Three Dog Night - Cory Wells

Cory Wells, along with Danny Hutton, co-founded the band that became Three Dog Night in 1968. Here in 2001 Cory's soulful voice still soars on the classic TDN songs.
Ever the avid outdoorsman, Cory has demonstrated his fishing prowess on network and syndicated television shows, served as a contributing editor for Outdoor Life magazine, and served as a field consultant for a fishing rod manufacturer.
Back in my radio days of the 70s, Cory was one of the first "big names" I was allowed to interview. He was very gracious and approachable. And, in 2001, he still is.

So, how did a city kid from Buffalo come to be so interested in fishing and hunting?

You become interested when your family is dirt poor, everyone has the "new things" and you have the "used things." You live in a city that is on the banks of two of the greatest of the Great Lakes and has one of the most powerful rivers running between them. Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the mighty Niagara River. With not a lot to do unless you had money, you did the things that were free, and fishing was free. I rode my bike five miles to get to the river. That's nothing when you're ten and 11. The air always seemed cooler and fresher at the river as opposed to the inner city. I didn't do any hunting then - I was too young - and even now, I'm not a hunter.

Who were your chief influences as a musician?

When I was real young, I liked classical music. My mother remembers me sitting on a stool facing the seat part of a regular chair pretending to play piano to Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue." My mother was a wonderful singer and she would sing to me at bedtime when she was tucking me in. I think a lot of this was my foundation. The country and western music of the time caught my ear, like Frankie Laine ...

Yep. "Mule Train," and "Rawhide."

... and "Ghost Riders In The Sky". But most of all, I was affected by early rock and black gospel music. At that time I thought it was much better then rock and roll. Mahalia Jackson was my favorite.

Yeah, she laid it down with a little more soul than George Beverly Shea.

But once I discovered black blues artists, it was over. People like Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and "The Ray" (Charles). It's what I felt in my blood.

Understood. And what was so great about it was that you could ALWAYS find a great song. I remember working up an a capella arrangement to "I Can't Stand Up Along," which I first heard as the flip side of Clyde McPhatter's "A Lover's Question." While we're talking about influences, we should also mention that you ARE a musician. Don't you play three instruments?

I play two of them and I'm not good at either. I could have been a lot better had I kept it up. I was just starting to get it when Three Dog Night came along and it was not the concept for me to play anything. And as we all know, practice makes perfect.

For me, practice made mediocrity.

You're just not inspired to play if you don't put it to good use. I let it fall to the wayside. I used to play pretty good harmonica ...

I'd say you did.

... but that went, too. Bass was an extension of the guitar but that never got a chance to develop.

You were in a group while you were in the service that made it to the finals of the Armed Forces Talent Contest, right? What did you learn from that experience?

I was singing with black groups before Little Rock, Arkansas (NOTE: Site of the landmark 1954 school desegregation case - T.W.), before Martin Luther King. Putting that interracial - it was called "mixed" then - group together in the service was as natural as putting together a white band. I had no Idea of the impact it was having.
All I saw and heard was, it was good music. I learned that music knows no color, race or religion. It breaks down the biggest barriers. It pulls people together. 

A few years and bands passed ...

Yes, a few bands. There was "Vic and Kos," "The Fidelitones," "The Satellites" and "The Vibratos," featuring me, "Bobby Rafero."

WHAT?!? "Bobby Rafero?"

The bandleader was Italian and couldn't stand it if I was an English Polock.

And then came the Enemys.

The Enemys recorded for Valiant Records - the "Rhythm Of The Rain" guys - with a song called "Say Goodbye To Donna." A godawful record.

So, I guess the biggest highlight for the Enemys, on a national basis, was that appearance on "The Beverly Hillbillies." I'm assuming this was your first appearance on national TV.

Our first TV show was "Burke's Law" starring Gene Barry.

Well, you gotta admit that Donna Douglas ("Elly Mae") was a lot nicer to look at than Gene Barry. Of course, another positive that came out of the Enemy's experience was meeting Danny, which would prove important in later years.

We were doing a lot of private parties for the movie stars, at their homes, and we met a lot of people. Judy Garland wanted to sing with us and wanted us to back her up on a tune. We had no Idea of that song. At one party there was Lee Marvin, Patty Duke, Ben Gazzara, Jonathan Winters, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford ...

Too bad you couldn't hang out with anyone interesting...

Of course, those people came into the Whiskey A-Go-Go in those days where we were playing, and that's how we got to talk to Sonny and Cher. They invited us to tour with them and we did ... and lost our job at the Whiskey. I didn't even know Danny at that time, but we heard through the grapevine that his teardrop white Vox guitar had been stolen before or after the first date. I felt bad for him and I didn't even know him.

You told me years ago that, when you and Danny began the trio that became Three Dog Night, you had originally considered a third singer who "decided to stay with the Beach Boys." Can we name names now?

Well, that was the sales pitch I got from Danny. On a long distance call to me in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was working at the "RedDog Saloon." He told me to come to L.A. right now because he had this guy from the Beach Boys that wanted to do something with another group. All three of us would put this group together. I had to inform him that I had a contract to honor and could not be there for two weeks. When I did get back to L.A., I called him and he told me it was off, the guy was staying with the Beach Boys.

And it was ...

It was Bruce Johnston ... Oh, well!!!. He wasn't a "real" Beach Boy anyway.

Maybe not, but he did "write the songs that make the whole world sing." At what point was the decision made to evolve from a trio - after Chuck came on board - into a full band? Somehow I would think you spearheaded this idea.

Well, for a while there we were rehearsing in Danny's living room or side bedroom/music room. The idea was to do this vocal thing with giant tape recorders in back of us playing the music while we sang live - kind of like what some groups do today ...

The original karaoke group, eh?

... but in those days I think Danny was a little ahead of himself and I was more practical about it because I had to support a family - hunger has a way of making you practical - and needed to work. I just couldn't hang out at someone's house all day. I wanted to do what I knew and did best, and that was work with a live band, and I knew we could get work faster this way. If anything we could use it to get tight. We forgot that you need a lot of songs to get work. I think we knew about five or six songs when we got a job at the Carolina Pines Bowling Alley - it's now a porno strip club on Century Blvd. near LAX. I remember Jimmy and I had to try and pull out some club tunes in order to fill up the set. He and I did "Sunshine Of Your Love" by Cream and I did some blues and R&B tunes. It was really doing it the hard way. Danny and Chuck had hardly any club experience - lucky them - and I'm sure they hated it. I was doing anything I could, including dancing a lot, which they hated also. I looked like Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein," where he's trying to dance with the monster.

At what point, when the lineup eventually settled with the seven who recorded the first album, at what point did you realize that you had something special here, or that you had caught "lightning In a bottle?"

I think I knew we had "lighting in the bottle" way before that. I knew it when we sang together in rehearsals. I knew harmony and blend and we had it. Danny was a real "white" singer, but very good at staying on key. Chuck, on the other hand, was closer to what I was used to and had the right timbre for Danny and I, but pitch could be a problem. All this was worked out over the years.

You knew you had a unique sound vocally, but also instrumentally, right?

As far as the sound was, I don't think it was that different from what was being played in those days. What was different was the musicians themselves, each one had a distinct way of playing.

That's what I was getting at.

I had never seen a drummer play the way Floyd did. It was very different and cool. Joe had worked in my band, so I was aware of his talents and he always pushed for the Latin thing in his playing, because he'd worked so much with the Jordan brothers out of Phoenix.
Jimmy was real different, because he had played everything from classical to acid rock. He could play and sound like any of the keyboard players of that time - yet he could do his own thing. Mike came to us out of left field. He was another guy that honed his playing skills in the smoke-filled nightclubs of central California. He could do Hendrix and turn around and do the Everly Brothers. No one can touch him on rhythm guitar. He's got grooves and licks he hasn't even used yet. I think they were a great unit.

As I recall, the first couple of albums were done very quickly; I think the first one was done mostly "live" in the studio, right?

That first album didn't impress me because it was done too fast. It just didn't seem right. There were things on that album I wish I could take back. Songs I did and notes, and notes of others. I now consider it our "garage band" effort.

Maybe you do, but, for most of us, having "Try A Little Tenderness," "One," "Nobody," "The Loner," etc., etc., would be like coming out of a Mercedes garage. Talk a little bit about how the group decided on material. Publishers would pitch songs to you, but each of you individually would bring in tunes as well.

 

At first it was every man for himself. We had to come up with songs we had laying around or ones that we had or liked hoping one day to record them. Also we had to go out and find them from publishers. Danny, I think, had the most because he was or had been recording for a few years. I remember he had the trunk of his car full of demos. I had songs from my club days, songs I wanted to perform live. I found a Randy Newman album in a discount or bargain box in the Sears record department. It cost me $2.00. Danny was aware of Randy from Van Dyke Parks. The first song I did of his was "No One Ever Hurt So Bad" - first album. It was one Danny liked. I was doing "Mama Told Me" in the clubs for months, but did it like the record without the harmonies. It took me awhile to convince the other two guys that it was a good song.

So I've heard.

After the success or the first album the phone started to ring and everybody and his brother wanted us to do their songs. I remember we were at the Whiskey at afternoon rehearsal and in comes Neil Young. Neil sat there and played us "The Loner." I was so impressed because he was one of the Buffalo Springfield, one of my favorite bands - and still is. When the success really started to hit, we had literally hundreds of demos come in a week. The famous "Stacks Records" story. We had three stacks of records. (1) The For Sure Stack; (2) The Maybe Stack; (3) The S___ Stack.

And I thought that was a pancake house in Alabama.

We had listening sessions that would last for eight hours. Many times before recording started we would have a listening session at the studio. One thing is for sure, we picked all our own material. Some of the guys in the band would bring in songs. Jimmy and I had almost the same taste in music. He would bring in songs for me to listen to. "Murder In My Heart For The Judge" was one of them. I had gone through some very stressful times and that's how I felt at that time.

Part of the magic of Three Dog Night was its gift as arrangers, in taking tunes from outside writers and making them uniquely its own. How did this process work?

That was one of the things that always bothered me. We never got credit for all the arranging we did.

And that's a shame, too, because you were masterful at it.

We got help from time to time if someone had a good suggestion, but most of it was us. Richie Podolor helped many times, but was a producer that allowed the individual to express his feelings on what he was doing. If I came in with the song, I already had an idea on how I wanted the song. Then we would lay a basic track and start the ideas from there. Other times we had no idea where to go and it was experiment time until we found it.
In those days you could spend the whole day in the studio just experimenting with sounds, chords, harmonies and direction. (Engineer) Bill Cooper was the "Master Magician" of the recording console and tape. He made it all happen. It's one thing to have great ideas and be creative, it's another to make it work and come out like you envisioned it. He did. I have tremendous respect for him.
As for many of the musical parts, it was the musicians that came up with the parts and all we had to do is pick and choose the stuff we liked from what they did. I remember Mike laid down about seven tracks of guitar solos on one song and we picked a combination of those seven tracks into one solo. It was tough, because many times they came up with something great on two different takes, and we had to pick one and axe the other.

Is it true that (Dunhill Records president) Jay Lasker bought you a bed? I understand that he came in and offered the guys televisions, but you said you would like a bed.

Yes, it is true. Jay came into the studio to hear what we were doing, and we played him a couple of songs. "Mama Told Me" was one of them. He was so pleased and excited that after listening, he turned around with that big cigar and said, "I'm gonna give you all brand new TV's." I said, "Sir, could I get a bed?" We were sleeping on the floor with just a mattress. He said, "OK, you got it." You have to remember that even though we were selling lots of albums, we would not see a royalty check for six to 12 months. Everyone - record company - had to recoup their money first, then we would get paid.

"Mama Told Me" is one of the songs that you had to campaign hard for, as Danny and Chuck weren't exactly thrilled with it, as you mentioned.

As I said earlier, it was tough. I was told, that In one of Chuck's interviews years later, he said they did it just to be mean. I don't know If I believe that. The point is, we did do it and that's all that counts.

So, did the coin reverse with "Joy To The World," as you were the dissenter on that one?

Well ... kind of. Hoyt (Axton) played the song for us and I was like wondering where this song was going? He explained that it was one of the songs from his TV special Idea, that was not getting any bites from the big three - networks, no cable in those days (NOTE: The original concept was called "The Happy Song." -- T.W.). I thought it was way too light for me. I liked the harder, darker stuff. So, what do I know?

Speaking of Hoyt, please tell me the story again of how you "fished" your way up to his place in Oregon, and heard "Never Been To Spain" for the first time. It's such a great story.

Hoyt and I became good friends and I told him I was going fishing in northern California, in December (1970). He said, "if you're coming up that far, come up a little farther and visit me in Oregon." I said, okay, I will." It was me, my friend Jerry and his son. We stopped in Crescent City and fished the Smith River. I caught a big steelhead - trout - had it smoked and then took it up to Hoyt's house on the Upqua River. We stayed about three days. We went goose hunting, hiked and fished. Hoyt came along but didn't do any of it.
One evening (we were) sitting in front of a huge fireplace that was blazing, the snow falling slowly outside. We had a spread of cheeses, wine, breads, and smoked salmon placed on the coffee table in front of the fireplace. I'm a lousy drinker and one glass of wine has me giggling. Well, I had about three that night. Hoyt had planned this well, and when he knew the time was right, he reached behind the couch and pulled out a guitar and played me "Never Been To Spain." The mood was right and I loved the song. When I got back, I recorded it immediately. And to this day, when I sing that song, I see that image of Hoyt, the fireplace and the wonderful time there so long ago.

A great memory to have, my friend. At what point did you realize that "commercial," in the eyes of certain critics or "rock journalists," had become a dirty word?

I guess right after we had a million-seller album. All of sudden we were no longer the sweethearts of rock journalists and Rolling Stone. They wanted us to be the pure starving artists. That San Francisco mentality. I didn't hear of the Grateful Dead turning down any big money.

Nor did Springsteen, Bowie, U2 or any of the others that Rolling Stone has lauded over the years.

They - journalists - were the ones "out of touch." I was tired of starving. I starved for six years; I was done. I had a shot of making a few dollars and some security in my life and for my family.
You could be successful, but not too successful. They were trying to dictate to us how much we should make and how popular we should be. But maybe that's just human nature to think that way.

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