By Mari McQueen
December 18, 1995 12:00 PM

WITH LAVA LAMPS, PLATFORM shoes and even disco making comebacks lately, it was probably inevitable that the Captain and Tennille would catch the ’70s nostalgia wave as well. Still, more than nostalgia brought Daryl “the Captain” Dragon, 53, and wife Toni Tennille, 52, to historic Virginia City, Nev., last month. The couple had come to renew their vows (oh yes and celebrate their first new album in more than 15 years) at the tiny Silver Queen Casino and Wedding Chapel where they had wed two decades ago.

“When we got married the first time, it was a legal transaction,” says the ever-perky Tennille. The couple’s first hit, a cheery Neil Sedaka tune titled “Love Will Keep Us Together,” had reached No. 1 during that summer of ’75, and they had eloped under pressure from Tennille’s mother, who wanted the live-in couple legally married before reporters started calling. So, with two pickup witnesses (one snatched from his lunch in the saloon), the Captain and Tennille became husband and wife. “I didn’t feel I’d gotten married,” jokes Dragon. “I’d never done the thing with the cake.”

During the next four years the couple kept on a roll with followup hits including “Muskrat Love” and “Do That to Me One More Time.” With Dragon on keyboards and Tennille as vocalist, they sold 23 million records, mostly chipper, up-tempo tunes and wholesome love ballads. In 1976-77 they had their own variety series on ABC.

Their marriage, though, proved more enduring than their fame. By 1979, with younger audiences turning to heavy metal and punk rock, A&M Records lost interest. “We had a nice relationship with them for quite a while until the Sex Pistols,” says Tennille. “Then we parted company.” Brief stops at other labels followed, but the hits soon stopped coming. Tennille tried hosting a nationally syndicated TV talk show in 1980 but after one season it too was gone.

Finally, in 1984, the couple sold their 1930s-era Pacific Palisades home and headed for Nevada. “There’s a price you pay for that kind of high profile, and I was uncomfortable with it,” says Tennille of their glory years. Echoes Dragon: “I wanted to shop a little more at Kmart and not be recognized.”

Now the couple shares a 4,300-square-foot home in Carson City—designed on computer by Dragon—with sweeping views of ponderosa pine and the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. Although absent from prime time during the past 15 years, they never really retired, performing at Las Vegas casinos on Caribbean cruise ships and even at corporate seminars. As a soloist, smoky-voiced Tennille will sing the part of Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with the Nevada Opera next month, and she performs regularly as a jazz and big-band singer.

It is not unfamiliar turf for her. Raised in Montgomery, Ala., she was the oldest of four children born to Frank Tennille, a big-band singer in the late ’30s who sang with Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats, and his wife, Cathryn, the host of a local TV talk show in the ’50s. After dropping out of Auburn University in 1960, Tennille held several jobs at a California defense contractor, joined an acting repertory company and even wrote an ecologically themed musical Mother Earth.

While auditioning keyboard players for a production of the musical in 1971, she met Dragon, the son of Hollywood Bowl Symphony conductor Carmen Dragon and his wife, singer Eloise. Named after studio chief Darryl Zanuck, a family friend, he had studied at Cal State (Northridge) and London’s Royal Academy of Music before the Beach Boys recruited him as a keyboardist in 1967. Dragon spent four years with the band, acquiring both his nautical nickname (after being dubbed Captain Keyboard by Beach Boy Mike Love) and his trademark yachting cap.

Now, thanks to the resurgence of ’70s music, that cap (or one of its seven companions in Dragon’s closet) may soon be getting attention again. A&M Records plans to reissue CD versions of their albums. A collection from K-Tel International of rerecorded oldies and two new tunes by Tennille, titled Twenty Years of Romance, is already on sale in stores.

After 20 years the couple knows better than to measure their success only in royalties. Last month, after renewing their vows in Virginia City, the two veteran performers and their friends headed next door for a reception. There, with Dragon at his electronic keyboard, Tennille led the group in an old, old favorite: “Love Will Keep Us Together.” And so it has.