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JESUS IS COMING—REALLY (UPDATE)
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CORY WELLS, AN APPRECIATION
10/25/15

By Gary Stewart

Cory Wells, left, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron, 1972. Photo: Ed Caraeff/Getty Images

The death last week of Cory Wells, the most soulful of the singing dogs in Three Dog Night, inspired this knowing tribute from much-loved tastemaker and activist Gary Stewart, longtime Rhino Records A&R exec and more recently Chief Musical Officer at iTunes.


Three Dog Night are the Rodney Dangerfield of rock & roll. Scratch that, maybe they got even less respect. Often reduced to being known as the guys who gave us “Joy to the World” (aka “Jeremiah was a bullfrog”—a great record, by the way), they were often derided is lightweight pop or—even more limiting—a bubblegum outfit. This from a band (yes they were a seven-piece band, not just three lead singers) that was the first to feature material by Randy Newman, Neil Young, Laura Nyro, Allen Toussaint, John Hiatt and Elton John (a year before Elton would release his first album here), not to mention then cutting-edge/yet to hit FM bands of the time—The Band, Free, Spooky Tooth, Moby Grape, Argent and Traffic.

Almost all of their work reimagined the originals through a gift for arrangement, production and vocals that made you think they were the originals (which in many ways they were). Can you imagine anybody in the modern day sublimating their egos to cover a spate of low-tier but rising Coachella bands while avoiding rote cover-itis and reinventing those songs in the process?

And they had a brilliant formula—three singers that seemingly didn't belong in a band together bringing out the best in each other. You had Chuck Negron's angelic doo-wop-inspired falsetto, Danny Hutton's mid-’60s traditional (but no less remarkable) pop voice and finally Cory Wells, who provided the edge with his background in R&B and soul-inspired garage.

When they recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” and “A Change Is Going to Come” in 1969, both Otis Redding and Sam Cooke were ignored or otherwise invisible to the white rock and pop audiences—and not the stuff of legend/Hall of Famers they would become. What might seem like the obvious moves of a bar band now was a radical gesture at the time.

I also remember Cory’s graciousness when I was working on a Three Dog Night anthology in the early ’90s and going out of his way to find an early demo of them covering a Young Rascals track and overnighted the tape to me—followed by his kind compliments about the final package. This from the man who was front and center on the stage of the Forum at the first concert I ever went to.

Cory's best-known vocals are for “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and "Eli's Coming,” and rightfully so—they're both sung by Cory with a sense of empathy for the material and evangelism for its originators. But check out his vocals on “Nobody," their first-ever single from 1968. Cory’s intermittent leads seem like the only thing keeping this all-out rave from falling apart.