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Q&A: Three Dog Night

A band that thrived on tight, high-spirited arrangements of well-selected songs by leading writers, Three Dog Night released 21 consecutive Top 40 hits.

Donna Leahey
October 28, 2019

Three Dog Night has been rocking for more than five decades. From 1969-74, no other band came close to their number of hits, records sold, or concert attendance. The group was founded in 1967 with an unusual lineup that boasted three lead vocalists: Danny Hutton, Chuck Negron, and Cory Wells.

Three Dog Night released its debut single, “Nobody,” in 1968. The next year, the band’s second single, “Try a Little Tenderness,” peaked at No.29 on the Billboard Top 40 chart.

Over the years, the group went on to become world-renowned for their pop hits, written by such gifted songwriters as Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Paul Williams, Elton John, and John Hiatt. Newman’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” became one of the group’s biggest hits, selling more than a million copies. Newman had recorded the song about a naive man’s introduction to L.A.’s wild ’60s music scene a few years earlier, with less success.

Three Dog Night also recorded the first commercially available version of “Your Song.” They chose not to release it as a single as a courtesy to John, whom they had met when he was an opening act for the band.

In the 1980s, Negron left the trio, and in 2015 Wells died. Today, Hutton fronts the band, joined by singer David Morgan and accompanied by musicians including the group’s long-time guitarist Michael Allsup.

At an age when most people are enjoying a well-earned retirement, Three Dog Night is still maintaining a grueling touring schedule. With songs like “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” “Joy to the World,” “Black and White,” and “An Old Fashioned Love Song” still popular in commercials and movies, this Grammy-nominated band has maintained its presence in pop culture.

Hutton, who still loves touring, doesn’t have a favorite song but gave Preview 918 an idea of what fans should expect when the band performs Nov. 21 at Paradise Cove.

Q. “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” is such a fun song. Who does the speaking part?
A. The guy who did it originally [Cory Wells] died. Now it’s our drummer.

That song was No. 1 in the United States and England for us. Then, Tom Jones covered it [in 2000], and he went to No. 1 in England. And all the ad libs and stuff on the end? He copied all our little ad libs vocally. All these young people are going to think, ‘You’re doing that Tom Jones hit.’”

Q. Three Dog Night is known for having embraced the cutting edge of technology in the music industry. How have you made that change from making music in the late 1960s to now?
A. We are finishing our first album since 1976. I had to walk a tightrope with that. I have a full-on studio in my house that used to belong to Alice Cooper. We wanted to keep the Three Dog Night vibe, but I also wanted to introduce a more modern thing where we wouldn’t lose our identity.

They no longer are doing fade-outs on records. We used to have those big chords and they’d slowly fade. We kept that stuff in mind when we did the album. I wrote six of the songs.

Q. You’re credited with 21 top 40 hits.
A. Consecutive top 40 hits. Every single we put out was a hit. That means we can’t put out another single, or it will screw up our streak.

Q. With all that success, how do you pick a playlist for your concerts?
A. We’ve been together for 51 years. I formed the band, and then brought in a singer and another singer, and then it was the three of us. Like any brothers, we would bump heads, and everybody had different ideas. And one guy used to get bored doing the hits, and he’d stick in too many blues songs, or new songs, or songs he liked. My feeling is that we’re not there to please ourselves.

Usually, it’s a different venue every night, so it’s not like being on Broadway where you’re doing the same place and same songs every night. Every time, it’s fresh. I like to start the set showing what we can do, then get a little softer in the middle, then go out like a rocket.

Hopefully, we sound as good or better than we did in the’70s. We haven’t lowered the key in any of the songs.

Q. You have recorded hits by some of the best songwriters in the business.
A. I helped Elton John when he came to the States. I met him in England. He was going by Reggie Dwight at the time. I invited him and Bernie [Taupin] to a club once. I was sitting downstairs in the bar with him, and he started singing to a record on the speaker. I told him that he had an incredible voice, but he said he wanted to be a writer.

One time he came with us to a club, and we couldn’t get him on the guest list, so he acted like a roadie for us.

Q. You guys disbanded in 1976. What got you back together?
A. I left, and the other guys carried on for a couple of months, but they started fighting. We got back together in 1980-81.

After I left, I got myself straightened out and healthy by running 10 miles a day. Then I became a manager. I got into the punk scene. It was a really interesting period.

Then I got a call saying someone was forming a bogus Three Dog Night group. I phoned one of the other singers to inform them, so we got back together to stop the bogus band. That was the start of us coming back.

Three Dog Night
Paradise Cove | River Spirit Casino Resort
8330 Riverside Parkway | Tulsa
Nov. 21: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend