Cathryn Antoinette “Toni” Tennille (1940- ) is a popular American singer and songwriter who, accompanied by husband Daryl Dragon on keyboard, performed as the Captain and Tennille. One of the most successful duos in recording history, between 1975 and 1979 they amassed six gold singles, five gold albums, one platinum single, and two platinum albums. Their recordings were listed on the pop singles chart 14 times, with half of them in the top ten. In 1976, their rendition of Neil Sedaka’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” topped the charts and won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. Tennille also starred in a variety show with Dragon, hosted her own talk show, and performed as a back-up singer for such top artists as Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Art Garfunkel.
Cathryn “Toni” Tennille Tennille was born on May 8, 1940, in Montgomery, Montgomery County, the eldest of four daughters of Frank and Cathryn Wright Tennille. She had a strong musical background. Her father was a founding member of the Auburn Knights swing and jazz band that formed in 1930 at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API, present-day Auburn University) in Auburn, Lee County. He also was a big band singer who performed with the nationally known Bob Crosby Orchestra under the pseudonym Clark Randall, and her mother hosted the first televised interview show on television station WSFA in Montgomery. At age seven, Tennille started taking piano lessons and began performing publicly in the 1950s on the “Shaping Your Future” exercise programs hosted by Idelle Brooks on WSFA. Upon graduating from Montgomery’s Sidney Lanier High School in 1958, she entered API as an English major and music minor. On off-hours, Tennille sang with the Auburn Knights and gained valuable performing and songwriting skills.
When her family moved to Los Angeles in 1960, Tennille left school and joined them there, becoming a clerk and receptionist for North American Aviation. But she continued to perform in her spare time. While engaged with the South Coast Repertory Theatre Group, she met drummer Kenneth Shearer, whom she married in 1962 and divorced in 1972. By that time, she had written music for an ecologically themed musical, Mother Earth, which received good reviews. When the production moved to San Francisco, keyboard player Daryl Dragon began performing with the company when not touring with the famed Beach Boys. He was the son of noted conductor Carmen Dragon and, like Tennille, trained as a classical pianist. So impressed was Dragon with her writing and singing that he persuaded her to join the Beach Boys’ next tour. Nicknamed the “Captain” by Beach Boy Mike Love because he always wore a yachting cap onstage, Dragon soon teamed up with Tennille as the Captain and Tennille.
The Captain and Tennille Unable to land a recording contract for their first song, “The Way I Want to Touch You,” they used $500 of their own money to release it on their own Butterscotch Castle label. The song gained in popularity and brought them to the attention of A&M Records, which signed them and produced their version of Neil Sedaka’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” The song reached number one in June 1975 and stayed on the charts for nearly six months, selling more than two and a half million copies in English and Spanish. They would go on to perform numerous other chart toppers, including “Lonely Nights,” “Shop Around,” “Muskrat Love,” and “Do That To Me One More Time,” and earn a number of gold and platinum albums. With her sultry contralto voice, Tennille conveyed a sensual quality that was distinct from the sound of Richard and Karen Carpenter, a leading brother-sister duo of the day, and the couple’s romantic soft-rock melodies offered an alternative to the hard-rock mainstream music of the 1970s. Dragon and Tennille married on November 11, 1975.
In 1976, television network ABC launched The Captain and Tennille variety show, which featured such guest stars as John Travolta, Don Knotts, The Pointer Sisters, and Red Foxx as well as Tennille’s singing sisters. The show was a hit with viewers, but Tennille and Dragon soon encountered disagreements with network executives over increasing its comedy content, and Dragon’s discomfort on camera led to the show’s cancellation after one year. The couple continued with their musical careers, however, recording more hit songs and touring widely throughout the United States. In 1977, they embarked on a four-month tour of 90 cities. The tour’s success was dampened somewhat in Alabama when a night’s earnings of $37,000 were stolen from their manager’s room at the Governor’s House Hotel in Montgomery. During this time, Tennille also wrote songs for other artists and served as a backup vocalist on albums by Pink Floyd and Elton John.
In 1980, Tennille hosted her own nationally syndicated daytime variety talk show for the ABC network, and the duo performed in several ABC specials and starred in several episodes of Love Boat and Fantasy Island. The couple ceased performing together as the Captain and Tennille in 1984, however. Dragon turned his attentions to running Rumbo Recorders, a Los Angeles sound studio he had established in 1979, and Tennille launched a solo recording career, releasing seven big-band inspired albums over the next decade, including More Than You Know (1984), Do It Again (1990), Things Are Swingin’ (1994), and Incurably Romantic (2001). The Captain and Tennille performed a final concert on July 11, 1999, in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Tennille’s later career included starring roles in such stage musicals as Stardust and Victor/Victoria and guest appearances as a featured vocalist in symphony orchestras across the country, returning to her classical roots. The couple relocated from Reno, Nevada, to the mountain desert community of Prescott, Arizona, in 2007, by which time Dragon was suffering dysthymia, a form of depression, which prevented him from performing. The couple divorced in 2014.
Bush, Wanda. “Tennille Recounts Life, Goals, Career with the ‘Captain’.” Montgomery Advertiser-Journal, August 2, 1980.
Kazek, Kelly. Hidden History of Auburn. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2011.
Kleiner, Dick. “How Much Sharing Can They Bear?” Brundidge Banner, December 21, 1976.