Jersey Arts Interview: Three Dog Night's Danny Hutton
For about five years, Three Dog Night was one of the hottest bands in the world. From 1969 to 1974, they had 21 consecutive Top 40 hits, including three #1 singles, and 12 straight Gold albums. Songs like “One”, “Joy To The World”, and “Black And White” are still played hundreds a time every week on the radio and became anthems for a generation. On Thursday, August 4, Three Dog Night (which includes founding members Cory Wells and Danny Hutton on lead vocals along with original keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon and guitarist Michael Allsup) will make a stop in New Jersey when they perform at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. Culture Vultures had a chance to speak with Danny Hutton, one of the founding members of Three Dog Night, before the band played a recent show in Calgary.
Gary Wien for Jersey Arts: Three Dog Night has had such an incredible and long-lasting career. What is more amazing for you? Those five straight years where the band kept topping the charts or being on stage four decades later with sold out audiences all singing your songs?
Danny Hutton: Well, they’re two different things. It’s been over 40 years… And I’ve been in the business even longer than that. I was a solo act in ’65 and I had already been on four labels. So, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m just amazed and really gratified that people come out to see us. This year’s been wonderful. We’ve sold out every show we’ve done, so I’m thrilled.
The first five years were very exciting. There was a lot of innocence then and it was an exciting time in music. We can laugh at it now, but there were so many big deals. Putting folk music with rock was a big deal. It seems so innocent now. Jazz with rock, rock and roll mixing with other types of music was the first time for a lot of it. It was a very exciting and creative time.
JA: What was it like that first moment somebody told you that the band had the number one song in the country?
DH: I think we were in New York City when that happened. The first gold single, I think, was “One” – it was a great moment, but we kind of knew it was happening. It was the third release from the first album, so we had started getting used to it and had started touring already. There were some really magical moments. We had a gig where James Taylor opened, we went on second, and Led Zeppelin closed. It was quite a magical time. Except for Bonnaroo and some of the festivals now, I don’t like how they sort of ghettoize music. They’ll have a big weekend and every act is a metal act or just female acts. In the early days when we were doing it, you’d go and be completely surprised by some kind of music that you weren’t even interested in until then. There was much more cross pollination than now.
JA: I imagine with touring you don’t have much time, but do you ever make it out to any of the festivals?
DH: No, not really. My sons are just completing a recording studio at my house. There was one there before – it’s Alice Cooper’s old house. I’ve been there since ’77 in the Laurel Canyon part of Hollywood. I get to hear a lot of young bands all of the time in the studio. It kind of keeps you on your toes.
The main thing I’ve learned with the new music is you’ve got to not have rules. My sons taught me that when they had bands. Sometimes I’d hear them rehearse and later say, “you know, you’re not supposed to do blah, blah” – they’d look at me and say, “dad, just go away!” and then I’d realize God, I was giving them rules! Rock and roll isn’t supposed to have rules. That’s kind of kept me loose on that level.
JA: Speaking of no rules, is it true that one of the things you did after the band broke up was managing a punk rock band?
DH: Yeah. People always ask, “what type of music do you like basically?” I like quality. I like stuff that’s good. I went in and saw a group called Fear at the Troubadour and I just loved them. The energy was fabulous! And I ended up managing them. They became John Belushi’s favorite group. It was just a crazy, crazy time. The Go-Gos were little chubby girls that played really fast and there was X. It was a whole scene.
I guess my real musical education was from hanging around Brian Wilson. He was one of my best friends and during the whole Pet Sounds album, I’d watch it all go down. It was just magic to see a genius at the top of his game.
JA: How difficult was it to see him move so inward and become a recluse?
DH: Well, he wasn’t a recluse, he was at my house! (he laughs) There was talk about him being in bed and that he just couldn’t do anything, but he’d come over to my house at night. I saw him all of the time.
I was his best man at his last wedding and he was over a couple of months ago for Sunday barbecue with a bunch of people. So, I’ve seen him in a different light.
JA: Did you ever think he’d do the full live performance of Smile that he did a few years ago?
DH:That was very hard for him. He phoned me before he went to England to do it and he was really frightened. I really admire him. It’s a sign of somebody very brave when they do something that they’re really afraid to do, to just get out there and push through that barrier.
JA: One aspect of Three Dog Night that I always loved was how the band has such a specific sound and identity, but the songs are truly eclectic and run through so many different styles.
DH: Yeah, we were on the Easy Listening chart, the Pop chart, Country charts, and the R&B charts! We really could do and still can do just about any kind of music.
JA: Do you think that the way the band sought out music from various songwriters helps keep the songs fresh? So many bands tend to have a particular sound and when they try to change it they sometimes go too far one way or the other, while Three Dog Night had a rather all-encompassing sound.
DH: Well, we did a lot of other people’s material, which we kind of got slammed for in the early days. It’ll tell you what that does. Most groups have one main songwriter or maybe two and you tend to have a ‘body IQ’ with the way you play certain kinds of chords in a certain style. It’s wonderful on one level, but it places you in a certain range. I love when people ask, “Why did this band have one great album and then they kind of disappeared?” You can call it the sophomore jinx or whatever, but my theory is that they do the first album and then go into the student to do the second album and the guy who wrote the songs shows up in a Ferrari. Everybody looks at the car and says “What?” And he says this is from my record royalties. Then everybody looks at each other and says, “We want to write some songs on the next album too!”
Sometimes it’s not so good for a group songwriting-wise. You can get into it where a guy in the band writes a song and the rest of the band says, “why don’t we change this part?” and the guy is very precious about his songs says, “no, I don’t want to change anything. This is how I wrote it.” We would get these great songs and would simply chop them apart – cut the fat out, move the end chorus to the intro, and change the parts all around. We didn’t have any baggage about who was going to get publishing on the songs or whatever. Every choice we made when we went in to do albums was musical and that really frees you up. It makes for a much better musical piece.
What we’d do with an album was have everybody bring in a song that they wanted. Every song had to go through the group, the producer, and the engineer. Everybody would sort of vote on the song. Every song we did, in general, we thought would be a hit. We never thought, “this one’s an album cut.” We weren’t looking for publishing or writing credits. We always went for the 10 best songs we could find.
JA: You mentioned getting slammed for using other people’s songs, do you ever follow the list of inductees each year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I was wondering if you thought your use of other songwriters might be holding you back from getting in?
DH: I don’t know the rules and I could really care less. In no way are they going to validate my worthiness. I don’t hold them up to anything. I think it’s all cronyism. In fact, one of the guys on the panel in an interview recently said it was cronyism. If the rules are that if you didn’t write your own stuff than why are there about six Motown groups in there that never wrote their own material?
For me emotionally to feel I have to be validated by that reminds me of when Anthony Bourdain said, “It’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they don’t allow you to smoke? What kind of place is that?”
JA: What actually happened to the band towards the end? Did you guys officially break up or just go on hiatus?
DH: We split up. I’d say about 90 percent of all bands do, but some of them don’t say they did. You just get tired. You burn out. It was the early seventies and it was a crazy time. There’s a burn out factor and that’s what happened. It wasn’t fun anymore and there was just too much going on. Everybody all of a sudden started losing wives and custody of their children and all that kind of stuff. It became a very tense period of time. We all needed to take a break. There’s a reason TV series last about 7 years. Groups are like that too.
JA: What brought you guys back together?
DH: Well, I was doing punk. I loved being in that whole musical scene. I got a call from Cory (Wells) about some bogus group that was about to go over to the Far East as Three Dog Night. So, we had to get some lawyers and have meetings to get it all sorted out. Cory and I began getting phone calls from people asking us to get back together. At the time, everybody was happy and healthy, and we just decided to try it. We said we’d keep doing it as long as it was fun.
We’ve figured out how to do touring rather comfortably. Everybody just flies in the night before a gig and we have all of the equipment in place. One guy is in Florida, one in New York, one in Detroit, one in Washington, DC, one outside Sacramento, and I’m in L.A.
JA: Do you guys ever find time to fool around in the studio?
DH: Yeah, we’ve actually got about four songs finished and there are two I’m working on. We don’t have an actual date when we have to get the CD out, which is good. We’re just waiting until it all feels right. It’s tough to follow the music we did before.