Play Something Sweet

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(Pictured: Three Dog Night in 1972. Back row from left: Jimmy Greenspoon, Danny Hutton, Floyd Sneed, and Joe Schermie; front row from left: Chuck Negron, Mike Allsup, and Cory Wells.)

Cory Wells, one of Three Dog Night’s three lead singers, died this week at the age of 74. He was the one with the rasp in his voice, heard on a preponderance of the band’s biggest hits, including “Eli’s Coming,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Never Been to Spain,” “Shambala,” “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” and “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues).” He and fellow singer Danny Hutton, along with original keyboard player Jimmy Greenspoon (who died last March), kept the band together following its reformation in 1981; original guitarist Mike Allsup returned in 1991 and has been with the band ever since. And that’s something people don’t remember about Three Dog Night: they weren’t a trio, they were a fully contained seven- or eight-piece band throughout their 70s heyday.

Here’s something else people don’t remember. Three Dog Night is now considered a quintessential 70s bubblegum act. Songs like “Joy to the World,” “Black and White,” and “Old Fashioned Love Song” ranked high in the good times/great oldies radio pantheon, sparking in-car singalongs by the millions, at least until oldies radio stopped playing songs that old. But during the early 1970s, Three Dog Night was one of the top rock bands in America.

Rock band. I have read that in the first half of the 1970s, Three Dog Night sold more concert tickets than anybody else, at a time when the Rolling Stones mounted two major tours. You can dismiss this if you like by pointing to One Direction’s grosses and the phenomenon of teenyboppers with money, but here’s another piece of evidence: in the summer of 1972, they closed the show at the Concert 10 Festival in Pennsylvania, a blowout that also starred the likes of Rod Stewart, Emerson Lake & Palmer, the J. Geils Band, and Black Sabbath (who were booked but never made it). You didn’t get that spot (and you still don’t) if you’re not a very big deal amongst the paying customers.

This is not to say that you necessarily should run out and buy all of Three Dog Night’s albums. Leaving aside how they may have sounded to fans 40-plus years ago, they have not aged particularly well. On most of them, you can find a song or two that sounds painfully jive. (Seven Separate Fools, from 1972, is probably the strongest from start to finish.) They’re probably best heard on an anthology like The Complete Hit Singles, which collects the 45 mixes and edits of their most famous songs.

Despite their 70s success and their enduring popularity ever since, Three Dog Night will never get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s the mistaken perception of them as a bubblegum/singles act. They didn’t write very many of their songs, and almost none of their biggest hits, and that’s the kiss of death to the snobs at the gate. (The Hall has previously inducted interpreters of other people’s songs, but such inductees tend to be female vocalists—you can look it up.)

Forty-five years ago this fall, Three Dog Night’s “Out in the Country” contained the first metaphor I ever admired: “Before the breathin’ air is gone / Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime.” A few months later, thanks to “Joy to the World,” I became a fan and remained one ever after. Back in the early 90s, they headlined the summer festival in the little town I was working in. We spent a lovely evening under the stars listening to their string of hits, and for years thereafter, we hoped to see them again. Earlier this decade, they were scheduled for the Wisconsin State Fair and we got tickets, but a continuous cold rain chased us out of the open grandstand before they hit the stage.

I’m sorry about that now.

12 thoughts on “Play Something Sweet

  1. porky

    I was one of the many 10 year olds screaming “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” at the top of my lungs and remember being distracted during my piano lesson when the teacher’s daughter played her 3 Dog Night 45s in an adjacent room; I wanted to be in THAT ROOM. And of course with my recent reminiscence of “Liar” this band was a big part of my young life.

    “Out in the Country” is one of THOSE records, the kind that stop me in my tracks every time.

  2. Guy K.

    Thanks for this. Three Dog Night was my favorite band when I was 10 years old, and the funny thing is, now, 42(!) years later, not only do almost all of their singles hold up (with the glaring exception of “Joy to the World,” which has suffered from excessive burnout), but a good many of them sound better to me now than they did then. Especially “Family of Man” and “Out in the Country.” And I’ll fight anybody who laughs at me for suggesting that “Shambala” might be the greatest single released in the 1970s.

  3. A great band, for sure (and one of the Texas Gal’s favorites). I second the idea of an anthology being the best way to hear TDN’s work. “Naturally” is my preferred album because of the presence of “Heavy Church” (although I, too, am weary of “Joy to the World”). “Seven Separate Fools” loses a point or two because of “Black and White.”

  4. Steve E.

    The first concert I ever saw was Three Dog Night at the Anaheim Convention Center in spring 1971, when “Joy to the World” was big. They previewed “Liar” as their next single. I was 13. The opening act was Uriah Heep, which was one strange teaming.

  5. I think I have mentioned here before that I was the leader of the school bus singalongs to “Joy to the World” in the spring of fifth grade, because I was always sitting as close to the radio speaker as possible and WLS played it almost every afternoon while we were going home. I am not burned out on it yet.

    Steve’s mention of Uriah Heep is more evidence for the way TDN was perceived in 1971. They were definitely not considered to be on the same artistic level as the Partridge Family (as they are now, by lots of people.)

  6. Brian Rostron

    I’m too young to have been cognizant of TDN’s heyday, having been born in 1973, but I don’t know if people think of them as a bubblegum act. I think of them as a “suprisingly hugely popular band from the early 1970s in a ‘you had to be there’ kind of way.” Kind of like Blood, Sweat and Tears. I remember someone remarking to someone in the late ’80s that young people were listening to classic rock and her mind didn’t go to Hendrix, Zep, or Stones, but instead she immediately said, “Oh, you mean like Three Dog Night?” Of course, having multiple lead singers and a bunch of faceless dudes with mustaches in the band and not writing their own songs doesn’t help either. Kind of like Blood, Sweat and Tears. The only TDN member that I’m vaguely aware of is the heroin addict lead singer dude. I hope that narrows it down.

  7. Jim Cummings

    Mick Box has stated that Uriah Heep was influenced by TDN’s 3 man vocals during that 1971 tour. Heep’s next album, “Demons and Wizards” shows how they adopted that style. “Suitable for Framing” is my favorite album, with songs by Dave Mason and Elton John, but I still can’t figure out that photo on the inside of the gatefold.

  8. I loved 3DN, still do. “Black & White” was a major reason they were considered bubblegum but every band makes a mistake. They were really adept at coming up with songs other people wrote and making them rich. I never considered them a covers band because they almost never recorded someone else’s “hit.” Instead they used they’re eclectic tastes to find the best tunes others had written. My 2 favorite non-hits were “Heavy Church” as Whiteray already mentioned and even bettter is Chuck Negron’s
    cover of “Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer,” a terrific performance.

    1. porky

      “Black and White” was written in the mid 50’s as a celebration of the Brown vs Board of Education ruling (“….that this is the law of all the land……”), 3DN just cow-belled it up. I know I’ve told this story before but it’s in a better context. On Casey’s countdown he intro’d “Black and White” by saying 3DN have shown a spotlight on songwriters and maybe David I. Arkin and Earl Robinson (writers of B&W) have another hit up their sleeve. Like they were Brill building songwriters!

      1. Guy K.

        A lot of people rag on “Black and White” for its bubble-gummy simplicity. To me, it’s the catchiest and most listenable nursery rhyme in the history of the Top 40, and a helluva lot less cloying than the insufferable superstar mashup perpetrated on us by two R&R Hall of Famers a decade later: “Ebony & Ivory.”

  9. Andy

    “Joy to the World” is what started me off listening to AM radio, buying 45’s, and in general paying attention to music as a 9 year old.

    I was in 4th grade, and my class went on a big field trip (to Balboa Park, if I’m not mistaken), with a 5th grade class. On the way back, I was in a van with some of the 5th graders, and they had a portable radio with them. Suddenly this voice starts screaming out of the speaker “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” and the 5th graders come alive and start rocking out and singing along. They knew all the words, and were able to sing along to the whole thing. I remember being hugely impressed, and thinking how cool these older boys were, and how I wanted to do that too. I pretty much immediately started listening to the radio, learning all the songs that were played and who sang them, and buying the ones I liked…the first one I bought being “Joy to the World”. (I later also shelled out for their hit “Liar”.)

    They were definitely a singles band, though, maybe the last great singles rock band. Maybe not quite Hall of Fame material (though I’d probably vote for them), but they were important to me. They got me into loving music.

  10. Coleen

    Love this.

    Reminds me of a school incident when “Joy” was hot. I was in 7th grade. Our music teacher that year was Miss King. Prior to that, her predecessors were ‘way older and had no clue about rock. Wouldn’t touch it.

    My memory says that Miss King was maybe ten years older than us and perhaps this was her first job. She’d integrate songs we were hearing on the radio into the curriculum she was teaching. By doing that, she knew how to get and keep our attention in class.

    Anywho, one day we were playing a game where we heard bits of songs and had to identify them. I think we started with classical music, but then she slipped in “Joy”.

    Obviously everybody’s hand went up – – it was a current hit. She picked my friend Holly Harrison, who was no slouch. Except Holly got flustered, and answered the question by blurting “The Froggy Song?”

    I don’t know why I remember this. It just is.

    And the HOF is such a joke. I wish there was a way for the people to totally decide who goes in – – after the obvious choices, the end result would be so far different.


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