Now Tennille looks to big-band era for love songs

May 17, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Talk about the soft and sentimental side of '70s pop music, and it'll only be a matter of minutes before the Captain & Tennille are mentioned.

Such Top-40 hits as "Love Will Keep Us Together," "Do That To Me One More Time" and "Muskrat Love" will rise up from your musical subconscious, and the next thing you know you'll be rooting around in the back of your closet for those polyester leisure suits you really should have donated to the Smithsonian.

Although the husband-and-wife team known as the Captain & Tennille still perform as such, Toni Tennille has, over the past decade, made a name for herself as a singer of jazz standards. It's in the latter role she joins conductor Doc Severinsen of "Tonight Show" fame for Baltimore Symphony Orchestra SuperPops concerts this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

With several big band albums to her credit, including the just-released "Things Are Swingin'," the 51-year-old singer spends much of her crooning time on songs written before the 1970s. When she launches into the likes of "I Got Rhythm," "Makin' Whoopee," "Hard-Hearted Hanna," "That Old Black Magic," "Laura," "Stardust" and "Moonglow," you can almost forget the synthetic '70s altogether.

But how about Toni Tennille? Can she discipline her performing self so completely as to be half of the Captain & Tennille one night and a swinging jazz singer the next?

"It's pretty easy for me, because I'm very versatile as a singer and can do a lot of things," Ms. Tennille answered cheerfully from Las Vegas, where she and the "Captain," a k a her husband, Daryl Dragon, were performing at the Desert Inn.

As for her contributions to the Meyerhoff program, she says to expect "a mix of tunes, mostly jazz standards, and all fun. While other programs I do are built around certain composers, like Gershwin, Kern and Berlin, this one will be more varied. And Doc and I will get together at the end for numbers like 'Man with the Horn.' "

Although she generally keeps her Captain & Tennille and jazz programs separate, she notes that the Meyerhoff program will include an arrangement of "Love Will Keep Us Together." "It's rare for me to do that, and it'll be the only [Captain & Tennille number] in an evening of love songs."

Isn't it tempting to see what a symphonic ensemble could do with the Captain & Tennille songbook?

"These people did not go to Juilliard to play 'Muskrat Love,' " she says with a big, self-deprecating laugh. "I'm careful with the advertising to let audiences know what to expect at my [big TTC band] concerts, but one or two people will come up to me backstage after an evening of Gershwin and Berlin to ask me why I didn't sing 'Muskrat Love.' "

Ms. Tennille's love for those earlier love songs goes back to when she was virtually in the cradle. Her father, Frank Tennille, sang with big bands under the professional name Clark Randall. Father and daughter both graduated from Auburn University, where each got early singing experience with its orchestra.

"I grew up singing the standards," recalls Ms. Tennille in a soothing voice that betrays her Alabama origins.

"I'd sit in front of the mirror lip-syncing to Ella [Fitzgerald]. But when Daryl and I got together in the early '70s, he didn't do jazz. As the Captain & Tennille, it was terrific to have so many hits. We were so frantically busy that I didn't even have time to think about jazz singing.

"But after we had a few albums out I approached A&M Records and said I'd love to do an album of standards, and they said no. The people we call 'the suits' in the music business don't always know what they're talking about. They're not always creative. Daryl and I learned a long time ago to ignore 'the suits' and do what we want. So it's wonderful to finally be able to do these songs."

Busy as she is with big band music from the '30s through the '50s, and pop chart toppers from the '70s, Ms. Tennille acknowledges she doesn't keep up with most of the music of the '90s. And she feels she isn't alone in tuning it out.

"What I think happened is that pop music moved in another direction, got confrontational and, as this whole new thing happened, a lot of people who look to pop music for their romance found it was no longer there. So they took to country music, which gives you love music. I think that people still need some amount of romance in their music, which is also why people turn back to [jazz standards] almost as if it were classical music to them.

"I'm not even familiar with most of the groups out today. Daryl and I own a major recording studio in Los Angeles, and heavy metal groups and other groups have recorded all sorts of hits there. I wonder if they know we own this joint."

All this decade-by-decade pop music talk leaves one wondering whether the Captain & Tennille will supplement their 20-year-old hits with new material.

"We're very philosophical about the Captain & Tennille and have been from the first time we had a hit," she says with good-natured candor. "We all have our day, and we come and go in pop music. We've accepted it that we'll probably never have another Captain & Tennille hit."

THE DOCTOR AND TENNILLE

What: Toni Tennille and Doc Severinsen in Baltimore Symphony Orchestra SuperPops concert

When: 8:15 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $22-$37; box seats, $50

Call: (410) 783-8000

To hear excerpts of Toni Tennille's "Things Are Swingin'," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6203 after you hear the greeting.

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