Following the success of the self-contained songwriting/performing Beatles in the mid-‘60s, songwriters who were not recording artists found it increasingly difficult to get their works recorded.
Fewer acts were taking songs from others since many felt they could write their own like the Beatles did. A notable exception that became one of the most successful acts of the ‘70s was Three Dog Night.
Though considered to be a band because of their solid four-piece accompaniment, their vocals and songs are what carried them to popularity.
The group formed in 1968 from Danny Hutton’s vision of a pop-rock act of three lead singers with shades of soul. He joined with Cory Wells and Chuck Negron to fulfill that vision along with musicians Jimmy Greenspoon (keyboards), Mike Allsup (guitar), Joe Schermie (bass), and Floyd Sneed (drums).
Hutton, who came from Buncrana, Ireland, did voice-overs for Walt Disney animated shows and then became a studio singer and producer for Hanna-Barbra when they had their own HBR record label in 1965. He hit the charts as an artist with his own “Roses and Rainbows” (#73) in the fall of 1975. After failing in an audition to become one of the Monkees, he decided to form his own act.
Cory Wells of Buffalo, New York, sang with the Enemies, a house band at Los Angeles’s famed Whiskey A Go Go.
Negron, from the Bronx, New York, had been singing his soulful style since childhood and was performing at the Apollo in Harlem by 1956 (no ordinary feat for a 14-year-old white singer).
The group’s name came from and old Australian expression relating to nighttime temperatures. The colder it was, the more dogs you had sleep beside you to keep warm. A three dog night was the coldest. How three guys from Buncrana, Buffalo, and the Bronx might have picked up on such an expression is anybody’s guess.
From the beginning their choice of material was either new songs by yet-to-be immortalized writers or covers of forgotten or overlooked gems. Their first single, Nobody,” by Del Cooper, Ernie Shelly, and Beth Beatty, got some airplay. The flip side was a Lennon-McCartney song titled “It’s for You.”
Their cover of the Otis Redding R&B hit “Try a Little Tenderness” (#4 R&B, 1966) was their first pop charter in February 1969, reaching number 29. Their follow-up, the Harry Nilsson-penned “One,” reached number five in the spring of 1969 and became the first million seller of their career total of nine.
Their LP Three Dog Night reached number 11 and was the first of 12 consecutive gold albums they earned in just six years.
They became household names to fans and heroed to the songwriting community, thanks to hits like the Rado/Ragny/McDermott song “Easy to Be Hard” (#4, 1969) from the musical Hair, “Eli’s Coming” by Laura o Nyro (#10, 1969-70), “Celebrate” by Bonner and Gordon (#15, 1970), “Mama Told Me Not to Come” by Randy Newman (#1, 1970, #3 U.K., a song Wells had heard on an Eric Burdon LP), “Out in the Country” by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols (#15, 1970), and “One Man Band” (#19, 1970).
Three Dog Night’s opening act on some of their tours was 32-year-old Hoyt Axton. He wrote a song for an animated children’s TV series called “The Happy Song” but the show never got off the ground. Axton instead played the piece for the group, and by April 17, 1971, “Joy to the World” was the group’s second number one record, their second hit in the U.K. (#24), and their first and only R&B chart single (#46).
With the number one status of “Joy,” Hoyt became the second part of the trivia question, “Who were the only mother and son songwriters to have both written number one songs?” His mom, Mae Axton, wrote Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which hit the top in April 1956, 15 years earlier almost to the day.
Three Dog Night continued to blaze trails with Russ Ballard’s 1971 “Liar” (#7), “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song” (#4, 1971), “Never Been to Spain” (#5, 1971), and the Earl Robinson/David Arkin-penned “Black and White” (their third and last number one, 1972). Arkin was the father (now deceased) of an actor Alan Arkin, and the song was a 17-year-old celebration of the Supreme Court’s 1955 ruling against school segregation. Three Dog Night had heard the Greyhounds’ version over Dutch radio while on a European tour.
Hits like “Shambala” (#3, 1973), the Leo Sayer/Dave Courtney song “The Show Must Go On” (#4, 1974), and John Hiatt’s “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here” (#16, 1974) gave the group an incredible 18 straight top 20 hits.
In 1973 they appeared on Dick Clark’s 20th anniversary TV show with Little Richard.
Late in 1968 they signed to Dunhill Records. In 1975 Dunhill Records was dissolved by its parent ABC, and along with it, or the most part, went Three Dog Night’s career. Only two more chart singles emerged from the group, “Play Something Sweet” (#33, 1974) and “Till the World Ends” (#32, 1975).
– Jay Warner