Three Dog Night: Underappreciated Hitmakers

Three Dog Night

Feature Photo: ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons / Backgorund Shutterstock

Three Dog Night was huge during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but underappreciated today. Too many younger listeners have never heard of the group and many older listeners have forgotten about them. Classic hits radio plays precious few of their many hits and they seldom show up on Spotify playlists. They simply don’t have the continuing legacy of other big groups of that era.

The reality is that there were few groups bigger than Three Dog Night in their prime and the group deserves more recognition today. What happened to that talented group of hitmakers—and why have they faded from our collective memory? It’s an interesting story.

Three Dog Night: One of the First Supergroups

Three Dog Night was formed in 1967, when vocalists Danny Hutton, Cory Wells, and Chuck Negron first came together. Hutton had been doing some recording for Hanna-Barbera Records and had a minor hit in 1965 with “Roses and Rainbows.” Wells, a friend of Hutton’s, played in the house band at Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles and backed Sonny & Cher on their road tours. Negron, a native New Yorker, grew up singing doo-wop and, after moving to California, signed with Columbia Records and got some local airplay.

Tired of laboring as a studio vocalist, Hutton got the idea of forming a rock group with three singers. He asked his friend Wells to join, who then recruited their mutual friend Negron, and Three Dog Night was born. Actually, the group Redwood was formed; they didn’t change their name to Three Dog Night until the following year, when they enlisted guitarist Mike Allsup, keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon, bass player Joe Schermie, and drummer Floyd Sneed to form their backing band.

About that name. The name Three Dog Night was allegedly inspired by Danny Hutton’s girlfriend at the time, June Fairchild, who read a magazine article about Aboriginal Australians and noted that on cold nights the natives would dig a hole in the ground and curl up with one or more dingoes for warmth. The colder the night, the more wild dogs they needed; a “three dog night” was a particularly cold night in the Outback.

A Legacy of Hits

Having three lead vocalists gave Three Dog Night a flexibility not available to most bands. Supported by their stellar backing musicians, they were able to perform a wide range of material, which helped to cement the band’s appeal. They made their live debut at the Whisky a Go-Go in 1968, and released their first self-titled album shortly after.

Three Dog Night’s initial performances and their first album were both big hits. Since none of the three vocalists wrote their own songs, it helped that the band was adept at choosing strong material from up-and-coming songwriters, including Laura Nyro (“Eli’s Coming”), Randy Newman (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”), Hoyt Axton (“Joy to the World,” “Never Been to Spain”), Harry Nilsson (“One”), Dave Loggins (“Pieces of April”), and Paul Williams and Roger Nichols (“Out in the Country,” “The Family of Man,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song”). The combination of their three-vocal attack and those high-quality songs made Three Dog Night an instant success and one of the top hitmakers of that era.

Between 1969 and 1975, Three Dog Night had 21 top forty hits. Eleven of those hits reached the Top 10 and three—“Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Joy to the World,” and “Black and White”—went all the way to number one. During their main period of activity, no other band had more top ten hits, sold more records in total, or sold more concert tickets than Three Dog Night.

Wells, Hutton, and Negron were truly co-lead vocalists. No one singer dominated; they took turns trading off lead vocals on their songs. For example, Wells sang lead on “Eli’s Coming,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Shambala,” and “Never Been to Spain.” Hutton sang lead on “Black and White” and “Liar.” Negron sang lead on “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Joy to the World,” “One,” and “Pieces of April.” And they all shared lead vocals on “Celebrate,” “Out in the Country,” and “The Family of Man.”

Beyond their hit recordings, Three Dog Night was a dynamic live act. With the three singers trading off lead vocals, they were able to produce a varied and truly high-energy show. Drummer Floyd Sneed drove the band with his propulsive beat and the rest of the band provided solid support. All of this made Three Dog Night one of the top live acts in the early 1970s, selling out large venues across the country and around the world.

Times Changed

Unfortunately for the group, the music business was changing during the 1970s. By mid-decade, radio had shifted from AM Top 40 to FM album cuts, and Three Dog Night was more of a singles band than an album band. Disco had arrived and punk was on the horizon, and Three Dog Night was neither of those. The era of radio-friendly, well-crafted pop songs was on the wane, and with it Three Dog Night’s career as chart leaders.

It didn’t help that the group’s backing band was breaking up. Bassist Joe Schermie left the band in early 1973, due to “unresolvable” problems. In late 1974, drummer Floyd Sneed and guitarist Mike Allsup left to john Schermie in a new band, S.S. Fools. After their departures, the instrumental component of Three Dog Night became somewhat of a revolving door, never quite equaling the quality or consistency of the original unit.

In addition to all this, two of the band’s three lead singers were going through their own personal crises. By 1973, Danny Hutton was frequently absent due to uncontrolled drug use, and was eventually fired from the band in 1975. That same year, Chuck Negron was arrested for the possession of narcotics. Cory Wells kept the band together for another year, but they finally called it quits in July of 1976.

Three Dog Night Today

Most of the original members of Three Dog Night regrouped in 1983, but they continued to have personnel issues. During their first year back together, Mike Allsup left (again ), Jimmy Greenspoon exited due to illness, and Floyd Sneed was fired. Chuck Negron’s drug habit worsened and he was let go in 1985.

The band kept going, however, with a revolving roster of members. Over the resulting decades, the three lead singers have continued to perform, both collectively and individually, primarily on the oldies circuit, even as their popularity waned among the general public.

What happened to the band’s three lead vocalists? Cory Wells passed away in 2015 due to skin cancer. Chuck Negron is still performing and recording today, as a solo artist. And Danny Hutton continues to perform as Three Dog Night, with all other members (save for original guitarist Mike Allsup) being replacements.

If you listen long enough, you still might hear some of Three Dog Night’s hits on ‘60s and ‘70s classic hits stations and playlists. The band remains a constant presence on rebroadcasts of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 shows from the early ‘70s. And Danny Hutton’s reconstituted version of the band is still out there on the oldies circuit, performing at much smaller venues than the band did back in their heyday. Their legacy remains, however, in all those top forty hits that ruled the chart half a century ago—songs that were great then and still great today.

Three Dog Night: Underappreciated Hitmakers article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022

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  1. Avatar Kenny Murphy June 24, 2022

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