Songwriter known for Captain and Tennille who also played with the Beach Boys

Born: August 27, 1942;

Died: January 2, 2019

‘CAPTAIN’ Daryl Dragon, who has died aged 76, was an American keyboard player and songwriter who had a brief but hugely successful career at the top of the late 1970s’ American music industry as half of the duo Captain and Tennille, which was fronted by his singer/songwriter wife Toni Tennille. Their first hit, 1975’s euphoric and upbeat Love Will Keep Us Together, was their biggest, and their time among the pop A-list of the era lasted until the Tennille-written ballad Do That to Me One More Time became their second US number one in 1979.

While they were household names in America and well-known elsewhere, mention of the duo doesn’t bring quite the same level of blanket recognition in the UK. Here, Love Will Keep Us… was a minor hit and Do That To Me… a bona fide top ten success, but in America they had a slew of big hits, with The Way I Want to Touch You (1975), Lonely Night (Angel Face), Shop Around, and Muskrat Love (all 1976). You Never Done It Like That (1978) also went top ten, the third time they had charted with a Neil Sedaka cover.

For Dragon, it was his first and only brush with fame under his own auspices, although between 1967 and 1973 he had been the touring and session keyboard player with the Beach Boys, where he had won the nickname ‘Captain’; reputedly from singer Mike Love, who called him ‘Captain Keyboard’ (this was the point at which Dragon made his nautical hat an enduring trademark), but also because – as Dragon later said – he wanted to cultivate an alias in order to step out from the shadow of his father, the American composer Carmen Dragon.

Dragon’s brothers Doug and Dennis were also musicians who played with the Beach Boys, and the trio played in the 1960s as The Dragons, whose thrilling but unreleased early psychedelic pop tracks were finally issued as the album BFI by the Ninja Tune label in 2007. Born in Los Angeles in 1942, Dragon’s mother was singer Eloise Dragon, and his sister were Kathy and harpist Carmen.

While with the Beach Boys, Dragon bonded with the wayward Dennis Wilson, recognising his talents as a songwriter, while Dennis saw in Dragon the arrangement skills of his brother Brian, which he himself did not possess. Dragon reputedly (he is not credited) lent arrangements to much of the band’s 1970 album Sunflower; played on four tracks on 1971’s Surf’s Up; and co-wrote Make It Good and Cuddle Up on 1972’s ‘Carl and the Passions – So Tough’ with Dennis. He also arranged the Elton John albums Caribou (1974) and Blue Moves (1975), and programmed synthesisers on the Carpenters’ Made in America (1981).

Publicly adored but critically somewhat derided – unfairly, it must be said – for their lightness of touch and a perceived tweeness, Captain and Tennille have been reasonably described as “a slightly harder-rocking, slightly sexier version of the Carpenters”. Such was the duo’s fame in their heyday that they even performed in the White House in 1978, at the request of First Lady Betty Ford and in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, while in 1976 they were given their own major network musical variety programme, The Captain and Tennille TV Show.

The show only lasted for one year, however, when the couple turned down an offered contract extension because they perceived the broadcast work to be interfering with their music career. Yet footage which can be found online from Tennille’s later solo talk show in 1980 hints at other reasons for this; interviewing her husband, she – the daughter of a big band singer father who performed with Bing Crosby, and a television host mother – appears relaxed and confident, yet he seems awkward and uncomfortable. It was an odd dynamic which worked far better in song than on screen.

Although their stock as hit-makers plunged as the 1980s began, Tennille reinvented herself as a successful big band singer and recording artist, and Dragon ran Rumbo Recorders, the Los Angeles studio the pair owned from 1979 until 2003, whose clientele included Guns N’ Roses, Kiss, Roy Orbison, Celine Dion and No Doubt. They moved to Carson City, Nevada (still playing regularly as a duo in clubs around Reno and Lake Tahoe), and in the late 2000s to Prescott, Arizona.

In later life, Dragon was affected by a familial tremor which disrupted his playing. When Tennille filed for divorce from 2014 and discussed her relationship with Dragon in her subsequent autobiography, there was a brief tabloid feeding frenzy. Yet the couple reportedly continued their friendship until his death from kidney failure, for which she was by his side.