Three Dog Night
In Black and White
by Ronald Sklar
The feat would be impossible to achieve in today’s market-fragmented world, but back in ’71, the bell-bottomed-and-walrus-mustachioed anthem “Joy To The World,” by Three Dog Night, shone through the polluted air and permeated the culture. In a world already torn every which way but loose, Jeremiah the bullfrog and the wine we helped him drink were on the lips of all the boys and girls now. The tune, written by country singer Hoyt Axton and not by any of the three dogs (Danny Hutton, Chuck Negron and Cory Wells), managed to roll out of the mouths of babes, the Silent Majority, hippies and hardhats alike. The simple wish of “joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea,” and – even more unlikely – “joy to you and me,” sent groovy vibes around an essentially joyless planet, even underwater!
As ironic as this was, the real story was that – despite, or even because of – the tune’s mega-monster success, Three Dog Night was not considered hip. In fact, forget about “Joy To the World”: the group and their three-part harmony scored an almost-unheard-of 21 Top-40 singles, including eleven Top Ten bestsellers, and twelve consecutive gold albums. This was accomplished in an unlikely musical-career lifespan of a staggering six years, wedged between Woodstock and Watergate. Yet the band was often branded with the unshakable stigma of “being too commercial.” This type of brand really smarts, and the sting usually does not subside. The unfair label did not help to keep TDN close to the hearts of the mean old rock critics and the music Nazis who decide who and what is good for us. In fact, we’re still waiting for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to get it together and recognize TDN for its creative arrangements, mystical interpretations, and uncanny knack for recording the right tunes at the right time.
So they didn’t write their own music. Is that a crime? However, they covered like nobody’s business – tunes such as Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming,” Nilsson’s “One,” Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me (Not To Come),”John Hiatt’s “Sure As I’m Sitting Here,” Paul Williams’ “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Celebrate” (not written by, but recommended by Neil Young) and Leo Sayer’s “The Show Must Go On,” amongst others. Their impassioned take on “Easy To Be Hard” was snipped from the Broadway tribal-rock musical Hair, and Hoyt Axton scored for them again with the quirky “Never Been To Spain.” So many covers, in fact, that the boys made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, in that pop-culture-polarized summer of ’72. At that time, the magazine was actually considered the very barometer of hip. And even then, appearing as the feature story of the counterculture’s favorite rag, the editors felt the need to explain patiently and apologize profusely: MORE GOLD THAN THE STONES! BIGGER CROWDS THAN CREEDENCE! FATTER PURSES THAN ELVIS! THREE DOG NIGHT: SEE HOW THEY RUN. As if this was hard to believe.
It took the rest of the century for the story to unfold. Drug abuse, lawyers, guns, money, and the whole VH1 Behind The Music checklist played itself out. Now, in the dawn of the new century, and with the release of their definitive greatest hits collection, Three Dog Night – The Complete Hit Singles (UTV/Geffen/UME), the world is coming around again. The joint plays like some mighty fine wine, timeless and, well, joyful. The album has launched the guys back onto the Billboard album charts for the first time since the mid-’70’s. Even movie-critic god Richard Roeper shook his booty from his aisle seat to give the boys props in a salute in The Chicago Sun Times. Roeper, no pushover himself, said, “you can go 20-deep into the CD and still find an instantly recognizable, well-crafted, beautifully harmonized pop gem.” Talk about your thumbs way, WAY up.
The name Three Dog Night was coined from the Australian expression of it being so cold that you would need to sleep with three dogs as opposed to one (okay, it may not be Hoobastank, but this was the era of such meaningful rock-group monikers as Ten Years After, Edison Lighthouse and The Ides of March). Most of the lead singing was done by Cory Wells or Chuck Negron, who had a book-length, dramatic history all his own. Negron does not currently tour with the two other members. We caught up with band leader Danny Hutton, who is best known for singing lead on “Black and White,” the group’s #1 smash from the summer of ’72. The song had originally been a British reggae hit.
He didn’t sing lead on “Joy To The World,” (Negron did) but he does have an opinion on the song. He says, “I didn’t get it, but to this day, I love it. I thought it was a goofy song. It was the third release off the album. We would try to find the ten songs that we liked the best. And they would do market research and get feedback. I was shocked when that song hit. It sold like ten million records. When you listen to the lyrics…’I’m a straight-shootin’ son of a gun’ and ‘I’d love to drink his wine’…it’s kind of a weird but universal song.”
Hutton is an Irish immigrant who spent his childhood in Boston. He came of age – and in the ‘60s, no less – in California. Hutton hooked up with neighbors Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson (producer of The Monkees and Five Easy Pieces), Neil Young and actor Harry Dean Stanton. With friends like these, Hutton’s wild days need no explanation; however, he has this to say: “I partied hard, but I never got into any needle stuff or heroin. My meter went off when I saw junkies.”
Hutton’s cleanup would come years after the band disbanded, in the late ‘70s. “I made enough money to retire,” he says, “but I was completely screwed by that time. I was completely burned out. I was done.Nothing was fun. I faded out of the group. I got unhealthy. I was boozing and doing coke. I was so beat up looking. You know that revelation when you really see yourself? I just said, ‘that’s it. I’m done.’ I quit smoking, drinking, pills, everything. Did it all myself. This big, beautiful bedroom and all I had in it was this mattress on the floor. All those years caught up. Five months later, I was running up to ten miles a day, which is too much! I eat health foods. And I’ll drink wine or a good Belgian beer, but I don’t smoke.”
Through it all, he chose to stay in California.
“A lot of cats come out to LA and do their deal,” Hutton says. “And then they hit it big or they don’t, but either way a lot of them wind up going back home and building their big house. But for me, [LA is] home. I remember Hollywood Boulevard in the fifties, when Fred Astaire would walk down the street.”
Seeing Astaire walking down the street as opposed to dancing down the street may have proved a bit of a letdown, but that didn’t stop Hutton from building his own California dream. He eventually bought Alice Cooper’s old house, and even though Alice doesn’t live here anymore, the joint still rocks as if school’s out forever. Hutton shares the place with his wife, children and an assortment of their friends.
He says, “I have three boys. Three men, I guess. Twenty-eight, twenty-two, and eighteen. All musicians. As Zorba the Greek said, ‘The full catastrophe.’ Wife, children, the house.”
Do they listen to his music?
“No, of course not!”
And do the pals of these young whippersnappers even know who he is?
“Yeah, I got a record room,” Hutton says modestly. “You hear [our] music all the time, so they know me from that. But they really know me as that guy who comes down and says, ‘Hey, guys, you gotta keep the door shut.’”
Today, along with Cory Wells, Hutton criss-crosses the country singing these old-fashioned love songs in – well – at least two-part harmony. He says, “We’ve been touring since 1986. We do 80 to 100 dates a year. We stopped that whole bus tour thing around 1990, when my kids got a little too old.”
However, the boys may not be too old for his sage musical advice. He says of his sons, “I tell them things and they go ‘yeah yeah yeah’ and pretend they don’t hear me, and sometimes I hear them say what I said to someone else.”
It’s actually not too shabby to take advice from a guy who got his start, at the tender age of 22, banging out ditties for the pop music division of Hanna Barbera Records. He penned would-be hits like “Hippity Hoppity Kangaroo.” This lead to a semi-successful, one-hit-wonderish career on his own with a modest seller in ’65 called “Roses and Rainbows.” The song allowed him to tour with Sonny and Cher and lip-synch in 105-degree heat, wearing leather pants and a tweed coat, on swinging shows like Where The Action Is. Meanwhile, Cory Wells was getting his own taste of the ‘60s, touring with a Beatle-esque group called The Enemies. He hooked up with Hutton, and then eventually with Negron. Brian Wilson – that genius/surfer dude from the Beach Boys – took a special interest in the three of them. Hutton, Negron and Wells further developed their skills in Wilson’s house, formerly owned by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs and painted purple for its good vibrations. Wilson called the boys Redwood and helped them record “Darlin’,” which would eventually become a hit by the Beach Boys themselves.
Hutton recalls, “[Brian Wilson] played me parts of Pet Sounds. It influenced me, but what could you do with the influence? You could never write or arrange a song as good as Brian. The Beatles didn’t produce their own records. Brian did everything.”
Eventually, though, the fame came. And then the inevitable backlash.
“We got nailed because we were eclectic,” Hutton admits, regarding the group’s uncertain legacy. “We were all over the map. We were on the R&B, pop and country charts. But I think in the end, it’s going to help us. There is not the same tone to everything. Every song has a lead voice with a strong three-part harmony all mixed up together like a horn section. We treated our vocals like a big horn section. We used our voices as horns. We were the horn section. With only four instruments, we had a big sound.”
The original plan – well, there was no plan – was to get their act together and take it on the road.
“We were driven,” he recalls. “Lightning striking twice is so hard. I already had a little bit of success, so to get the chance to actually [be successful] twice is unbelievable. I knew we had great musicians and singers. We just grabbed songs that we liked to quickly get a show going.”
And the next thing they knew, they were in the studio, with a cover of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” being their first big hit.
“For the first album, we were considered quote hip,” he says. “That all went away from the second album on. Then they got into ‘they don’t write their own songs.’ The record company was picking softer selections. When we first started, we were really banging it out. Real hard rock. But the perception wasn’t that: the perception was ‘One,’ or ‘Easy To Be Hard.’ Real ballady stuff.”
It may have been lukewarm, but the act was getting hotter.
Hutton said, “Once we started getting hot, then we started getting songs sent to us. At the time, they were demo records. We had a ‘for sure’ pile, a ‘maybe’ pile and a ‘no’ pile. The ‘for sure’ pile would be very small. I kick myself in the butt a little bit now, because I was always the studio guy. I didn’t come from entertaining in clubs or live performance. I came from the studio. I didn’t care that much [about singing lead vocals]. Chuck and Cory would fight over the lead more than me.”
There were ego clashes, to be sure (“We were like a bunch of brothers. Every single group is exactly the same way.”), but the history was made and the hits piled up.
Today, he enjoys the song stylings of Eminem and the White Stripes, and he toys with his computer (“I don’t sit there and go nuts on it, but I can e-mail and stumble around. I can Google!”)
He is also very fond of feeling the love in the room when he tours. The thousands who turn out know full well that he and Wells are more than just two-thirds of that “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” group. He says, “We had more consecutive Top 20 hits than the Temptations, and we did it all in six years. We were history in a way because we did all this and were considered not cool. It’s been rewritten in a way about how cool we were.”
Joy to the World indeed.
|#1 © 2004 Tatiana Menke. Courtesy of Three Dog Night/Universal Music Group.|
|#2 © 2004 Courtesy of Three Dog Night/Universal Music Group.|
|#3 © 1970 Courtesy of Three Dog Night/Universal Music Group.|
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 18, 2004.