Toni Tennille: No Hits but 'Always Sold Out'

Eight years without a hit and Toni Tennille is still smiling. "All I know," she said on a recent morning, "is when I go around the country and sing with symphony orchestras and big bands, I'm always sold out. So there's an audience somewhere."

For a performer who hadn't got to bed until 2:30 a.m. because of a concert the night before, she looked remarkably fresh. Her lollipop eyes were bigger than they had a right to be. Her wholesome grin was huge, indelible.

Now, too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, Tennille was nursing a cup of decaffeinated coffee in the sedate restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel where uniformed waiters stood as silent as statues among the empty tables.

In a voice that only hinted at the soaring whoops and throaty growls she is capable of on stage, the singer who became famous during the mid-'70s as half of the Captain & Tennille reeled off the places she has been packing them in lately as a solo act: Dallas, Cincinnati, Rochester, Atlanta, Orlando, San Antonio. . . .

On Wednesday evening, she hopes to do the same in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center with a benefit concert of pop-jazz standards to raise money for the third annual "Imagination Celebration," a nine-day children's arts festival that commences throughout the county April 23. (See box on Page 51D.)

"I'm getting to sing the music I grew up on," said Tennille, who will be backed by a 27-piece band. "I always wanted to go out and do that. I was raised on Joe Williams. I used to know every phrase of every song he ever recorded."

In fact, her two latest albums--"More Than You Know" (1984) and "All of Me" (1987)--feature jazz-oriented renditions of Tin Pan Alley tunes from the '30s and '40s.

Not that Tennille is turning her back on the Captain--her husband, Daryl Dragon--or on the soft-rock music they made together. They still tour frequently as a team. After all, the Captain & Tennille sold about 23 million records in the mid-'70s on the strength of such chart-toppers as "Muskrat Love" and Neil Sedaka's "Love Will Keep Us Together," their Grammy Award-winning Record of the Year in 1975.

By the beginning of the '80s, though, the Barbie Doll image that had plagued them among the critics finally caught up to them within the recording industry itself. Neither their crossover to television in '76-77 as prime-time stars on ABC nor their last Top-10 hit in 1979, the suggestively titled "Do That to Me One More Time," had been enough to confer the sort of hip status that might have salvaged their waning pop career.

"I always said to Daryl there's going to come a time when we're going to sound to the new generation like Steve and Eydie sounded to us," Tennille, 47, recalled. "I still think I can sing something that sounds contemporary. But I'm no Madonna."

Is she disappointed about their fall from grace? Apparently not. "It's been a pleasure to have slowed down to the point where we can live like normal people," she said."We were very lucky. We had many, many hits. I've got a beautiful home. A great life."

Indeed. Four years ago the Dragons sold their Pacific Palisades estate to "L.A. Law" executive producer Steven Bochco and his wife, Barbara Bosson, and moved to a log manse in Lake Tahoe that only looks rustic. Custom built to Dragon's design, it includes 7,000 square feet of living space as well as a high-tech recording studio equipped for film scoring. ("Daryl is getting back into that," Tennille noted.)

The house stands at the edge of a forest where the Dragons ski in winter and hike in summer. "We have deer in our back yard," Tennille said. "Coyotes, too." An avid backpacker, she already has climbed Mt. Whitney twice and is hoping to do it again this year. "And I took up golf last year," she added.

Their country pleasures notwithstanding, Dragon still harbors considerable disappointment over their lack of a recording contract for the last half-dozen years, let alone radio air play for Tennille's last two albums.

"Daryl feels more bitter about it than I do," Tennille said. "He thinks that what we listen to today has a lot to do with payola. It is not so much what filters up because it's good, but what filters up because it's paid for. Everybody knows about it. Nobody will talk about it. But it's there. It can cost a hundred grand or more to get a song into the Top 10. You can always tell payola records, though, because the ones that are bought up to that point will stay there a week and then drop."

Recalling an era when most radio stations had their own music directors instead of outside programming services, the singer assailed the absence of autonomous play lists in today's radio markets. Were it not for "individual music directors with individual tastes," she said, the Captain & Tennille might never have had as successful career as they did.

" 'Muskrat Love' became a hit for us because of a radio station up in Minneapolis," she recounted. "They started playing it off our 'Song of Joy' album, and they got tons of calls. The station phoned our record company and said, 'You'd better put this thing out as a single.' That kind of thing doesn't happen today."

In the meantime, the Dragons keep their hand in the production end of the record business with Rumbo Recorders, a professional recording studio they built in Canoga Park about seven years ago. Supported at first with money they earned on the road, "it was Daryl's dream," Tennille said. "He designed it. He made it happen." Rockers from Bob Seger and Tom Petty to Fleetwood Mac and X have recorded there, she said.

Cathryn Antoinette Tennille, the eldest of four sisters, was raised in Montgomery, Ala., and comes from an upper middle-class family that can trace its roots back to the Revolutionary War. "Although we didn't have a lot of money, we were Old South," she noted. In fact, there are two towns named for her father's side of the family--Tennille, Ala., and Tennille, Ga.

"I was this tall homely thing," the 5-foot-11 singer recalled. "The boys came up to my elbow, and the ones I was in love with wouldn't give me the time of day. My sister Jane was the pretty one, the homecoming queen. I wasn't anything like that. I was vice president of the Senior Girls Club, president of the Latin Club."

Tennille's father, Frank, owned a furniture business that had been in the family since 1888 and served in the Alabama Legislature from 1951 to 1954. He also sang with the original Bob Crosby's Bob Cats in New York in 1935, recorded under the name Clark Randall and teamed with swing era vocalist Martha Tilton at the Los Angeles Biltmore in the '30s.

Tennille's mother, Catherine, was the host of a TV talk show in Montgomery during the early '50s and was featured twice on the cover of TV Guide, which had regional editions at the time. Tennille, who studied classical piano for nine years, said she sometimes played music for the talk show.

In 1959, the family moved to Balboa in Orange County. Tennille went to work first as a file clerk and then as a statistical analyst at North American Rockwell's Autonetics plant in Anaheim. "I was excellent in math," she said. By the mid-'60s, she married a photographer from San Diego--they later divorced--and became a member of the then-fledgling South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

It was at SCR that the future pop star got her first professional taste of both the best and the worst of show business. In 1969, Ron Thronsen, one of the SCR directors, invited her to collaborate with him on "a message musical" about ecology. He penned the book and lyrics; she wrote the music. They called it "Mother Earth."

"The show was so successful," Tennille recounted, "that people were lined up around the block to see it. We had Variety, The Times, the Herald Examiner and the Hollywood Reporter. They all came down to write it up. And they all gave raves."

Variety called it better than "Hair," going so far as to predict: "There will be no stopping Thronsen and Shearer (Tennille's married name at the time)."

Not surprisingly, the phones soon began to ring off the hook with calls from producers who wanted to take "Mother Earth" into a larger orbit.

"We didn't know any of them, and we had no sophistication or knowledge about the business of show business," said Tennille. "We didn't even know you needed a lawyer to read a contract. So we got bamboozled. We signed away all our creative control. It was a terrible experience. Lots of tears."

First the show went on the road to San Francisco, where it played the Marines' Memorial Theatre in 1971. Later it went to the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles (now the Doolittle). Finally, in October, 1972, it opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theater.

Only its title had survived the passage.

"You could say I'm a Broadway composer," Tennille quipped. "The show lasted three nights and died. It was this Las Vegas-y thing that had nothing to do with what Ron and I created."

Tennille was so disillusioned, moreover, she even turned down the chance to star in the Broadway production.

Still, the experience had its rewards. Tennille met Dragon during the show's San Francisco tryout. "I needed a keyboard player, and he auditioned for me," she recounted. The rest, of course, is soft-rock history.

Toni Tennille will sing a benefit concert for the Imagination Celebration Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Tickets: $10 to $50. Information: (714) 556-2787.

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