Mark Bennett: Three Dog Night songs withstand the test of time

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Jun. 11—Four months into the pandemic, Three Dog Night managed to perform a socially distanced concert at a college.

Fans could attend in their cars. The atmosphere more closely resembled a drive-in movie, rather than a free-wheeling rock show.

"The applause was cars honking," said Danny Hutton, lead singer and founder of the hit-making, classic pop-rock band from the late 1960s and early 1970s. "So bizarre. To me, it was like we were performing to a bunch of machines."

That remains Three Dog Night's lone concert through the past 15-plus months of the life-altering COVID-19 pandemic. The hiatus will end on July 4 in Terre Haute. As the number of vaccinated Americans grows, the band begins a nationwide tour that stretches into December with an Independence Day performance at The Mill — a new outdoor venue on Prairieton Road near the Wabash River front.

Through six decades in the music business, Hutton's never seen such a silencing of live music. He's energized to re-emerge.

"Believe me, now, being off a year, I am ready," Hutton said by phone from his California home Tuesday afternoon. "The guys in the group are so ready to be on the road. We've never been off. For any group, it's historic."

Three Dog Night certainly holds a historic place in rock history. Baby boomers still have etched into their brain cells "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" — the opening line of the Grammy nominated 1971 song "Joy to the World" — the biggest of 21 consecutive Top 40 hits released by the band in a five-year span. They turned overlooked songs by then-fledgling composers into gold records with a unique lineup of three lead vocalists supported by crack instrumentalists.

Their original roster, headed by lead trio Hutton, Cory Wells and Chuck Negron, fully disbanded in 1977 amid common dissention and excesses during rock's heyday. Hutton regrouped Three Dog Night in 1981 and has kept the band going, performing 2,500 shows since 1986. The band parted with Negron in 1985. Wells died in 2015.

The current lineup includes original guitarist Michael Allsup, along with bassist-vocalist Paul Kingery, drummer-vocalist Pat Bautz, vocalist David Morgan and keyboardist Howard Laravea.

Hutton, now 78, conjured the concept of a band with three vocalists, sharing or pairing lead duties with the others in 1967. He watched Motown groups with one lead singer and four backup vocalists and thought, "It's a waste of four fabulous singers." So he recruited Wells when both were singing on a tour with Sonny & Cher, and then added Negron.

The resulting combination worked amazingly. Each of the three — backed by solid instrumentalists — sang the lead vocals on several of their 21 singles, including one No. 1 hit apiece, or all three harmonized. Of the No. 1 songs, Wells led on "Mama Told Me Not to Come," Negron on "Joy to the World" and Hutton on "Black and White."

"We were [like] a horn section," Hutton said. "It's a style I like."

Radio listeners, concert-goers and record buyers did, too. They've sold "tens of millions" of records or streams, including more than a million in the past decade, according to their publicity notes. Three Dog Night concerts drew more fans than any other act from '69-74. Those shows include a gig in Hulman Center on Oct. 11, 1974, that venue's busy first year.

Hutton likes the fact that Three Dog Night will play another new Terre Haute venue, The Mill, in its inaugural year. He doesn't recall details of the '74 show here, though. "The joke is, 'I don't remember much about 1974,'" he quipped.

The common thread between those two concerts will be the music and its sound. Today's seven-member version of the band has crafted an album of new material, including a half-dozen tracks written by Hutton. That's a new twist. Three Dog Night built its popularity resurrecting bypassed songs from upcoming songwriters such as Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Hoyt Axton, Laura Nyro and Paul Williams.

After Newman's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" hit Billboard's top spot in 1970, the composer told Hutton, "Thanks for the bread, man. I can put my kids through college now." Kids of a 21st-century vintage now know Newman as the voice of his "Toy Story" soundtrack songs like "You've Got a Friend in Me."

With a keen knack for detecting potential hits, Three Dog Night chose songs from a variety of genres, from Newman's quirky New Orleans piano numbers to Axton's country ditties "Joy to the World" and "Never Been to Spain," and the soaring Nilsson ballad "One."

"We used to get hammered [by critics] because we were all over the map. They'd say, 'Where do we put you in the record bin?' And I love that," Hutton said.

Their "Black and White" embodies that genre blend. It was a 1954 folk song, written as a social commentary by David Arkin (the father of actor Alan Arkin) and composer Earl Robinson, who got blacklisted in the 1940s for his leftist politics. Reggae bands, like Greyhound, gave it their adaptation in the '70s. That's when Hutton overheard playing on a hotel housekeeper's transistor radio in Holland.

"I thought, 'Wow, what a great chorus,'" Hutton recalled. It became a reggae-inflected Three Dog Night single, carried by Hutton's authoritative tenor.

He acknowledged the utopian song retains its social relevance in 2021, but emphasized, "We're not a political group at all. The guys in the group all have different opinions. On the tour bus, my rule to everybody is — do not talk politics," Hutton said. "We are a bunch of stupid musicians. We're here because we're savants, and we can play and sing. I can understand different groups that are [political]."

Music centered on a political moment rarely ages well, he said. As for Three Dog Night's songs, "the shelf date is still OK on them," Hutton believes.

"Some cause everybody's excited about, five years later, that's all gone," he said. "But emotions, relationships, that feeling of going to a party — that's kind of basically what we do. And that never gets old. It's universal. It's forever."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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