Daryl Dragon was a talented musician with serious medical problems who succeeded in the popular musical entertainment industry because of the incredible love, kindness and patience of his devoted wife, Toni Tennille. He played keyboards and she sang to form the very popular musical duo, The Captain & Tennille, in the 1970s and 1980s. They had five gold and platinum albums, had top hits on the U.S. singles charts, such as “Love Will Keep Us Together”, “Do That to Me One More Time” and “Muskrat Love”, and hosted their own television show on ABC in 1976–77. He seldom spoke during their performances, possibly because he suffered all his life from what I would suggest was an autism spectrum disorder, although this was not mentioned in the media. In later life, he developed crippling tremors that were probably Parkinson’s disease, and when he died at age 76, his publicist announced that the cause of death was kidney failure.
A Musical Family
Daryl Dragon’s father, Carmen Dragon, was a famous conductor, composer and arranger who worked in radio, movies and television. He died of cancer at age 69. His mother, a classical singer, was diagnosed as being bipolar and had a prefrontal lobotomy that made her unable to communicate rationally with other people, so she spent the rest of her life in bed. All five of their children became musicians — a singer, pianist, flutist, harpist and music arranger. One of Daryl’s brothers died of an unexplained gunshot wound in the middle of the night, and one sister suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2012.
His Keyboard Career
Dragon started out training to be a concert pianist but decided that he preferred blues and boogie music instead of the classics. At age 20, he was a member of the band Charles Wright and the Wright Sounds; at age 25 he played with The Yellow Balloon; and at 26 he and his brother, Dennis, formed a band called The Mission. He also played with Fats Domino and B.B. King. He played keyboards for the Beach Boys, and it was there that he acquired both his nickname and his partner. Their lead singer dubbed him “Captain Keyboard,” so he started to wear a nautical hat, and he had them hire Toni Tennille as a pianist and backup singer. Tennille had attended Auburn University, where she studied piano and sang with their big band, the Auburn Knights. Her father was a big band singer with Bob Crosby’s Bobcats. Tennille was married to Kenneth Shearer from 1962 to 1972, but was divorced by the time she met Dragon in 1973. They married in 1975, left the Beach Boys and began performing in Los Angeles clubs as a duo, calling themselves Captain & Tennille. That same year, their record “Love Will Keep Us Together” was a national hit and they became famous.
Evidence of Health Problems
I do not have access to Dragon’s medical records so my comments on his apparent health problems are drawn from my observations of him in interviews and performances, as well as from his wife’s recollections. In her 2016 book, Toni Tennille: A Memoir, she described the many difficulties of their marriage, including his total inability to be affectionate, his lack of interest in sex, his “famous but overbearing father and his very, very difficult family”, his strange behavior and his inability to communicate with people. She explained that when she hugged him, he would go stiff in her arms and pat her on the back. Throughout their relationship, they slept in separate bedrooms. She said that the marriage lasted as long as it did only because she was trying to fix things.
• After he got the nickname “Captain” and began to wear his trademark hat, he refused to remove it, even when a hat was inappropriate. He began to go bald in his early thirties and had hair transplants, in which plugs of hair were removed from the sides of his head and sutured into the bald spots. The grafts failed and left large scars. From then on he rarely removed his hat in public or even in his own bedroom. He even wore it while visiting the Vatican City.
• He wore sunglasses most of the time to hide his eyes. When he was a child, other children made fun of his very large eyeballs. He was eventually diagnosed with “megalophthalmus” (which means large eyes) that may be associated with cataracts and glaucoma.
• He suffered from anxiety, worried about everything all the time and was a chronic hypochondriac. He constantly searched the internet looking for new diseases to explain his many and varied symptoms. He complained so much that he convinced surgeons to replace both of his knees.
• He constantly blamed different foods for real and imagined symptoms, tried various extreme diets and took nutritional advice from a 90-year old guru in a Malibu commune.
• When the couple attended parties, he would often go into a corner by himself or just disappear.
• He wanted to quit his ABC television show because he did not want to talk at all on the show or read cue cards.
These incidents, coupled with films of his performances and interviews, fit with the behaviors seen in autism spectrum disorders, in which people have difficulty relating and communicating with other people and often have rigid, repetitive behaviors. They cannot understand what other people think and feel so they have difficulty expressing themselves with words, gestures, facial expressions and touch.
Tremors or Parkinson’s Disease?
In 2009, Tennille insisted that his tremors were not Parkinson’s disease and tried to calm concerns about her husband’s health by telling everyone that he had developed “a familial tremor worsened by stress and anxiety.” She can call it whatever she wants, but his tremors looked like those of classical Parkinson’s disease. His hands shook and his muscles stayed contracted. His tremors and rigid muscles were so severe that he was embarrassed to go out in public and the tremors prevented him from playing the keyboard, the main way that he had to support himself.
In 2014, after 39 years of marriage, Tennille filed for divorce. Dragon said that receiving the divorce papers was the first inkling that he had of any problems. The Washington Post reported that the most likely reason for the divorce was that Dragon’s expenses for medical bills could be so great that his wife could eventually end up bankrupt, since husbands and wives are legally responsible for each other’s medical bills. Dragon told reporters that he was on medication at the time of his divorce. After the divorce, his wife flew back to their home in Arizona and took care of him.
Progression and Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is characterized by progressive brain damage: hand tremors, muscle stiffness and increasingly slower body movements. The first signs are a face that shows no expression, arms that do not swing when a person walks, a hand tremor, speech that becomes progressively softer and slurred, and a pill-rolling hand motion in which a person rolls his thumb and fingers back and forth. As the disease progresses, a person takes shorter and slower steps, has difficulty getting up from a chair, and the muscles become stiff and hurt. The disease can cause any sign of brain damage: difficulty reasoning out problems, dementia, depression, fear, anxiety, difficulty chewing and swallowing, drooling, inability to stay asleep at night and stay awake during the day, difficulty controlling urine, constipation, dizziness, loss of the sense of smell, extreme fatigue, unexplained pain and loss of sexual desire and performance. There is no cure but a regular exercise program is essential to slowing disease progression. Various medications may be very effective in controlling symptoms in the beginning, but they all lose their effectiveness over time. Sometimes doctors prescribe surgery or deep brain electrical stimulation. Dragon’s tremors prevented him first from playing the keyboard and then from even getting out of bed, and he died of kidney failure.
Lessons from The Captain’s Life
Autism can occur in very smart, even brilliant people, although it can prevent a person from ordinary communicating and socializing. Disapproval and hostility to their abnormal behavior often prevents affected people from achieving their potential to function successfully in society. However, approval and support can make it possible for affected people to function at very high levels. Dragon was able to flourish as a successful musical performance entertainer because of the support and determination of his wife, even though he rarely spoke more than a few words to his audience, acted very strangely in public and in private, and was unable to offer any affection whatsoever to his wife. When you encounter people who have difficulty socializing, be nice and show understanding. They can be emotionally devastated if you criticize or show disapproval of their behavior.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com