BY Jane Spietz
Iconic rock band Three Dog Night (TDN) continues to entertain in its fourth decade of performing. It achieved more top 10 hits and sold more concert tickets and records than any other group from 1969 through 1974. TDN still maintains the record of 21 for the most top 40 hits in a row on the Billboard charts, including “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” “One,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Eli’s Coming,” “Joy to the World,” “Black and White,” and “Shambala.” The band’s name refers to an Australian expression that on bitterly cold nights an individual would require three dogs sleeping in one’s bed in order to provide sufficient warmth.
Sadly, two of the founding members of TDN, Jimmy Greenspoon (keyboards) and Cory Wells (one of the lead vocalists) passed away in 2015. David Morgan has since joined the band on vocals. Other members of TDN include Danny Hutton (founder/lead vocalist), Michael Allsup (guitar), Paul Kingery (bass/vocals), Pat Bautz (drums), and Eddie Reasoner (keyboards).
TDN has released a new double – A sided single containing the rocking “Heart of Blues,” and an a cappella ballad, “Prayer of the Children” and a new album is in the works.
Danny Hutton called me not long ago from Los Angeles.
Jane Spietz: Over the years TDN has put out a multitude of hits penned by musical greats such as Hoyt Axton, Lauro Nyro, Elton John, Paul Williams, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson. What was involved in the selection process for the songs that the band recorded?
Danny Hutton: At first, it was just all of our favorite songs. We had no plan at all that the songs we were doing would be the first album because our manager said ‘just get out there and work.’ We’d worked as a vocal trio with Brian Wilson with some musicians on a couple of tracks. But then when we got into doing it all together, it was an entirely different thing. The whole success was based on doing that.
JS: TDN is known for its amazing vocal harmonies. Did this come naturally or did it require a lot of combined effort?
DH: There are six of us now. The vocal technique is called ‘eating the mike.’ When you sing, your mouth literally touches the microphone. You sing as loud as you can whether you’re singing harmony in the background or singing the lead. So everybody’s voice is huge, it’s big. Then it’s up to the sound guy to pull you back a little bit. It’s never a feeling of whoever is singing lead, the other guys would sing softer like, ‘oh, I’m singing a background part.’ Even if it’s an ‘ooh,’ it’s as big and loud as the lead vocal. Because of that, you get this kind of big, fat sound that’s bigger than a lot of groups. And part of that was the technique of doing it that way.
JS: TDN songs have covered numerous musical genres. What was your personal favorite and why?
DH: I don’t have one. Music that I probably enjoy the most is the one that I can’t perform the best. I remember the moment I heard Little Richard while driving. It just flipped me out. I can’t sing like Little Richard, but I love him. Part of what I think was very good about our group was that we could perform any style of music and do it well. We’re able to tackle anything because of the musicianship of the band. Vocally, from ballads to romantic music to Broadway music to rock, to country to soul, to blues, we can handle any kind. For me personally, it’s always about that magic thing called the ‘hook,’ having a ‘hook’ in the song. When you hear a song and all of a sudden there’s a part of the song where bells go off in your head. You go, ‘oh my God,’ and you want to sing along with that part of the record. That magic thing that people write. That’s what I search for or try to do.
JS: TDN holds the amazing record for the most top 40 hits in a row on the Billboard charts!
DH: Twenty-one in a row is pretty good. It’s crazy. When you’re doing them, it’s like automatic. Two or three hits every album. (Laughs) Some of the younger bands I don’t think get that. And that’s twice a year. (Laughs) It used to be they wanted two albums a year. That’s like having five hit singles, just crazy.
JS: Share the experience of recording with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London.
DH: I just remember one moment of walking into Abbey Studios. I was such a huge Beatles fan. From the front it doesn’t look that big, but it is huge. There’s a restaurant and a full-on pub. There’s the big studio, Studio A, where they do the symphony stuff. That’s where they cut, “A Day in the Life.” We also got a chance to walk around Studio B where the Beatles recorded. The moment I remember was seeing our conductor – who also did the Moody Blues – Larry Baird, and over 60 musicians of the London Symphony. He just tapped on the baton, waved it and BAM! All of this incredible music came out. No rehearsal, nothing. I just said to everyone in the room, ‘There are no rookies here. (Laughs) There’s nobody jivin.’ I’m in a room full of heavyweight professionals. Halfway into the first song, the engineer stopped the orchestra, not because they made a mistake musically, but because one of the violin player’s bows hit the mic. That’s the only reason that take didn’t happen. They would have had it on the first take. I will never forget that experience. It was incredible.
JS: One of my favorite TDN songs, and there are many, is “Out in the Country.” I relate to it as an environmental awareness theme song, even though I realize that it was not intended to be that. When it was released in 1970, people were just starting to become aware of environmental issues. Perhaps the song is now more relevant than ever. Your thoughts?
DH: Absolutely, you could take it that way, but some outdoorsmen will take the song, and love it too. Most of the songs we’ve done I think are like that. When we did the songs, we really didn’t do a political thing; we didn’t do current stuff or trends. Most of the songs were all about emotions, about universal things; songs that could be taken a couple of different ways. That really gives a song shelf life. You can listen to them years later and it still sounds all right. Or like “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” which is more like a party song, but the words are clever. Emotions and fun don’t ever get dated. If you’ve got a great melody and words about emotions that are presented well, I don’t think it ever gets dated.
JS: What’s next on the horizon for TDN?
DH: We’re doing a new set. I think we got complacent over the last five years, especially Cory. He’d get bored doing hits. We stick in either a new song or some album cut that he liked. So anyone who’s come in to see us in the last 15 or 20 years has not seen this set. This is actually fresh. It’s funkier than it was. It’s what Cory always wanted. And David Morgan, who’s now singing with us, has worked with George Martin. He’s amazing. David worked with Cory and Cory’s family knew him. He’s a great writer, sang with Ray Charles and is Dolly Parton’s favorite singer. He was always hired as a keyboard player and is incredible on keyboards, although he doesn’t do that on stage with us. Also, we’re going to start working on a new album. It’s great. We’re going to get a lot of energy in the studio here so I’m really excited about this project. I tell you, we’re really good.
JS: What will TDN fans experience at your performance at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on February 5?
DH: For anyone who has come out to see us in the last while, you’re going to hear a whole set you’ve never heard before. The feel has changed. We’re still doing all of the hits, but it’s more rock and soul. Lots of new energy. There will be a lot of excitement. People will be amazed.