Forever No. 1 is a new Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer -- a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single -- by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Daryl "The Captain" Dragon by diving back into his and Toni Tennille's first No. 1 hit as Captain and Tennille, with the Neil Sedaka cover "Love Will Keep Us Together."
For a few years in the mid-'70s, Captain & Tennille were about as powerful a force as existed on the Billboard Hot 100. Over an 18-month span from mid-1975 to late-1976, the duo notched an impressive five top five hits on the chart, including a cover of The Miracles' "Shop Around" and the endearingly silly ballad "Muskrat Love." Only one song from that bunch topped the listing, however: "Love Will Keep Us Together," arguably the duo's signature song, and certainly one of the defining pop hits of its era.
Captain & Tennille had formed years earlier when Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille met in 1972 on the set of the ecology-themed musical Mother Earth, which Tennille was co-writing, and of which Dragon joined the production as a live keyboardist. Dragon subsequently recommended Tennille as a replacement keyboardist to the Beach Boys, with whom he had previously toured for several years -- and whose Mike Love had dubbed him "Captain Keyboard," ultimately inspiring his eventual nickname and persona as "The Captain," including a distinctive captain's hat in public appearances. Tennille was accepted, and when her "Beach Girl" tour of duty was finished, she and Dragon began a creative partnership as Captain & Tennille, and were signed to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss' legendary label A&M Records.
With A&M, the duo recorded a debut album, but were still short one upbeat song -- until label A&R man Kip Cohen played them a song from '60s hitmaker Neil Sedaka's 1973 album The Tra-La Days Are Over, a jaunty ode to romantic commitment entitled "Love Will Keep Us Together." Sedaka's '70s comeback was already beginning overseas, where several cuts from Tra-La would become U.K. top 40 hits, and would start in earnest stateside in 1975, beginning with his pop smash "Laughter in the Rain." But at the time, "Together" was just a little-known deep cut on an album that failed to see U.S. release, by an artist who hadn't scored a Hot 100 hit since 1966. Nonetheless, according to Fred Bronson's entry for "Love" in his compendium The Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, the duo knew as soon as Cohen played the track that it was exactly the song their album was missing.
Released as the title track to their May 1975 debut, Captain & Tennille's version of "Love Will Keep Us Together" added some funky keyboards to the original arrangement, made the beat a little more rigid, and undid Sedaka's dramatic tempo change on the bridge. It also changed the pronouns where necessary ("Whenever some sweet-talking girl comes along...") from Sedaka and co-writer Howard Greenfield's lyric -- which was originally inspired by the songwriting duo's longtime partnership, and somewhat ironically, their inevitable creative split following a series of commercial misfires -- to fit as a traditional love song from singer Tennille's perspective.
But the cover's greatest adjustment came via an addition to the song's outro. Following an unexpected key change, Tennille offers a hat tip to the song's co-composer, singing "Sedaka is back!" -- a reference to the bold title of his 1974 live album, previously the only record on which any version of "Love Will Keep Us Together" was available in America. By the release of the Captain & Tennille version, the outro had already proven prophetic: "Laughter in the Rain" hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in February of 1975, a peak Sedaka would match again before year's end with his Elton John-assisted "Bad Blood."
Even with those two No. 1s of his own that year, Captain & Tennille's version of "Love Will Keep Us Together" would quickly go on to become the biggest Sedaka-written chartbuster of 1975. Debuting at No. 98 on the Hot 100 chart dated April 19, 1975, the song would bound to the top of the tally, hitting No. 1 in June, 10 weeks later. It spent four weeks at No. 1 -- the longest-reigning chart-topper of that year -- and finished as the No. 1 song of 1975 on Billboard's year-end chart. So pervasive was the song's success that the duo even recorded a Spanish-language remake of the hit, titled "Por Amor Viviremos," which ended up charting on the Hot 100 simultaneously with "Love," eventually peaking at No. 49 that September.
It's an appropriate No. 1 song for 1975, since it's hard to imagine a song more emblematic of where pop music was at the time. The decade's soft-rock boom, largely shepherded in by massive early-'70s success of The Carpenters -- whose female-singer, male-musician/producer dynamic Captain & Tennille feared being accused of ripping off -- had met with a latent early-'60s pop revivalism, seen in the mid-decade comebacks of Sedaka, the Beach Boys and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as the massive success of the 1962-set 1973 teen comedy American Graffiti. "Love Will Keep Us Together" found itself in the sweet spot between them, with a little of Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder's era-marking keyboard wizardry in the song's growling keys and ARP synth solo mixed in, too. Altogether, it sounds like the very peak of '70s pop-rock, in close to the final moment before disco and punk came around to rewrite the rules for the genre towards the decade's end.
The success of "Love Will Keep Us Together" is also a testament to its blend of Sedaka and Greenfield's peerless songcraft with Captain & Tennille's skills as performers. The composition pulls out a whole arsenal of classic pop tricks, from the song's title appearing first as the verse's opening line and then not again until the very end of the chorus, to the bridge introducing minor-key doubt to the lyric before a new triumphant refrain affirms the song's thesis, to the impossibly Motown "Stop!" at the beginning of the chorus. Meanwhile, you might not even realize until you watch live performance video of the song -- like this excellent rendition from '70s musical variety series Midnight Special -- just how many damn pianos and synths are going at once in this thing; both Dragon and Tennille are playing two separate riffs on two separate keyboards at the same time. The intense layering makes the song striking, but doesn't totally overwhelm the melody, because Tennille's hearty, almost husky vocal is so strong and commanding, as she literally directs the listener throughout the song ("Think of me, babe, whenever...," "Look in my heart and let love...")
"Love Will Keep Us Together" kick-started Captain & Tennille's formidable run in the Hot 100's top tier, followed by top-five peaks for the Tennille-penned ballad "The Way I Want to Touch You" (No. 4, Nov. 1975), the similarly Sedaka-written "Lonely Nights (Angel Face)" (No. 3, March 1976) and the aforementioned "Shop Around" (No. 4, July 1976) and "Muskrat Love" (No. 4, Nov. 1976). Those hits were spread across 1975's Love Will Keep Us Together LP and 1976's Song of Joy, the duo's two albums to reach the top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart (peaking at Nos. 2 and 9, respectively). So resounding was Captain and Tennille's success as a recording act that they were eventually given their own self-titled TV variety show, which ran for one successful season, before the pair decided to return focus to their music.
Meanwhile, "Love Will Keep Us Together" would live on well after its initial release, winning the 1976 Grammy for record of the year, and inspiring future covers from artists as diverse as Wilson Pickett, Flea, Mae West and Nickelback. Even "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the iconic 1980 single from post-punk paragons Joy Division, was said to have had its fatalistic title designed as an ironic response to the Captain and Tennille AM radio standard. What's more, the song would come to carry extra meaning for the real-life couple, who were wed in November of 1975 and stayed married for the next four decades, though they would eventually divorce in 2014. (TMZ's headline for their article announcing the split, of course: "Love WON'T Keep Us Together.")