Celebrating Three Dog Night
Founder Danny Hutton Carries on the Legacy of the Popular '70s Hitmakers

By Lee Valentine Smith

One of the most popular rock bands of the '70s was Three Dog Night. Originally formed in 1967 around the unique blend of three distinct lead vocalists - Danny Hutton, Cory Wells, and Chuck Negron - the band released a record 21 Billboard Top 40 hits by 1975.

The group splinted as tastes and trends changed but reunited in '81 to combat an imposter group. Over the years, as the exit of Negron and the death of Wells changed the line-ups, founder Hutton has continued to front the band - with guitarist Michael Allsup remaining from the early days.

Unlike many bands of the era, Three Dog Night recorded - and earned massive hits with - material from outside writers, including Harry Nilsson ("One"), Paul Williams ("An Old Fashioned Love Song") and Hoyt Axton ("Joy to the World").

Before Hutton and the band return to Georgia this month, he spoke with INsite by phone from his home in Southern California.

The second concert I ever saw was Three Dog Night in 1973 - when "Shambala" was the new single and T. Rex was the opener.

Oh yeah! Well they were trying to break [T. Rex leader] Marc [Bolan] in America and we were the hot thing. He was a great guy, had such charisma and everything. We met him in England when Ringo was following him around with a camera.

Are you home today?

Yeah, I'm here in Laurel Canyon. We just got back from a run in the south and I've never had the flu as bad as the one I just had. I almost cancelled two shows, which I've never, ever done.

Are you still living in Alice Cooper's old house?

Since 1977! Micky Dolenz lived next door. It was a crazy neighborhood. But I've been in the area since '64; I rented a couple of crazy party houses back in the day.

That scene and that neighborhood has birthed some of the best rock music ever written. Was that the launching ground for Three Dog Night?

Yeah, I'd been working for Hanna-Barbara Records as a writer and A&R guy. I think the first Laurel Canyon area bands that really hit back then were The Byrds in April of 1965 and then I had the second hit in August, called "Roses And Rainbows." During that time, I became friends with Brian Wilson and learned a lot about recording and harmonies. It really helped me with Three Dog Night.

How'd the band get together?

Well my manager at the time moved to MGM and took me and Frank Zappa there. Then he became president of Brother Records, the Beach Boys' label. One day he invited me to come to the studio and meet Brian when he was doing "Good Vibrations." We became buddies and when I had the other two singers for what became Three Dog Night, I brought them to Brian's house.

Was he planning to record you at that point?

Yeah, he'd written a song for me called "Darlin'." The Beach Boys were out on the road and we recorded it. When they came back, they loved it and wanted it. Brian, being a passive guy, said, 'Well ok.' But I love him. They put Carl Wilson's lead vocal on it and it became a hit. Our manager said, 'It's not gonna work if you're just a vocal trio, go get a band.'

You were a real band, not just three guys with some studio cats.

Yeah, I think people focused on the "three" part, but we really were a band. Everybody in the band had been a leader of their own group and we were all lead singers, so we could do anything. We'd all been around by then and there were no rookies. I was in my mid-20s and I'd already been on five labels by then, as a writer/singer/engineer/producer. Then we just took off like a rocket.

With that many dynamic personalities, it must have been hard to balance it all in a diplomatic band setting.

Well, it was pretty much like any band, I guess. When you think about it, most TV shows last seven years. For us, the first two or three years, it was great. Then you get girlfriends, hanger-ons and everybody is whispering into everybody's ear. Then slowly the usual rock and roll stuff happens.

The old, "I have a solo album to do" mindset.

Yeah, 'You should go out by yourself, you don't need them' kinda thing. But a good band has a chemistry and everybody has their part of the puzzle.

Then it came time for the first album.

Yeah, we went to The Troubador one afternoon [in 1968] and played an audition. The president of ABC/Dunhill said, 'Ok man, I love what you do and how you do it, so let's go in next week and do the album.' We were like, 'What do you mean, we don't have any songs. This is just the stuff we do in the club.' He said, 'No, that's your first album.'

Besides "One," you included a nice version of "Try A Little Tenderness" on there, too.

Yeah, Otis Redding had died and we'd been doing that as a tribute to him, so since we were doing our live set, it went in. It became our second single and went Top 40.

Three Dog Night definitely had a good run on the Top 40 charts.

We ended up with 21 Top 40 hits in a row, without missing once. We hold the record in Billboard for the most consecutive Top 40 hits.

Those hits were songs from some of the greatest writers of all time.

People sometimes say, 'You guys did a lot of covers." But I always say, 'No we didn't, we resurrected songs.' Like with "One," Harry's album came out and it didn't do that well. So we resurrected that song and turned it into a hit. What I've always liked about finding songs is the arranging. Trimming the fat and changing it all around. Making the chorus the intro and always leaving a little surprise at the end of the outro so they don't turn off the radio. I've always liked those songs where you have to listen until the end. 'Don't turn the station, listen to what they do at the end.'

Exactly. On "Black And White" there's a little ad lib at the end and I always stick around for it.

Yeah and like on "Celebrate," we modulate. We always tried to do stuff like that.

As you were resurrecting songs by all these great writers, was there any part of the band that wanted to do the 'let's write our own stuff' thing? Like a reverse Boyce and Hart moment.

The thing I always had against that is, you know, you have some songs ready and then Randy Newman sends you a song. Whose song are you gonna do - Randy Newman's or yours? A lot of groups have one main writer and they tend to get into a little bit of a sameness in what they do. Or they've written a song that took them four months about the death of somebody or an old girlfriend, and the song is so precious to them they don't want to change it. We never had that. We'd get a song and go, 'Let's put this over here and cut that.'

It added to the overall sound.

It did. We were on every musical chart, except jazz. I like that about us, but we used to get nailed for it at first. 'What are they guys? What bin do I put the records in?' Out show is a journey of an evening for anyone who comes to see us. You'll hear just about every kind of music you like. Hopefully we'll present it properly.

That's the beauty of the band. It's all over the place stylistically, but there's still a group dynamic.

I always thought of the three of us up front as basically a horn section, everyone mixed equally loud so you get this big blast of harmonies. So we created a big, seven-piece instrumental band that just happened to vocalize.

That's a very Beach Boys-type approach.

Absolutely. If you listen carefully, we do some vocal trips but it's a little bit funkier than the Beach Boys. But no matter how close you listen to all the pieces, I just hope that people who come to the show can get into this little bubble for a while. Forget about politics, forget about everything for a couple of hours and then leave with a big smile on your face. It's great to hear, 'Man, I didn't know they did that song. For old guys, they still sound really good, like the records!' That's what I want.

Three Dog Night plays at 8 p.m. Friday, April 5 in the Byers Theater at City Springs. For more information, please visit threedognight.com/tour.

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