At some point in my early teens I stopped buying the little records with the big holes (45s) and started saving my money for the big records with the little holes (LPs). The transition from hit singles to album sides, from transistor radios to headphones, from child to teenager, was jumpstarted by a band named Three Dog Night, the gateway drug of my musical youth.
Three Dog Night, a pop band based in Los Angeles whose unique “hook” was possessing three lead singers, sold a zillion records, played to a billion people and were everywhere all at once for a short period of time. A hit making machine, they were the most popular recording act in America in the early 1970’s.
More importantly to me, they opened the door to a world of sound I had never imagined existed.
As a record buying, radio listening seventh grader, I’d never heard of Traffic or Harry Nilsson. They weren’t on the radio. I don’t remember, during my weekly trips to Woolworth’s to stare at the rack of singles, noticing anything by The Band or Randy Newman. They didn’t make hit records.
But I had heard Three Dog Night. For ten years or so it was impossible to turn on a car radio without hearing Three Dog Night. They sold an estimated 40 million records (most of them the little ones with the big holes) to lots of pre-teen and teenaged kids like me.
Along the way they introduced us to names we’d never heard before, turning us on to sounds we may never have tried.
I remember being at a friend’s house at fifteen or sixteen and hearing The Band for the first time. The album was Music from Big Pink – his brother’s album, sneaked into the turntable while big brother was out of the house. This wasn’t the simple pop I’d been hearing. It was layered, multi-dimensional, deep, heady stuff. Suddenly, as the label spun round and round, Garth Hudson launched into a bizarre rollercoaster organ riff, sounding like a drunken night at the carnival; Three voices boomed from the Radio Shack speakers, shouting lines I’d heard before.
“I know she’s a tracker! Any scarlet would back her!”
Wait! I thought.
I know that one!
I’d never heard The Band, but I’d certainly heard that song - Chest Fever. Three Dog Night had recorded it. This version, the one from Big Pink, (the original one) was so, so much better. It was the difference between Twinkies and a cake your grandmother baked from scratch. Sure, you like ‘em both, but there’s no comparison.
It’s also unfair to compare Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko to anyone, much less the three singers who fronted Three Dog Night - Danny Hutton, Corey Wells and Chuck Negron. Their cover version, however, made my jump to the original that much easier. Without having heard Hutton, Wells and Negron, the intricacies of Helm, Manuel and Danko may have fallen on deaf ears.
The first time I heard Traffic’s “Heaven is in Your Mind” was on a Three Dog Night album. Same goes for “Mama Told Me Not to Come” from Randy Newman, “One” from Harry Nilsson, “Liar” by Argent or John Hiatt’s “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here”. The first time I heard “Try a Little Tenderness” it was not from the great Otis Redding, but Three Dog Night.
What thirteen year old listened to Hoyt Axton?
I didn’t. Or, at least, I thought I didn’t. But there I was, dribbling a basketball up the street, trying my best to sound cool as I sang low. “Well I never been to Spain… but I kinda like the music! Say the ladies are insane there. And they sure know how to use it!”
Three Dog Night was my gateway drug to woder world of music. They made the transition from hit records to double albums an easy one for me. Is there version of “Easy to Be Hard” as good as the original Broadway cast recording from “Hair”? Probably not.
After all, what thirteen year old listened to original Broadway cast recordings?
At least, I’m not going to admit it now.