Toni Tennille found love at Florida home, but was at Captain’s bedside when he died

Toni Tennille, at her new home in Lake Mary, Florida, where she moved to be closer to her younger sister, Jane, after she divorced husband Daryl Dragon (aka The Captain).
Toni Tennille, at her new home in Lake Mary, Florida, where she moved to be closer to her younger sister, Jane, after she divorced husband Daryl Dragon (aka The Captain).

UPDATE: Daryl Dragon died of renal failure on Jan. 2, 2019, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Toni Tennille, his ex-wife, was by his side and had moved back to Arizona. Dragon was 76.

Lake Mary, a Central Florida suburb located about 18 miles north of Orlando, is where singer-songwriter Toni Tennille — half of the ’70s husband-and-wife pop duo Captain & Tennille — moved to become captain of her own destiny.

Here, as she and niece Caroline Tennille St. Clair, describe in the new Toni Tennille: A Memoir (Taylor Trade; $21.95), she has settled into a “modestly sized house set cozily among pine trees, oaks veiled in Spanish moss, and thick hedges of green foliage.” A home of stone accents and four peaked gables.

Her new butterscotch castle is also where Tennille, 75, moved late last summer from Prescott, Arizona, with her three Australian Shepherds after her divorce from her husband of 39 years, Daryl Dragon, aka the Captain.

Born and raised in Alabama and a childhood visitor to Florida’s Panama City, Tennille says: “I lived 50 years of my life in the west, most of it at 5,000 feet in altitude, and I hiked and climbed all over the Sierras for years. That was one of my favorite places to be. But coming back to Florida and back to the south after all those years, it was so green. It was so beautiful. I went, ‘I am home.’ I knew I was home again.”

But to get to this point, Tennille, whose hits with the Captain included two No. 1’s, Love Will Keep Us Together and Do That To Me One More Time, had to face the truth: she’d spent four decades loving a man who was incapable of returning her affection. The couple’s public image was never reality.

In this Feb. 28, 1976 file photo, Daryl Dragon and his wife Toni Tennille, of the Captain & Tennille, hold the Grammy award they won for record of the year for “Love Will Keep Us Together,” at the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Dragon died early Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 in at a hospice in Prescott, Arizona. Spokesman Harlan Boll said he was 76 and died of renal failure. His former wife and musical partner, Toni Tennille, was by his side. AP

“It took me a very, very long time to decide what I was going to do with my relationship with Daryl,” Tennille says. She says she never contemplated writing a memoir. “But when I made the decision that I was going to divorce Daryl I felt I owed it to the fans to try to explain why I did it. Some were devastated. They thought we were the couple in love and all of that. I was. I was in love all those years. But he was not. I spent years and years thinking I could help him find love and bring him out of this closed thing he was in.”

Perceptive fans should have picked up on the lyrics Tennille wrote to her husband in songs like The Way I Want to Touch You, Smile For Me One More Time, Circles, Love Me Like a Baby and How Can You Be So Cold. But Dragon, 73, who meticulously produced all of their material, only paid attention to the music part, she writes.

Tennille says she encouraged Dragon to write his own memoir to tell his side. He declined but told her, “‘I know it’s going to be fine because you have always been a straight shooter.’ He trusted me to tell the story without throwing him under the bus or casting him in a terrible light, which I would never do because I loved him, and I still care about him, and he knows that. I don’t blame him for any of this because I was trying to make him in the image of what I had always hoped he would be, and I couldn’t.”

There’s a sweet aftermath to the story, though. The two speak regularly. After Tennille’s recent appearance on NBC’s Today show, while en route to JFK Airport with her niece, Dragon, on the phone, told his ex he had seen the program and was “proud” of her. Tennille says she turned toward St. Clair. Both were teary. “That was very moving to me,” she says.

The duo’s music, oft-derided by ’70s critics who favored edgier fare, has enjoyed a bit of a reappraisal in the wake of the renewed attention. Today, there is more focus on Tennille’s estimable vocals and incisive songwriting on deeper tracks such as the sensual Deep in the Dark and Don’t Forget Me, a 1980 song about divorce she was inspired to write after seeing the movie Kramer vs. Kramer. That tune sports the empathetic tone she also uses in her memoir.

Tennille considers her career highlight a near 10-minute torch songs duet she sang with late jazz great Ella Fitzgerald on the Captain & Tennille’s 1979 Songbook TV special. “I was just floating on air through that entire thing. …Here I am with this fabulous woman I had listened to my whole life, and she was so humble and modest and so giving.”

While the marriage was never a success, the musical pairing was ideal. “Daryl was my muse,” she says. “The joy of making music and writing songs and having him make those wonderful records for me, I didn’t want to give that up, either, because it was so fulfilling. I realized then we would not be as appreciated in our time as we would be later on and that is happening now. I tell Daryl, ‘You need to go on my Facebook page and see what people are saying about our music. Daryl, what you did meant so much to so many people that you never realized.’

“The interesting thing I’m seeing in Daryl now, lately when I talk to him, he is in his own way really kind of excited about all the new ways people are taking a look at our music. He’s pretty excited about that — as excited as he gets,” Tennille says with a chuckle. “I’m sensing, for as long as I’ve known him, he’s going to be just fine. And I think maybe what I did is good for him as well as for me.”

Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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