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3 Dogs in Big D: Bam, Bam, Bam

The three-singer band rides a post-Cotton Bowl high

Three Dog Night

Three Dog Night (Cory Wells, Chuck Negron and Danny Hutton) pose for an album cover portrait session on June 2nd, 1971 in Los Angeles, California.

Ed Caraeff/Getty

Dallas – Rock hounds in Big D, being hungry by nature, will essentially take what they can get. Anything. On this squalidly humid late-July evening at the Cotton Bowl, 30,000 of them are getting Three Dog Night, and there’s joy to the world as the group’s golden bisquits keep popping out of the oven right on cue, bam-bam-bam, just like the fireworks display that preceded the meticulously-paced and groomed Dog show: “One” (bam), “Eli’s Coming” (bam), “Mama Told Me” (bam), “Easy to Be Hard” (bam), “Liar” (bam), “Celebrate” (bam), and, but of course, that fun and eminently hummable Hoyt Axton number about Jeremiah, the wine – bibbing bullfrog (three bams by any measure).

From the vast stadium’s hotly-lit 50-yard line, it’s plain to see that all seven of the Dogs take relish in their work. Singer Chuck Negron draws oceanic applause merely by his presence on stage; the day before, he’d broken his nose and wrist in a traffic smashup, but tonight he belts out his golden share of bisquits in a clear, ringing voice, and his foot never stops tapping. Singer Danny Hutton imps about among the massive amps that tower above the bandstand, yowling gleefully and pouring beer on whosever head is closest at hand. The third singer, Cory Wells, executes a wicked bump-and-grind, triggering mass orgasms among the moon-faced teenyboppers who keep crossing and re-crossing their legs in the front rows. Guitarist Mike Allsup and bassist Joe Schermie (the latter being the only Dog with a bleeding ulcer) trade heated acoustic fours, and as a coda, blow dainty kisses at the shrieking girls. Jim Greenspoon further schlocks it to the many mini-ladies on, ahem, organ, and drummer Floyd Sneed (the only black Dog) hurtles into his frantic tom-tom routine, letting his sticks arc and flash off into the audience and continuing to flail savagely at his traps with hands taped like a boxer’s.

At the end of Floyd’s solo, a Jesus freak in the eighth row springs to his feet, clapping and swaying deliriously. “Joy to the world, brothers and sisters,” he bleats, “outasite, amen.” He moves to embrace the young straight-looking couple with the baby sitting next to him. Startled, the young mother shrinks away; her husband bristles: “You bettah watch yo’self, buddeh.” “Outasite, amen,” the freak babbles, turning to an O-eyed dippybop in cowboy drag who would look more in harness at a rodeo stomp. “Ah tell yew,” she says, suffering the freak’s embrace with easy grace, “those suckahs down theah can rilly play.” “Amen, joy to the world, outasite, sister.”

A freelance writer from L.A., one of the 50-odd members of the underground, over-ground, and sea-level press jetted in from all points of the compass for the Cotton Bowl concert and the festivities to come, wanders forlornly through the audience, searching for a place to buy a drink. He would look precisely like a 19th century Russian anarchist, this eccentric fellow, if it weren’t for the depraved-looking baseball cap he persists in wearing backwards. “Nurse, nurse?” he entreats an usherette in a soft moan. She listens politely to his predicament (“I’m losing my high”) and tells him she doesn’t know of any bar closer than the one downtown at the Fairmont Hotel, where the press cadre and the sleeping Dogs will lie down to rest this night in suites posh enough to afford a wall phone by each John. Appalled by the news, the writer shakes a clenched fist at the bandstand, where the Dogs are wrapping up their 90-minute clean-machine set to hurricane applause. “Mama told me not to come!” he howls at them in fustian outrage.

* * *

The next day, a day of Fellini-esque vapors, the visibly hanging – over press and the Dogs (minus Chuck Negron, who’s feeling poorly) come together for what has been billed in advance as a “feast” – dinner and joy on the grounds at Cielo, broadcast magnate Gordon Maclendon’s french-fried version of Xanadu. Located 30 minutes north of down-town Dallas at the end of, Lord save us, Nowhere Road, the 525-acre spread comprises a ranch house the approximate size of an aircraft hangar, a pool and pool house not much smaller, a barn converted to a movie theater, stables, tennis courts, a putting green, and – why not? – a series of fake-front western movie sets where TV commercials are filmed. All the comforts, that’s Cielo – and if you’re in a hurry, there’s a taxi landing strip.

Maclendon himself isn’t on hand to greet the visitors – in fact, it’s been confided by more than one nervous flack that the anti-drug-lyric-crusading “Old Scotchman” isn’t any too anxious to have his name associated with the dopey goings-on of this afternoon – but his major domo, a bluff, mustachioed wrangler named Vick Vickers, busily pumps hands as the buses arrive and points the way to the pool-side bar, “Trader Vick’s.” “Nurse, nurse,” the L.A. freelancer croaks, hurrving off in that direction. “No, ma’am,” Vick drawls to the lady from Women’s Wear Daily, “they ain’t no snakes on the ‘mediate premises as I know of.” He glances off toward the pool. “Carol.” he yells at a maid, “”git that damn dawg outta the water.”

The doping and boozing and wenching – all those abominable things the Old Scotchman stands four-square against – begin immediately, and by the end of the first hour, writers and Dogs alike are dropping like flies. The L.A. freelancer, firmly rooted by now at Trader Vick’s, fends off a wasp with a swizzle stick and grins lopsidedly as bassist Joe Schermie and guitarist Mike Allsup scuttle past in hot pursuit of two of the many mini-ladies present. “Things go better with coke,” he murmurs philosophically, draining his glass. “Nurse, nurse?” A group of New York writers thunder off into the liveoak trees on horses, gloriously ripped and yodeling wild Mongol cries. Baseball fan R. Meltzer, in a dirty Screw T-shirt, squats in the shade near the bar, panting for breath. “Even the gnats are in heat,” he grumbles.

Inside the frigidly air-conditioned pool house, singer Cory Wells sips a Fresca and says no, Three Dog Night doesn’t have any strict formula for coming up with Top-40 singles.

“What we did, see, was we sat down one day and asked ourselves, what’s going to be our concept of this group, what do we really want to do? Do we want to hype ourselves that we’re another Lennon-McCartney team, or are we going to give the public the best we can offer them? Well, we made the decision a long time ago – not to jam our shit down other people’s throats. So we started looking for the best material we could find – really good shit.

“We solicited stuff from some people we knew, others we admired from afar. Like, Randy Newman – I’ve always admired his stuff tremendously. He writes about things that are, things that’re going on in the world. He may get a little – sadistic at times on his records – “looking like a slightly debauched Eagle Scout, Cory laughs and traces a finger through the wet rings left on the table by his Fresca – “but he’s a fucking fine writer.

“So we got some of Randy’s stuff, and things from other people who were essentially unknown two, three years ago. Elton John, for example, Laura Nyro. Generally, one of us three singers will find a song he wants to do. Then he’ll present it to the group, and everyone contributes his idea about how best to present it. Maybe the guitar player will come up with a certain lick that’s tasty. Anyway, we hash it out, talk about it, and it turns into a multi-arranged song, with the last say-so to the singers. No, no one dominates the group. All that shit was straightened out a long time ago. We said, listen, we’ve all been lead singers at one time or another, let’s cut out all that fucking ego shit and start making some music for the public. Let’s put together all our ideas and see what we can come up with.

“Oh, sure, I love performing. Yeah, I was feeling exceptionally good last night. Chuck was, you know, all fucked up, but he was out there singing his ass off, man, and that kind of choked me up. He wouldn’t take anything for his pain, see, because he didn’t want to be immobile. All of us in the group come from a certain breed. We’re not heavy people, we’re entertainers. No messages.

“I don’t know how to categorize our audiences. We can do a show in the Midwest somewhere, and the hall will be filled with short-haired boys and their dates. Then we might play Denver or New York, and the audience will be all freaks. We can’t really bank on a given audience. The only thing we can be certain about is that the first five rows will probably be filled with young children.

“Sometimes those kids will shake and cry – it gets embarrassing. I get just a bit nervous if there’s a little girl standing in front of me crying. I’m always afraid her father’s going to jump up and clobber me or something, think I’ve physically hurt her. No, oh, no, I stay away from the younger ones – we all do.” Cory laughs again and cranes around to admire the statuesque bikini poses of a teen magazine lady writer out by the pool.

“Tits and ass, umn. Nice. Do we get along well in the group? Oh, sure. Well, we have our little differences, but so do a lot of husbands and wives, and they don’t necessarily break up. In this group, it’s got to be three ways – it can’t be just one direction. Like at a recording session, somebody might say, ‘Hey, you’re an asshole. That’s not where it’s at, you can’t do that.’ And instead of saying, fuck you, you’re an asshole, the first guy might think about it and say, ‘Well, maybe I am an asshole. What do you suggest?’ And it goes around like that, and everything gets smoothed out.

“Christ, sure, I’m really happy. This is what I’ve always been looking for, and I feel fortunate and grateful to’ve found it. Someday it won’t be like it is now, obviously. Someday we’re all going to look up and wonder where all those people who loved us went. No, Three Dog Night won’t last. But we’re going to work our asses off as long as the people want us. When they don’t want us anymore, that’s when we’ll hang it up. But performing – that’s my satisfaction and my business. Someday I’ll probably end up working night clubs, stuff like that.”

Out by the poolside, Chill Wills, the old character actor and all-around character, puts in a cameo appearance with his infant grandson. Somebody asks him about his role in the Streisand film, The Owl and the Pussycat. “Hah!” he snorts, “that’un shoulda been called ‘The Owl and the Anteater,’ you ast me.” Nearby, Floyd Sneed, the Dog drummer, sits slumped under a beach umbrella beside a sullen-mouthed teeny worshiper, boredly fielding a couple of drunken reporters’ questions.

“Yeah, Three Dog’s just getting tight now, you dig,” he says, massaging his belly with an oversized paw, “but then we been together for three years, the same people, no changes … I call my style ‘Lafrican’ – little African, Latin African … Sure, we put out some bubblegum shit. ‘Joy to the World’ is very bubblegum, very commercial. We didn’t want to do it, you know. Not really. Well, I can’t get into that … Hey, look, man, I like philharmonic music. Rock and roll is bullshit. Well, naw, I can’t say that, can I?

“See, I lost a lot of my chops playing so hard. I mean, my chops are there, but they’re not as clean as they’d be if I wasn’t pounding on my traps so hard … Uh-huh, everybody in the group gets the same cut. Ain’t none of us rich, neither … Am I married? Yes and no. You know … I don’t know how it is being the only black guy in the group. I never think about it.”

In one of the dressing rooms in the pool house, singer Danny Hutton paces about restlessly, raking a hand through his dark, kinky hair. “Where’s that chick, man?” he demands of a roadie. “I need to get laid, man, and she promised she’d be here an hour ago. Find her for me, OK? And listen, get me a drink, will you? Make it a double. Make it a triple.”

The roadie fetches the drink and Hutton sinks into a rattan chair, flashing a smile like a touchdown aerial. “Not that I drink a lot,” he says with a dry wink, “it’s just that I don’t like to move. “

OK, what can I say about Three Dog that everybody doesn’t already know? The name derives from an Australian custom. When it’s cold at night, a dog keeps you warm; when it’s colder, you need two dogs; the coldest is a three dog blah-blah-blah. Also, it fits with there being three of us singers. Which is certainly nothing new – black groups have been set up that way for years. You know, doing steps and the whole thing. The difference is, white chicks, who make up the vast majority of the pop music audience, will love to hear those black dudes singing, but they won’t be thinking about getting fucked by them. There’s no sex involved because of prejudice, you know. Well, we turn that around.

“See, we’re filling a need, a real and crying need. I get pissed off when people call us ‘jive’ and ‘cop out.’ Any entertainer cops out in a sense the minute he signs a contract. At that moment, you’ve made an obligation, and you’ve got to live up to it. Show me a ‘pure’ person playing ‘pure’ music, and I’ll show you a guy sitting in his living room playing for his friends.

“Our audiences? Well, I guess anybody who comes to one of our concerts has to like the music basically, but there’re other reasons, too. It’s an event, see, a happening. The groupies come to get laid, right? We know about that. There’s one event happening up on stage and another event entirely happening in the audience. A lot of them come to get laid by each other, and we act as a catalyst. There’ll be some longhaired kid clapping and saying, ‘Far out, wow, aren’t they good, hey, what’s your name?’ The guy likes the music all right, but what he really wants to do is fuck this chick in the back seat of his car. Amplify that catalyst thing a few notches and you’ve got a pop festival. I don’t like pop festivals. I don’t like being a jukebox. People bring their tents, they’ve got their whole little scene going, and you’re just playing in the background like Muzak. 

“After Three Dog goes away, I hope to get into directing movies. I’ve got a solid background as a record producer, which is somewhat parallel work. Oh, sure, by human nature, Three Dog has got to end sometime. We’re all going to die, too. Well, whatever – I’m ready for it. I never thought it’d get this big. I just do it, man. I mean if I ever get to the point where I can’t take it – I quit once, almost. Six or eight months ago, we were in Fresno for a 10,000-seater, and I was taking a shower, and I had a whole bunch of personal problems with the chick I was living with, and I thought to myself, shit, man, I’m an unhappy fucker, and then I started thinking about all those kids downstairs screaming …

“Yeah, well, I thought it through, and since then I’ve been more relaxed. What I like to do is sleep a lot and feel very good, however I can do that without really damaging my body. Also, I’ve got a classic Mercedes and I like to whip around in that. I smashed it into a parked car in Laurel Canyon not long ago. The other car turned out to belong to Art Kunkin. He was great about it, said, ‘Well, it’s just a toy, hare krishna.’ I apologized and he said he wasn’t pissed at me because of the car, only a little bugged because he’d been making love to his wife when he heard the crash.”

Danny spots the roadie passing outside the window and leaps to his feet. “Hey, man,” he calls loudly, “where’s that fucking chick, man? I need to get fucking laid, man.”

Outside, the sky has darkened with rain clouds, but there are still stoned horsemen yoicksing through the woods. Vick Vickers, wearing the set-jawed look of a man about to form a rescue posse, sees off some early-departing press sociopaths with a wave and a formal little parting shot: “Y’all didn’t have a good tahm out here, it’s your own damn fault.”

At the bar, the lady from the teen magazine is hallucinating to the L.A. freelancer about the years she spent working for Derek Taylor and the Beatles. “Ringo hated me,” she blurts weepishly. “One time he called me a cock-sucker.” The freelancer nudges his empty glass forward with a palsied finger. “Nurse,” he croaks to the shorthaired bartender, “nurse?” 

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