I feel so fortunate to be of the age that was around to experience some of the greatest music of all time as it was happening back in the Sixties and Seventies. Although I was quite young and it was at the tail end of those eras when I began listening to what is now referred to as “classic rock,” it still made an indelible mark on my musical soul that permeates my inner being even today.
That’s the upside. The tough part of it all is that the legendary musicians I enjoyed when I was 10, 12 and 15 years old, were 30, 40 and 50 years old then. So now, some 40-plus years later, we are losing many of these pioneers of rock, as they are getting on in their years.
And, on Oct. 20, we lost Cory Wells, another one of “the good guys” who contributed so much to the music scene as a founding member of the rock group Three Dog Night.
I was privileged to have worked with Cory, co-founding member Danny Hutton and the rest of the band on many occasions, actually doing four shows with them in the last 18 months alone. The last time being in the summer, when I was able to get Cory and Danny on camera for a “Backstage” interview before the show.
Named by a band member’s girlfriend at the time, a “Three Dog Night” refers to ancient nomads in Australia that would dig holes in the ground to sleep in at night. They would embrace a dog for warmth on those chilling nights. If it was extra cold, they would huddle with two dogs, and a really blistery evening would call for a “Three Dog Night!”
Three Dog Night has the distinction of having more Top 40 hits than any other band or performer in rock history. Twenty-one Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975 with three hitting No. 1; that’s more than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis or the Beach Boys. “Celebrate,” “Just An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Joy To The World” (Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog), “Black And White,” “One,” “Shambala.” It’s really incredible! Think about it … that is a hit every three months for six years.
“It’s really a combination of having great writers and really feeling what would be a great song,” Wells said. “Harry Nilsson, Laura Nyro, Paul Williams, Randy Newman, John Hiatt, Leo Sayer … we were working with these great writers while they were just getting big. We even had songs written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin.”
“We recorded ‘Lady Samantha’ in 1969, a song written and released by Elton John that same year, six months before his first album, Empty Sky, came out,” Hutton said. “We actually recorded his huge song ‘Your Song’ before he did. We were getting ready to put it on the album, and we actually heard his version on the radio! We thought, ‘Oh well, that kills that!’ “
As I chatted with Wells during our one-on-one interview, I really got the sense of what a warm and sincere person he was. He loved to fish, citing bass fishing as his true passion. He had a great smile and I couldn’t help but think about his long career, and how much longer he would continue.
“We just love doing it,” he said. “I’ll be honest, after 50 years, some of the luster has worn off a bit, but when we are up there and see how much the fans still get into the music, it charges us up! We are still doing about 80 shows a year, mainly weekend warriors.”
“What is your favorite TDN song?” I asked. “C’mon, I really don’t have one. Actually, I really like ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On,’ the song also recorded by Joe Cocker and later by Tom Jones. It wasn’t a big one for us, but we recorded it first!” Wells said.
I had to ask him about lyrics to “Joy To The World” in particular. “Really, Cory, what made you guys think ‘Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog’ would be a hit?” “Actually, we didn’t,” Wells said. “When (songwriter Hoyt (Axton) presented it to us, both Danny and I hated it.”
Axton wrote the song, and he and his mother Mae became the first mother and son to each write No. 1 hits, as she cowrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis.
“We really thought it was silly, almost like a song for kids,” Wells said. “Chuck (Negron) actually convinced us to include it on the album (Negron, the band’s third lead vocalist along with Cory and Danny, was subsequently asked to leave the band due to addictive demons he was experiencing). We already had two hits off that album, so we were ready to move on. But the DJs were saying so many people were requesting it that we actually put it out as a single in 1971, and it shot up the charts!”
I can remember my last show with Wells and Three Dog Night at The Arcada Theatre. Wells signed our main green room wall, as is customary for all the celebs to do. As he was signing it, he turned to me and said, “This is a really cool thing ya got goin’ here. I’m signing this wall and see all the other bands that have been here. I am actually honored to be a part of this wall.”
He, and the other guys, then signed a guitar and presented it to me. How cool is that?
No, Cory. The wall, and all of us, have been honored by your music, and by your humble presence. You will be missed, of course, but your music will remain in our hearts.
Now that Danny Hutton is that last of the original Three Dog Night power vocalists to remain in the band, their megahit “One (is the loneliest number)” holds an entirely new meaning. Original vocalist Negron continues to perform as a solo act, keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon also passed away earlier this year, original guitarist Michael Allsup is still with the band, and original drummer Floyd Sneed left the band after its initial breakup in 1977.
Here’s a rock ‘n’ roll goodbye toast to our friend, Cory Wells. You are now on your spiritual path to universal joy on your road to “Shambala.” Until we join you, we will be down here, smilin’ and singin’ loudly to your songs as we roll down the windows and play the steering wheel guitar with our humble versions of the hits you gave us.
Yes, I will even belt out, with great feeling, “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog!”