Singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” on stage to start Three Dog Night’s most famous song still gives Cory Wells a jolt and jump after more than 40 years.
Look for “Joy to the World,” written by Hoyt Axton – whose mother penned Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” – and many other of the group’s 21 Top 40 pop-rock hits from the late 1960s and early ‘70s in concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Alabama Theatre in North Myrtle Beach.
Led by Wells and Irish-born Danny Hutton on lead vocals, and a band including two other original members Jimmy Greenspoon on keyboards and guitarist Michael Allsup, with Paul Kingery on bass and vocals, and drummer Pat Bautz, Three Dog Night keeps the audience atop its thoughts.
“It’s one of the things that we’ve never lost sight of,” Wells said last week by phone from home in his native Buffalo, N.Y. “You’re not playing for yourself. … People are there for you to bring back memories for them.”
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Wells said although it feels like Three Dog Night has done some of the songs what he feels as “pretty close” to a million times, performing carries a spark for them and everyone in attendance.
“They want to go back and reminisce,” he said, referring to the range of moments to relive in one’s mind and heart, such as a first car, first kiss or first date.
“We do these songs,” Wells said, “exactly the way we recorded them, in the same keys.”
The group also weaves in other album numbers “that never got the recognition,” he said of rounding out the typical night in concert, along with newer songs such as “Heart of Blues” and an a-cappella ballad “Prayer of the Children.”
Sharing in the success with now-famous artists who penned some hit singles for Three Dog Night has “been very special for us,” Wells said. That roster includes Harry Nilsson, who composed “One,” Laura Nyro “Eli’s Coming,” Leo Sayer “The Show Must Go On,” and Paul Williams “Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song.”
“It was a time,” Wells said, “when they were all struggling writers and people trying to make their mark in the music business.”
Before Elton made history
He also recalled when Elton John was vying to break through, passing along to Three Dog Night two numbers he co-wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin.
The group “fiddled with” and recorded “Lady Samantha” for its second album, “Suitable for Framing,” Wells said, then backstage one day in England, John pitched “Your Song” to Three Dog Night.
“As the story goes,” Wells said, “Elton was going to quit the music business and get a real job, and fortunately for him, our record went gold, and it put some money back in his pocket.”
That LP from 1970, “It Ain’t Easy,” which leads off with “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” included “Your Song,” which John soon recorded on his own, and after its release in the United States, “he had his first hit,” Wells said.
Wells also remembered how stumbling upon Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me” in California and performing it at the time with his own blues band.
“It took me a couple of albums to convince the other two,” Wells said – referring to Three Dog Night co-founders Hutton and Chuck Negron – “that it was a hit.”
(Negron will play June 12 at the Alabama Theatre as part of the “Happy Together Tour” – with Flo & Eddie, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, from The Turtles, Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad, as well as Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels and Gary Lewis & The Playboys.)
Wells laughed remembering one day in the office years later when Newman gave his own brief tribute to Three Dog Night through a phone call in which he said, “I just want to thank you for putting my kids through college.”
The group also celebrated an anniversary in 2002 with the release of a CD recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Wells said such a project to revisit hits that had been reprised the same way for 35 years at the time gave them “a different flavor … like a breath of fresh air.”
“You hear the songs in a different perspective,” he said.
Songs’ new lives in ads
Three Dog Night music also has taken new lives in movies and in TV commercials through the years. Wells said Bank of America’s recent use of “Shambala” has impressed him the most of all the extracurricular uses of the hits.
Amid the death last month of the Buffalo Bills’ only owner in the team’s 51/2 decades, Ralph Wilson, and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s continuing battle against oral cancer, Wells wonders about “the destiny” of his hometown team, especially, he said, because of Kelly’s efforts to round up buyers for the team to secure its long-term future in western New York.
Three Dog Night has entertained at two Super Bowls, but Wells didn’t need a second to think about which one is most unforgettable, XXV in 1991in Tampa, Fla., at the first of the Bills’ four straight title games, when they fell 20-19 to the New York Giants after “the kicker flubbed the kick.” Wells then drew a parallel to Scott Norwood’s errant boot to the missed field goal of the character Ray Finkle as shown in the movie “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”
The name Three Dog Night refers to an Australian expression of the degree of chilliness, which gets heavier as signified by more dogs snuggling on someone’s bed. Asked how many dogs complement his family, Wells said none.
“We have a houseful” of cats, he said, proud of the partnership he and his wife extend to their pets: All of them are adopted strays.