The mission of Three Dog Night
Band looking for recognition of place in pop history
By Todd Leopold
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- "One" was a pretty good number for Three Dog Night.
The band had three No. 1 singles in the early '70s -- "Mama Told Me Not to Come," "Joy to the World" and "Black and White." The band was perhaps the No. 1 chart group of that time, with 21 Top Forty hits between 1969 and 1974. And then, of course, "One," the Harry Nilsson song, became its first Top Ten hit. (It peaked at No. 5.)
But "One," as Nilsson wrote, is a pretty lonely number, too. Because, even though Three Dog Night was on top of the world for a time, the band finds little respect nowadays.
"We've been on a mission in a way," says Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton in an interview with CNN.com to promote the band's new greatest hits CD, "Three Dog Night: The Complete Hit Singles" (Geffen/UTV). "We're trying to get people to realize our place in history, how popular we were. We've kind of been buried."
That's often the fate of bands perceived as singles groups, particularly groups who peaked in the early '70s, as if singles were piffle compared to the "serious" long-form LP. (Rock critic Dave Marsh did much to resuscitate the single with his 1989 book, "The Heart of Rock and Soul.")
And, adds fellow 3DN singer Cory Wells, Three Dog Night never thought of itself as a singles band anyway.
"We never released a single. We released albums," he says. "The public picked the singles."
"We usually [thought] the first song on side one was the single," adds Hutton. "We were never right."
Hutton was right about other things, however, particularly the concept for Three Dog Night itself.
In the mid-'60s, the Ireland-born Hutton was a solo singer having little success; Wells was singing lead for an L.A. band called the Enemys. The two became friends and brought in versatile Chuck Negron to try Hutton's idea of a band with three lead singers.
The group had many influences, Hutton and Wells say. Negron's background was doo-wop; the other singers drew from their favorites.
"I loved Little Richard. ... And folkie-Celtic European kinds of things," Hutton observes.
"I was a big fan of black gospel," adds Wells. "As a kid there were black groups I sang with from my teen years to my early 20s."
The three linked up with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and actually recorded some tracks for him (one, "Darlin'," was a 1968 Beach Boys hit). Wilson called the band Redwood; that quickly became Three Dog Night, after an Australian aboriginal expression regarding a particularly frigid night.
Hutton, Wells and Negron drafted four musicians for instrumental support, and by 1969 the group was on the charts to stay.
'The songs came from everywhere'
Three Dog Night was also known for covering songs by then-little known songwriters. Besides Nilsson's "One," there were Hoyt Axton's "Joy" and "Never Been to Spain," Laura Nyro's "Eli's Coming," Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me," Paul Williams' "An Old-Fashioned Love Song," Russ Ballard's "Liar" and John Hiatt's "Sure As I'm Sittin' Here."
"Our focus was on good music, instead of a theme," says Hutton. "The songs came from everywhere -- demos that came in, friends."
Three Dog Night still tours regularly. Danny Hutton and Cory Wells are in the front.
Being touched by Three Dog Night had profound financial rewards. The two say that Hiatt, then a nightclub-and-hotel entertainer working for a song publisher, went out and bought a Cadillac with his "Sittin' Here" royalties. Newman, who had established a critical following but no chart success with his first two albums, broke through with his third studio record, 1972's "Sail Away," after 3DN took "Mama Told Me" (from "12 Songs") to No. 1 in 1970.
Three Dog Night itself just focused on making the record, "taking the song apart and cutting the fat out" in Hutton's words.
The quickest recordings often worked best: "Never Been to Spain" was recorded in 45 minutes, the two recall. On the other hand, "Heavy Church," from 1970's "Naturally," took 10 days "and just laid there," says Hutton.
Negron left the group in 1977, and the other two singers devoted themselves to other pursuits. Hutton became "a bad amateur carpenter," he says; Wells devoted himself to cabinetry and fishing. (He lived in legendary arranger Nelson Riddle's old house, winning the sale over a lawyer when Riddle told his real estate agent, "Sell it to the musician.")
But the band has been back touring for several years, and the crowds still come out to see Three Dog Night. The group still has four of its seven original members -- not bad for a band in its 36th year.
"When we do a tour, our job is to take people back to the '70s," says Wells.
Still, it would be nice to have a little more recognition, they note.
"We have opening acts who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," says Hutton. He shrugs. "But you can't live life wondering. We're here, and we're kicking ass."