'Captain' of Industry: Daryl Dragon's Peculiar Course to Pop Stardom

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Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille of Captain and Tennille. 

When Daryl “Captain” Dragon and Toni Tennille were looking for their first label, one suitor’s pitch resonated loudest. A&M Records was founded by a fellow musician -- easy-listening maestro Herb Alpert -- and offered something no one else would: they were willing to let the Captain produce the duo’s first album by himself.

It was an impressive gesture: Short of one regional smash, Daryl and Toni didn’t have a track record of hitmaking. At the time that single was released, the thirty-somethings were a nightclub act. Dragon did have a musical pedigree -- his mother Eloise was a soprano who sung on screen and radio programs, while his father Carmen was a conductor, arranger and composer who shared an Oscar for 1944’s Cover Girl. Prior to signing to A&M, Daryl had spent a number of years as a touring keyboardist and musical director for the Beach Boys during their first spell out of the spotlight.

Dragon’s time with the Boys colored his and Tennille’s remarkable half-decade as a top pop act. It’s where he got his nickname, first off: during a performance of “Help Me, Rhonda” Mike Love introduced him as “Captain Keyboard,” and it stuck. It’s also where he got hands-on experience as an arranger -- particularly for his good friend Dennis Wilson -- and an education in keeping an audience engaged, night in and night out. It was the kind of thing Dragon had left college (where he played string bass and pipe organ after a stint at the U.K.’s Royal Academy of Music) for. He was a tinkerer at heart. It didn't matter whether he was working with others’ materials.

Marooned between tours, Dragon got tipped to a job opening for a touring keyboardist for a Broadway-bound show called Mother Earth. He passed the audition and caught the attention of the musical’s composer, Toni Shearer. Shearer was in the midst of a divorce, and soon reverted to her given surname as she began a creative and romantic partnership with Dragon. She joined him for the Beach Boys’ 1972 tour, making her the only woman to perform in the Boys’ band. Despite the group’s diminished profile, they represented a regular paycheck - not to mention the scratch Tennille could make doing session work for the likes of Elton John - but Daryl was convinced that Toni had it, and so they became an L.A.-based act, playing nightclubs and gay bars for 70 bucks a night.

At the urging of a couple local FM jocks, the duo pressed a 45 featuring Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls”. (Johnston claimed that he nearly got the duo signed to RCA, but the label decided they were just a lounge act, past their prime.) But the flipside -- Toni’s Carole King homage “The Way I Want to Touch You” -- was the real hit. Dragon played bass and keyboards, and goosed the arrangement with stuttering synths - not distracting, but still unusual for a pop record. He did more of the same after the duo returned to the studio, recording a Sedaka cut A&M was convinced would make their debut LP a hit.

The label was right: the bouncy “Love Will Keep Us Together” topped the Hot 100 for four weeks and won the Grammy for Record of the Year. Sedaka’s composition was already great, but it was turbocharged by Dragon’s textural choices: the buoyant tack piano, bassy clavinet and chirpy synths give the song muscle. The duo's debut LP, named after its breakout hit, set the tone for their A&M tenure: Bruce Johnston and Sedaka compositions, a classic cover (“God Only Knows” here) and a little space for Daryl to get weird: “Broddy Bounce” is an instrumental synth workout with room for a Hal Blaine drum solo.

Follow-up Song of Joy sent “Lonely Night (Angel Face)”-- another Sedaka cover -- into the top 5 the next year: Dragon turned the blue-eyed soul of the original inside-out, pinging between cha-cha-chá and girl-group abandon, tossing in some low-end, Beach Boys-style bop-bops for good measure. Those backing vocals cropped up again on their hit cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around,” along with those synths. But that was nothing compared to the record’s third hit.

At the invitation of Gerald and Betty Ford, the Captain and Tennille performed at the White House for the Bicentennial. Mrs. Ford requested “The Way I Want to Touch You,” and Tennille decided to follow that with a Song of Joy cut that had gotten over during their club sets: a Willis Alan Ramsey song about canoodling rodents. Their performance of “Muskrat Love” -- with Queen Elizabeth in attendance, snoozing off some jet lag -- annoyed Henry Kissinger and eventually spurred the song’s release as a single, becoming their fifth top 5 hit. It became just as infamous for Dragon’s skittering synth effects -- assumed to be the sounds of muskrat mating -- as its subject matter; years later, it served as a plot point in an episode of Full House, starring actor and longtime Beach Boys collaborator John Stamos.

Around this time, the duo received the industry’s highest honor: their own weekly TV variety show. Theoretically, it was a good creative fit: Dragon got to follow in his father’s footsteps by directing an orchestra and producing music for the show. But the pace was grueling, and unlike his wife -- an entertainer in full -- he hated being on camera. (Dragon’s ever-present captain’s hat and sunglasses gave him the look of a louche yacht rocker, but it was the outfit of a man uncomfortable with his appearance. By all accounts, he and Tennille did not partake in the harder stuff.) They begged off after one season and a series of standalone specials.

Their return to music didn’t produce the same results (even Daryl’s instrumental showcases were comparatively rote), though they did hit No. 10 with the smoky, synth-pinged “You Never Done It Like That,” perhaps their best single. It was the last single from 1978’s Dream, their final effort for A&M. Tennille and Dragon joked that they left because they never got a parking space, while the Sex Pistols did; in any event, they moved to Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records, home of the other major musical development of the era: disco.

Captain & Tennille weren’t immune to the groove: the requisite oldies cover from 1979’s Make Your Move was a Euro-disco take on the Turtles’ “Happy Together”. But the big tune was the slow jam “Do That to Me One More Time,” their second and final Hot 100 No. 1. It scraped into the lower half of the R&B singles chart, earning them a feature on Soul Train. (“Our next visitors are, in our opinion,” pronounced Don Cornelius, “somewhat of a royal couple.”) There were no peculiar synth flourishes, sadly; the pair’s time in the spotlight was running out. 1980’s Keeping Our Love Warm offered a sexier image and no hits. But the couple were busy parlaying their fame: Toni - fresh off contributing backing vocals to Pink Floyd’s conceptual blockbuster The Wall - was prepping for a short-lived television talk show.

And Dragon got to add to his toy chest: he bought an Linn LM-1 drum machine, a Fairlight synth, and an E-mu Emulator synth with the serial number 002. (Stevie Wonder, whose composition “Until You Come Back to Me” the Captain & Tennille covered on Keeping Our Love Warm, copped 001.) He got to employ some of the new hardware as a session musician for Survivor and Cheryl Ladd, and he produced a series of solo efforts for Toni. But mostly, he and his wife maintained their pop legacy: overseeing the release of their TV work and the reissue of their albums, appearing in a Sprint commercial, guesting on an episode of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. (Dragon was also the webmaster of the duo’s webpage.)

In 2007, the label Ninja Tune reissued the demo album BFI, recorded in the late ‘60s by the Dragons: Daryl with his brothers Doug and Dennis (future founder of the LA pop-punk act Surf Punks). It’s a sparkling mix of soft rock and psychedelia -- a worthwhile listen, but a lifetime away from the crisp, peculiar pop Daryl made with Toni Tennille during the interregnum between rock and disco.