Cory Wells didn’t dream of becoming a pop singer. Oh, he wanted the top of the charts, but he wanted to do it with rhythm and blues. Alas, the charts weren’t ready for the Cory Wells Blues Band.
Instead, the three lead singers of Three Dog Night — Cory Wells, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron — would hit the charts again and again with songs written by the top songwriters of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That was a time of drugs and alcohol, Wells said, and most of the band delved into that lifestyle headfirst.
But not Wells.
“I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do drugs. I lived like a Mormon,” he said with a laugh.
But it paid off. They hit the top of the charts with Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming,” Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World,” and Harry Nilsson’s “One.” They were hot and they stayed on the road, playing gig after gig on holidays, weekends and every day in between.
But they couldn’t keep on with that kind of schedule, Wells said. Something had to give, and Wells said by 1975 he’d had enough.
“We were losing members and people were loose cannons. Danny (Hutton) was no longer in the band. Chuck (Negron) was doing what he did. The original band had left us to make their own band.”
So in 1975 they disbanded. And it wasn’t until 1980, when Wells heard the band was touring to China, that he checked back in to see what was happening.
“I heard Three Dog Night was going to do a Chinese tour, so I called Danny on it. ‘What is this crap about going to China?’ We checked it out, and we found out it was Chuck. He dropped it. But it did get Danny and I talking again. He was healthy, he was running. And I told him, ‘I’ll do this if everybody acknowledges we cannot do what we did the last time’.”
Everybody promised to mend their ways, including abstaining from drugs. “So I had them sign contracts to that effect.”
Something must be working this time around because Wells and Hutton have been touring with various other original band members since 1981.
When he talks about the old days, it feels fresh. It’s 1968 and Wells and his band The Enemy are playing at the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles. Cher sidles up to the stage and asks whether Wells wants to tour with her. Wells figures his musical ship has come in.
“That’s how things were done. L.A. was the melting pot for bands.”
Just down the road, The Doors, the Byrds, The Righteous Brothers were all playing the clubs. But Wells hit the road and along the way met Danny Hutton. The tour ended, Wells landed in Phoenix and started a blues band, but he and Hutton kept in touch. After talking back and forth with agents for months, they decided they needed one more guy so they could have three lead singers. Finally, they signed Chuck Negron and went into the recording studio.
That first album yielded the monster hit “One,” and Three Dog Night was launched.
“We all had good ears,” Wells said, so they picked the best songs from the best songwriters and used that material on their albums.
“During that period I wrote a lot of songs. And Danny said, ‘You can write, but we’ll always pick what’s best.”
When you’re competing with Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, Paul Williams, and Elton John, you don’t get your songs on the album, Wells said.
Now, 40 years down the road, Three Dog Night is still playing the hits, with some of their favorite album cuts sprinkled in. No, Wells doesn’t like the songs as much as you do, but then, he has heard them a lot more than you have.
Still, he’s happy to perform “One,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Old Fashioned Love Song” because that’s what fans want to hear.
“It’s not important that we like it. It’s important that the audience likes it. We’re there to bring back memories to the audience.”