hit of it.
GM: Your composition “Don’t Forget Me” sounds like a song you could have offered to Bette Midler at the time. I enjoyed reading about its inspiration in your memoir.
TT: It is one of my songs that I am most proud of both lyrically and musically. My inspiration was the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer” where the couple loved each other but just couldn’t live together.
GM: Also on the album, and the flip side of the “This is Not the First Time” single, was the second time around for another favorite of mine, “Gentle Stranger,” originally the flip side of “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
TT: I wrote that song about a lovely young man I met on the beach. This time we finally added some edgy guitar to it from Ira Newborn, the musical director of my TV show.
GM: With your mid-‘70s television show and your recording studio Rumbo Recorders, you impacted a lot of other acts, including Heart, giving them their first U.S. national television debut.
TT: ABC gave us a choice of producers for the second half of the television season in early 1977 and we chose Dick Clark. He was able to get us great acts like Heart, who just had their first album out, “Dreamboat Annie,” with the songs “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man.” Ann Wilson, wow, what a voice, and Nancy, so great on guitar. Did you see them at the Kennedy Center Honors performing “Stairway to Heaven” in front of Led Zeppelin? That choir came out at the end and it brought Robert Plant to tears. They were also at our studio recording songs for their “Bad Animals” album, which has their biggest hit “Alone” on it.
GM: Around the time that Heart was on your show, Elton John’s single “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)” was on the radio and jukeboxes for a few weeks with “Chameleon” as its flip side.
TT: There was a group of us doing background vocals for “Chameleon” and I always tried to stay in the middle of the chord, with me actually having a male tenor range, blending with voices both higher and lower than mine. We had so much fun.
GM: One of the funniest stories in your book is about a Pink Floyd fan’s disbelief that you had any connection to Roger Waters and David Gilmour and then his ultimate humble reaction. I have tried to figure out what songs you are singing background vocals on when I listen to “The Wall.”
TT: Me too! The band and producer Bob Ezrin gave me sections to sing, so I never knew where that would fit on any of the songs they were developing. I still don’t know.
GM: You wrote that Karen Carpenter had “one of the loveliest human voices ever recorded.” Your relaying of the conversation you had with her on A&M’s brief consideration of the Sex Pistols for the label is revealing. Did you spend time with other artists on A&M when you were on the label?
TT: It was great spending time with Karen. She was very reserved and I respected that. I also spent time with Joe Cocker, who was not reserved at all. I loved him in the “Woodstock” film singing “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Both of them recorded at our studio.
GM: When you debuted on Casablanca, with that array of acts, both you and KISS achieved gold singles that year for first time since 1976.
TT: We saw them in concert. They were so exciting. At Rumbo we did have some hard rock acts record there including KISS and Megadeth. Due to KISS’ make-up, they could go out in public unrecognized. I thought that was great. We couldn’t do that. We saw a lot of concerts at the time, including the final one for the Eagles for their first era. What a sad loss this year of Glenn Frey. Roy Orbison opened for them that night. For their final number, the five members went to the front of the stage for an acoustic version of “Best of My Love.” When we beat them for Grammy Record of the Year, for “Love Will Keep Us Together,” they weren’t too pleased, but they got their Grammy Record of the Year two years later with “Hotel California.” Growing up, I was soothed listening to Frank Sinatra, but I like all types of music. My Australian Shepherds have early rock ‘n’ roll names, Bebop and Lula! (At this point in the interview, Caroline St. Clair interjects: “I have recently introduced Toni to the music of The Smiths and have been blogging about it and updating Toni’s Facebook page on it.” Toni responds: “Morrissey’s “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” is a title I wish I had written.”)
GM: In addition to providing chronological, behind-the-scenes stories on your music on record, radio, television and stage with “Victor/Victoria,” and your hospital service dog volunteerism, the book you wrote together (with your niece) has a constant theme on relationships and an underlying message.
TT: Caroline is the real writer of the family and I have shared her fiction manuscripts with others, who are very impressed. For us, with this book, it took about two-and-a-half years to write. After 39 years of marriage and then a divorce, for me, it took a lot of years and guts. The encouraging message of the book is that you can make a change if you need to. It is never too late.