Three Dog Night bringing back memories at Boone Hall
By Stratton Lawrence | Wednesday, July 4, 2012
If you go
What: Three Dog Night, along with The Island Trio and PlaneJane as part of the Summer Concert Series
When: Saturday, gates open at 4 p.m.
Where: Boone Hall Plantation, 1235 Long Point Road, Mount Pleasant
Price:$25 in advance, $30 the day of
For more info: www.boonehall plantation.com
When a band from the ’60s-’70s goes back on the road in 2012, the group of people on stage is often vastly different than those who played the same songs decades before. The original drummer, bassist or even the lead singer may persist, but the band itself may be the same in name only.
That’s not the case with Three Dog Night. Four of the group’s seven core members still tour, playing around 80 concerts every year across the continent.
Fronted by a trio of lead singers, the band churned out 21 Top 40 hits between 1968 and 1975, including “Joy to the World,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Black and White.” By the end of that seven-year run, the group had amassed more than 50 million album sales.
Three Dog Night still includes original keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon and guitarist Michael Allsup, as well as Danny Hutton and Cory Wells on lead vocals.
In 1985, singer Chuck Negron was let go following a relapse into cocaine and heroin addiction.
“He’s doing a lot better now,” Wells said of Negron, who in the last 20 years has cleaned up, found God and written a book titled “Three Dog Nightmare.”
Wells attributes his own longevity, and the ability to front a rock band at age 70, to his own diligent avoidance of the road’s temptations during the days when Three Dog Night was topping the charts.
“I grew up a poor kid in a poor neighborhood; the white ghetto of Buffalo (N.Y.),” Wells said. “What I’d achieved I was not going to jeopardize. I was never enticed by drugs because I had no inhibitions. I was never scared to go on stage. Now, I don’t drink and I haven’t even smoked in 47 years. It’s paying its dividends and it keeps us viable.”
To this day, inhibitions don’t hinder Wells on stage. On recent tours, he’s taken to donning a sideways ball cap and gold chain for a rap portion of “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” intended as a joke about how the song might have been recorded had Three Dog Night emerged decades later.
“The first time I did it was at an amphitheater in Los Angeles, and Danny didn’t understand that it was a joke,” laughs Wells. “The road manager liked it and thought we should put it into the show.”
When it comes to talking about the state of today’s music industry, Wells doesn’t hold back.
“I’m not a fan of technology that can take somebody who really can’t sing and make them sound like they’re Mario Lanza,” Wells bemoans. “We’re taking people with mediocre talent and making them sound fantastic, even when they’re out of key. I think it’s cheating. At the same time, we have kids out there today who are ultra- talented, and are siphoning the music of the ’50s all the way to today for inspiration.”
Launching Elton John
Despite not releasing a full-length LP since “American Pastime” in 1976, Three Dog Night have consistently toured since reuniting in 1981 after a 6-year break.
“I call it dartboard touring,” Wells said of their scattershot schedule; their 11 shows this month include Charleston, Iowa, British Columbia and Texas. “You put up a map and throw a dart, and wherever it lands, we play.”
Amid shuffling between coasts, the band is finally at work on a new studio album.
In 2009, the group released two new songs, including the a cappella “Prayer of the Children” that’s now a live show staple. The new recordings are a constant work in progress, with tracking done between multiple studios and even hotel rooms.
“We’re working on it, but it’s been slow going,” admits Wells. “We’re not trying to compete with today’s music industry, and I personally don’t think that the younger generation even wants to hear our stuff today. It’s just going to be a fun thing, doing songs by people that we admire, from Sheryl Crow to Tommy Tutone to Bonnie Raitt.”
Even in their prime, Three Dog Night members wrote very few of their own songs, choosing instead to draw from the material of obscure songwriters they admired. In the process, many of those writers became stars in their own right as Three Dog Night’s versions became hits.
From Hoyt Axton (“Joy to the World” and “Never Been To Spain”) to Harry Nilsson (“One”), the band helped put many fledgling songwriters on the map.
“Nobody even knew who Randy Newman was when we recorded ‘Mama Told Me Not to Come,’ ” recalls Wells. “I remember finding Randy Newman’s album in the Sears and Roebuck bargain bin for 50 cents. I bought it and put it on and just loved his sarcastic style of songwriting.”
That tune ultimately became the band’s only Top 10 hit in England and their second biggest recording of all-time.
Their recording of Elton John’s “Lady Samantha” helped him rise to prominence, as well.
“Elton was working as a songwriter and an artist and he just couldn’t continue on, so he actually had to face reality and get an 8-to-5 job somewhere. We did ‘Lady Samantha’ and it went double gold or something like that and put a lot of money in his pocket to enable him to continue with his own writing,” recalls Wells.
“We went to England and he came backstage; he was still a humble writer and he handed us a record and said he thought we did a great job with ‘Lady Samantha’ and thought we’d do a good job with this song, as well.”
That song was “Your Song,” which ultimately launched John into international star.
“We took it back and started recording it, but we didn’t put out the single because we never released singles. We’d put out an album and let people pick what they wanted,” Wells said. “The next thing we knew, we hear Elton John on the radio with ‘Your Song,’ and he became famous from there.”
Joy to the World?
Wells admits that tossing an album out and hoping the public latches onto a song or two no longer works. He laments a music industry where enough money can sell the public junk, simply through saturation and repetition.
On the other hand, songs such as “Joy to the World” have been repeated ad infinitum, becoming ubiquitous within American culture. If Three Dog Night were to complete a concert without performing the tune, many in the audience would likely leave disappointed.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t like that song when I first heard it. I thought it was too bubble-gum kid-dish for me,” admits Wells. “I like darker subject matter, but as we started recording, we ended up bringing our kids in to sing on it. After that, I said, ‘This is a cool song. Maybe not the song so much, but the message.’
“In those days, everything was down and desperate, with the government and Vietnam and the polluting of the Earth. That song was uplifting. ‘There is hope, folks, there is hope for the human race.’ But when it became No. 1, I was more surprised than anyone.”
Wells said that he and Sutton continue to tour as Three Dog Night purely for the love of the music.
“I’ll sing for $10,000 a night or for $1,” Wells claims. “I love to sing. I love to play and learn new music. I didn’t get into this business so I could become a rock star or get more chicks or be popular. I did it because I love music.”
That’s a lesson he hopes isn’t lost on today’s young musicians, many of whom dream of becoming a star thanks to shows such as “American Idol.”
“Get into music because you really love it, not because you want to be famous,” Wells urges, adding that some of his darkest moments came at the height of his career.
The group’s name is derived from an Australian aboriginal saying that on the coldest nights you sleep with not one but three wild dogs: a “three dog night.”
At a stadium show in Dallas in the early ’70s, Three Dog Night performed for 40,000 people, with Rod Stewart as their opening band.
“I was so overwhelmed,” Wells said of his rock-star version of a “three dog night.” “It was a football field, so the audience couldn’t be on the stage. I looked out and they had all these robotic cameras in front of us. We couldn’t see the audience — just these robots. It was eerie.”
These days, Wells is happy to be performing to more intimate audiences that appreciate and want to relive the band’s golden era. In fact, the band’s concert this weekend has sold more tickets than any other performance in the history of Boone Hall’s Summer Concert Series, including KC and the Sunshine Band, the Little River Band, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
“We’re a human jukebox,” explains Wells of Three Dog Night’s legacy. “We come on stage and bring back memories.”