(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.