Toni Tennille came out of retirement to fulfill a lifetime wish.
The Grammy-winning singer is known for her bouncy 1975 song “Love Will Keep Us Together” alongside her former husband Daryl Dragon. She’s now leading the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center production of “Hello, Dolly!” in Prescott, Arizona. She is poised to star in 12 performances beginning Nov. 3 as the mischievous 19th-century matchmaker Dolly Levi.
“When Daryl and I moved to Prescott in 2008, I had made the decision that I was going to go back under the radar,” Tennille told Fox News Digital. “I’d had enough of it. I wanted to just have a regular life as regular people do. Prescott allowed me to do that. The people here are really wonderful. I’ve made a really nice life for myself here. But about three years ago, the dean at the college asked me if I would be willing to do [the show].”
“It’s a part I’ve always wanted to do, but it just never came up in my career,” she shared. “I felt like my window was passing. And it’s my way of contributing to the music department and raising money for it. But after this, I’m not doing any more shows. This is it. Once it’s over, I’ll go back to being a regular person.”
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Tennille said she has long been inspired by Carol Channing, who delighted audiences with over 5,000 performances of “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway and beyond. Channing passed away in 2019 at age 97.
“You know, as much I dreamed of doing the role, I hesitated,” Tennille admitted. “I’ve met Carol several times throughout my career, and she was just a wonderful person. Each woman who does Dolly does it her way. So when I thought about doing Dolly, I decided I wanted to make her more of a real person… Dolly was married to the love of her life when she was young. When he died, they didn’t have the chance to have kids. And he was very young. So she was a lonely woman for years and years. She had to go to work and make money to support herself. One thing she liked to do was matchmaking. She liked to bring couples together. It took her back to when she was with the love of her life. And it was a kind of love she wanted everybody else to have.”
“I wanted people to understand that she wasn’t just a jokey, wink-wink person all the time,” Tennille continued. “She’s very funny, but she also has this underpinning of loneliness that she’s been going through… But the story ends in a very touching, heartfelt way… I can empathize with what she’s been through. I also love the fact that she’s a strong woman. There’s a monologue where she says [to her love], ‘You’ve gotta let me go, so I can go ahead and live the rest of my life and do good.’ I can relate to her in many ways.”
Dragon and Tennille divorced in 2014 after nearly 40 years of marriage. They remained close, and she even cared for him until his death in 2019. Dragon passed away of renal failure at a hospice in Prescott at age 76. Tennille was by his side.
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“The thing that comes to mind when I think of him was the very end when I was with him,” she recalled. “He really couldn’t talk anymore at that point. He was almost ready to take his last breath… I thought about how there was so much more he could have done. When I married him, I thought, ‘Oh boy, I’m gonna fix him up. All he needs is my joy.’ It just never worked.”
“I remember when the young men came with the gurney to take him to hospice,” she shared. “He was going to die soon. They came to take him, and I was standing there by the room door. I saw them joking around. Who knows how old they were? But I just got so mad. I went out there, and I said to them, ‘I want you to understand that this man that you are getting ready to take to hospice to die was a brilliant man. I want you to treat him with respect.’ Maybe to them, it was just some other old guy they had to pick up and take to hospice. Maybe joking was their way of dealing with what they had to do. But I made it clear they weren’t allowed to do that. I just wouldn’t let them do that to Daryl.
“… I was always there for him because he really didn’t have anybody else,” Tennille continued. “And when I was young, I used to see old people and think, ‘I’ll never be there.’ But if you’re lucky enough, you’ll get there. You might understand it then, but then it’s too late. I’m lucky that I understood it in time.”
Dragon and Tennille met in the early ‘70s. Their breakthrough came in 1975 when they covered the Neil Sedaka-Howard Greenfield song “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
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The track topped the charts and it won a Grammy for record of the year. The song not only made them stars, but it also helped further revive Sedaka’s career. That year, his own single “Bad Blood” hit No. 1.
The couple, known early on as The Captain & Tennille, followed with a mix of covers such as “Muskrat Love” and “Shop Around” and original songs, including Tennille’s ballad “Do That to Me One More Time,” which hit No. 1 in 1980. They also briefly starred in their own TV variety show.
“I enjoyed what Daryl and I did,” she said. “He was a difficult man. He was difficult in many ways. In my memoir, I pretty much laid out what the situation was with Daryl and myself. I loved him, but he was impossible in many ways. But he was a great musician. And when we were together, I think we created some fairly wonderful things.”
Tennille said that she struggled to be in the public eye as they skyrocketed to fame. She noted that Dragon’s father was a famous symphony conductor and that he lived in Malibu, where famous people stopped by regularly.
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“He was used to it,” Tennille said. “I lived and grew up in Montgomery, Alabama… I wasn’t used to it. I used to love reading a book by myself at a nice restaurant. But once we were on TV all the time, I couldn’t do that anymore. If you walked into a restaurant you heard all kinds of whisperings as people gawked at you. I was raised as a Southern lady to be polite and gracious, but I remember I couldn’t do simple things anymore, simple things that I missed. I remembered how I was in a dressing room at a shop one time. A woman just walked right in and pushed the curtain. I’m standing there half-naked. She didn’t mean it in malice, but it was just so difficult and embarrassing for me… I just withdrew as much as I could.”
“I knew it was part of the job,” said Tennille about achieving overnight fame. “And I got to meet some of the greatest singers I’ve always admired… But I missed being just a regular person. I didn’t have any temptations. I didn’t use my celebrity to get things. I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings when they were just trying to show their appreciation… But it was difficult. I know Daryl stuck to himself, too. He never really wanted to be in front of the band. He just wanted to make music.”
Still, Tennille said she looks back at her days making music with Dragon fondly. As for “Love Will Keep Us Together,” she said it’s “magic.”
“It’s just one of those songs you don’t forget,” she said. “I can’t tell you why, but it’s just magic.”
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While Tennille is elated to take on the role of Dolly, she’s also eager to go back under the radar once her shows end.
“I enjoy my low-key life,” she gushed. “Prescott has allowed me to support all the wonderful organizations we have in this town. It makes me happy. But I’ve also been studying classical voice for the past three years. I want to see how far I can take my voice. I love classical music. So did Daryl. I just want to continue to do the things I love.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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