It’s understandable that discussions centering on any lasting cultural impact of late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll would bypass Three Dog Night. In its heyday, the band was always a greater commercial force than a critical darling - meaning a Three Dog Night record was never far away from the airwaves, and, as a result, decidedly unhip. I didn’t care. My most trusted companion at the time was a transistor radio – a device that dispensed Three Dog Night music frequently and plentifully.
The group’s novelty was that it delegated vocal duties between three male singers. They didn’t write much of their music. They didn’t need to. In a rare sense of artistic foresight within commercial pop circles, Three Dog Night and its overseers selected tunes from the generation’s most gifted songsmiths. So, without even knowing it, I was introduced to the songs of Randy Newman (Mama Told Me Not to Come), Laura Nyro (Eli’s Coming), Harry Nilssen (One), Hoyt Axton (Joy to the World), Argent (Liar) and even Elton John (Lady Samantha) through Three Dog Night.
The finest of the group’s vocalists, Cory Wells, died yesterday at age 74. Where Hutton and Negron were more overtly pop leaning in their delivery, Wells was the rock and soul-driven center of Three Dog Night. His sang lead on Mama Told Me Not Come and Eli’s Coming, arguably the band’s two finest singles.
Three Dog Night began to fracture in 1976 with the exit of Negron. Wells and Hutton maintained a touring version of the band until recently, but the magic really started to dissolve in 1972. Maybe I grew up and moved on. Maybe Three Dog Night simply had its creative day. But those early recordings served as a gateway, a primer for those of my generation to the kind of songcraft deemed unfit for pop radio – unfit, that is, until Wells and Three Dog Night took it to the masses.