Five decades of Three Dog Night
Three Dog Night
Celebrated band brings hits to Honeywell Center
Photo by Steve Spatafore
November 17, 2021
Danny Hutton, lead singer of Three Dog Night, compares himself to Zelig, a Woody Allen character who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
It would be impossible in this space to do justice to the life that the 79-year-old Hutton has lived and the musical career he has enjoyed, but an earnest attempt will be made.
Three Dog Night performs Nov. 27 at the Honeywell Center in Wabash.
Hutton was born in Ireland. His family (sans absent father) moved to Boston when he was five.
His mother had a rooming house in the Back Bay and notorious hit man Elmer “Trigger” Burke lived there for a short time after he had accepted a contract from to kill Joseph “Specs” O’Keefe.
Burke and O’Keefe were Brinks Job participants and O’Keefe’s ability to stay quiet was doubted by the other robbers.
Mrs. Hutton knew nothing about Burke’s occupation, of course.
“I used to sit on the steps with him,” Hutton said of Burke.
The assassination attempt failed, and Burke was captured. Hutton’s mom was asked to come down to the police station and identify him.
“He was so funny,” Hutton said. “He said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Hutton. I am so embarrassed. I would never hurt a civilian, especially not women and children. I only kill thugs.’”
Burke later escaped and the cops lingered at the boarding house, hoping he’d return.
“After six months, she said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Hutton said. “Cops were at the house 24 hours a day. They loved my mom. She’d make them Irish food and they’d sit around in their T-shirts drinking whiskey. Finally, she said, ‘I’m out of here.’”
The Move to Los Angeles
With $300 to her name, Hutton’s mom moved them to Hollywood for no better reason than it sounded glamorous.
She got a job there as a waitress. Thanks to an insurance settlement related to a car accident, Hutton’s mom was able to purchase a small house under the Hollywood sign in the days when a small house under the Hollywood sign didn’t cost $4 million.
After high school, Hutton hitchhiked around the world with a friend. He was in Liverpool when the Beatles were performing at the Cavern Club, although he was not prescient enough to sense what they would become.
In Los Angeles, he found a job working in a record-filled warehouse for the Walt Disney Company. This led to a gig writing and recording songs for Hanna Barbera productions.
Birth of Three Dog Night
For a while, Hutton helped prop up fake bands. Twenty years before the Milli Vanilli debacle, Hutton was writing songs for comely people with no talent to pretend to perform on TV music shows.
But this gig eventually brought him together with his future Three Dog Night bandmate Cory Wells.
Hutton followed his manager to MGM Records and then to the Beach Boys’ label, Brother Records.
There, Hutton became an apprentice of sorts to Brian Wilson.
“‘God Only Knows’? I was there at that session,” Hutton said. “‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice,’ ‘Good Vibrations,’ all of that stuff.”
Wilson helped Hutton put together a vocal group that Wilson wanted to call Redwood. Wilson wrote the song “Darlin’” for the group, but Mike Love made him take it back for the Beach Boys.
Redwood eventually broke away from Wilson and decided, in rather frantic fashion, to call them Three Dog Night.
“Our management said on a Friday, ‘Monday, come into the office and have a name,’” Hutton recalled.
Hutton took the name from a magazine article about aborigines who slept beside their animals at night for warmth. A particularly cold night was described as a “three dog night.”
“We went in on Monday and said, ‘OK, our name is Three Dog Night,’” Hutton said. “And our manager was like, ‘Dog? What is this? A circus act?’”
But it stuck.
Cover Band Notoriety?
Considering how many songs Hutton churned out early in his career, it is ironic that Three Dog Night has become known as a band that didn’t write its own material. Some pundits have dismissed Three Dog Night as a cover band. Calling Three Dog Night a mere cover band is like calling baseball a pale imitation of cricket.
“I always said, ‘We weren’t a cover band. We resurrected songs,’” Hutton said.
Three Dog Night made hits out of songs that had been previously released and had gone nowhere. The band elevated now-legendary songwriters from obscurity, men such as Randy Newman (“Mama Told Me Not To Come”), Hoyt Axton (“Joy to the World”), and Paul Williams (“An Old Fashioned Love Song”).
Years after “Mama Told Me Not To Come” was a monster hit, Newman called the band and said, “I just want to thank you for putting my kids through college.”
Three Dog Night didn’t always know which songs would catch on with the listening public. The first time Hutton encountered “Joy to the World,” with its anthropomorphic frog, he said, “This is stupid.”
Axton had written it for a children’s show that never got made, Hutton said. This was back in more innocent times when anthropomorphic frogs could drink wine in children’s shows.
The band was shocked when the song became a hit. Listeners interpreted the lyrics however they pleased.
“We had Vietnam people seeing themselves in the line, ‘Straight-shooting son of a gun,’” Hutton said.
Reggie the Songwriter
Three Dog Night bought a song called “Lady Samantha” from a guy named Reggie they met with in England.
Reggie and a friend were initially prevented by a bouncer from entering the building that was being occupied by Three Dog Night, which created a lot of embarrassment for Hutton.
“So Reggie comes over and he plays me a couple of demos and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is great!’” Hutton said. “I went, ‘Holy crap! You have a great voice!’ And he said, ‘Nahhh. I’m just a writer.’”
Reggie was, of course, Reginald Kenneth Dwight, who would go on to call himself Elton John. His friend was John’s longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin.
Alcohol and drugs got the best of the band by the late 1970s. It reformed in the early 1980s, but vocalist Chuck Negron was fired in 1985 because he couldn’t kick his heroin addiction.
Wells, the only guy in the group who’d been a teetotaler from the beginning, died in 2015.
But Three Dog Night lives on.
“I just want to keep on doing it,” Hutton said. “Tony Bennett was my hero. I thought he’d keep going until he turned 100, but then the Alzheimer’s thing hit him. I can sing higher than I sang in 1972. None of the songs had to be moved to lower keys.”