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Three Dog Night: The Complete Story Of An American Classic

three dog night

I bought a Three Dog Night album when I was pretty young, and I remember listening to all those songs. That’s just greatly crafted songwriting and the songs have such great harmonies. I remember marveling over them and trying to figure them out on piano

– Borns

When Joe Strummer said “the future was unwritten”, he hadn’t considered that there was a pre-existing musical equation that would have proved his hypothesis wrong.

Failing to take all of the variables into account was something that Joe wasn’t usually guilty of, but for reasons best known to himself at the time, while he was theorizing about prophecy and fate, he didn’t account for, or factor in Three Dog Night.

If he had, he’d probably have said something along the lines of “The future is unwritten unless of course, you’re Three Dog Night. In which case, the future is yours for the taking”. Because Joe, just like everyone else who heard them, knew that if any band was always destined to succeed, it was Three Dog Night. 

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Putting The Pack Together 

There’s no such thing as coincidence in the Three Dog Night playbook. All of the possible variations and vagaries of fate had been already considered, dismissed, and forgotten about when Danny Hutton came up with the idea of putting together a band fronted by three lead singers. 

He believed that if he could find the right vocalists to join him, they could use near-perfect harmonies as a precise musical weapon of mass indoctrination, and if they stuck to his vision, they could conquer their chosen profession in a way that no one else had ever been able to. 

All he had to do was find the right voices and with that in mind, the singer who had made his name with Hanna Barbera Records and already had a minor hit under his musical belt with Roses and Rainbows rolled his sleeves up and got to work. 

The Enemy’s 

The second part of his dream line-up was first introduced to Danny Hutton when he produced The Enemy’s third single, their upbeat, poppier version of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe in nineteen sixty-six. 

At the time, The Enemy’s were the house band in Los Angeles infamous Whiskey A-Go-Go, and having already appeared in various television shows (namely The Beverly Hillbillies and Burke’s Law) that had been looking to cast a hip, happening groovy band, they had an established audience and fans of their own. If the gods of rock and roll were kind to them, it wouldn’t be long before they were riding high on the waves of success.

None of that mattered to Danny Hutton, all that he cared about was their singer Cory Wells. But Hutton knew that timing was everything, and while The Enemy’s were achieving a modicum of local fame, he knew he wouldn’t be able to prise Wells away from the band.

A year later, The Enemy’s split and Wells left Los Angeles and headed for Phoenix. Less than twelve months after he left, thanks to Hutton’s persistence, Wells was back in Los Angeles and firmly ensconced in the ranks of the embryonic version of Hutton’s band. 

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Meet Chuck 

A native New Yorker, Chuck Negron II’s nightclub singer father left the family when he was five years old, and Chuck spent the next two years in an orphanage before his mother was able to take him back.

Raised in The Bronx, Negron was a product of his environment, and if he hadn’t found a musical outlet for his energy by singing in local Doo-Wop groups and playing basketball at the college level, he might have ended up following the same dead-end career path as a lot of his peers did. 

Hutton, impressed by both Negron’s staggering ability as a singer and his forthright determination and dedication, invited the East Coast native to join him and Wells in his new band, and so Chuck packed his bags and caught the next bus West. Three Dog Night had found the last part of their crucial sound, now all they needed to do was find a name. 

What’s In A Name? 

Almost as soon as the three members had solidified their line-up, they were offered a deal, and in nineteen sixty-seven, they signed with Dunhill Records and entered the studio with the Beach Boys, under the short-lived name Redwood.  The name, much like their time in the studio with Brian Wilson, didn’t last long. 

By the time nineteen sixty-eight rolled into focus, the three singers had hired a band of backing musicians including drummer Floyd Sneed, bass player Joe Schermie and keyboard wizard Jimmy Greenspoon, and had started using the name Three Dog Night.

And it wasn’t long before their name started to attract almost as much attention as their music did, as more and more people, journalists and fans alike, wanted to know where their name came from and what it meant. 

Three Dog Night 

While the origins of the band’s name aren’t disputed, there is some confusion surrounding who actually came up with it. The official story is that singer Danny Huttons’ then-girlfriend June Fairchild suggested it, but the composer Van Dyke Parks who was working as an arranger at Warner Brothers Records has stated, on the record, that he was the one responsible for saddling the band with their name. 

The unusual name is an Aboriginal term used to describe how cold a night in the Outback was and is. After digging a hole to sleep in, if the night was relatively cold, the Aborigines would cuddle up next to a dog to share body heat to keep warm.

If it was a surprisingly cold night, they’d share their hole in the ground with two dogs and if it was freezing and the mercury would barely begin to rise, they’d share their hole with three dogs. Hence, the name Three Dog Night, which simply means that it’s freezing cold outside. 

Heading Out Of The Sixties 

As Wells’s previous band had been one of the house bands at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, Three Dog Night and their management decided to use the venue to make their debut, and during a  press conference in nineteen sixty-eight, they played their first show and to an audience of critics.

The reaction was instantaneous and convinced the band that they had something special and that Hutton had been, and was right. The press loved them. 

In October of the same year, Three Dog Night released their first self-titled album, which, thanks to a lot of favorable reviews and being played widely on radio stations all over the country, reached the Billboard Top Twenty.

It wasn’t the album that made the band famous, it was the top-five single, a cover of Harry Nilson’s haunting One, that sold the band to the American public, and within eighteen months of Hutton putting his pack together, they had two top twenty albums and three top ten singles to their name. As the sixties drew to a close, Three Dog Night was on top of the world. 

Welcome To The Seventies 

As kind as the sixties had been to Three Dog Night, the seventies were where the band really hit the stride, and in the first half of the decade, they managed to achieve another fifteen top ten singles. But with great success comes great responsibility, and neither Negron nor Hutton were prepared for what the band’s continuing success would mean to their physical and mental wellbeing. 

Following a lengthy, protracted lawsuit that the band launched against American Talent International for false representation, it started to become obvious that Hutton and Negron had developed serious narcotic dependency issues.

During their nineteen seventy-three tour to promote the album Cyan, the band was forced to hire a nurse who could administer B-12 injections to Hutton so that he could play the shows that the band had booked. 

Their founder looked unwell and had developed jaundice following years of consistent and sustained drug abuse. Hutton had reached the end of his road, and in nineteen seventy-five, in an effort to get him to seek the help that he obviously so desperately needed, Wells and Negron fired him and replaced him with Jay Gruska, who would find fame in later life as a  respected composer who was responsible for writing the theme tunes of some of America’s favorite television shows. 

Negron, like Hutton, had also developed serious narcotic issues, but unlike his former bandmate, he was able to hide and disguise them, and they didn’t affect his ability to do his job. At least, they didn’t before he was arrested for possession of narcotics the day before Three Dog Night’s nineteen seventy-five tour was due to begin. He was only able to make the tour after the charges against him were dropped at the last minute. 

This Is The End, My Only Friend The End 

Gruska stayed with the band right up until the bitter end. After touring with them for the last album that he recorded as part of Three Dog Night, American Pastime, all of the members of the band decided to go their separate ways following their final show in Los Angeles in July nineteen seventy-six.  

In less than ten years, they’d had the kind of success that most musicians can’t even begin to comprehend and had sold close to sixty million albums. In the end, though, it had all been too much for them to cope with, and for the sake of their collective health, wellbeing, and reputations, Three Dog Night called it a day. 

Did You Miss Us? The Eighties And Beyond

Five years after they’d drawn a line in the sand, Three Dog Night returned to action with Hutton and Negron both having cleaned up their acts and successfully dealt with their drug dependency issues.

The band picked up where they had left off and continued to tour as rigorously as they had, and only found the time to release a new EP, It’s A Jungle in nineteen eighty-three. Just as their previous album. American Pastime had done, It’s A Jungle failed to chart, and would be the last record that the band would release for nearly twenty years. 

Two years later, in nineteen eighty-five, following a relapse, Chuck Negron was fired by his bandmates, but rather than replace him, the band elected to have guitarist Paul Kingery cover Negron’s vocal parts. Since Negron’s departure, the band has maintained a two singer line-up, with the other musicians in the band filling in the harmonies. 

The London Symphony Orchestra And The Death Of Wells

Nearly twenty years after they released It’s A Jungle Three Dog Night flew to London and recorded two new songs, Overground and Sault Ste. Marie and brace of their classics with the London Symphony Orchestra in Abbey Road Studios.

Primarily a way of thanking their fans, the album was never supposed to be an attempt to increase their fanbase, whose loyalty and devotion have enabled them to keep touring and playing for more than fifty years. It was also the last album, to date, to bear the Three Dog Night name. 

Then, on October 21st two thousand and fifteen, the unthinkable happened. Cory Wells, the rock who had held the band together for so long, died in his sleep at home in New York. He was seventy-four years old.

Believing firmly in the old adage that the show must go on, Hutton asked David Morgan to replace his old friend in the band, and to this day, Three Dog Night songs continue to ring out on tour, showcasing exactly what has made them a true American Pastime.

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