Cory Wells, a founding member of the vocal trio behind Three Dog Night, which had nearly two dozen top hits in the late 1960s and 1970s, including “One,” “Easy to Be Hard” and “Joy to the World,” has died. He was 74.
His death Tuesday in Dunkirk, N.Y., was announced by Three Dog Night co-founder Danny Hutton on the band’s website. No cause was given, but the band said Wells stopped performing in September after developing severe back pain.
“Cory was an incredible singer — a great performer, he could sing anything,” Hutton said in the statement posted Wednesday. “We had been together since 1965 and I am in shock at this sudden loss.”
The group formed in 1968 when Hutton and Wells met on tour with Sonny and Cher. The two decided to organize their own band and invited Chuck Negron to join them.
Three Dog Night went on to release 21 consecutive Top 40 hits, including “Liar,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song” and “Shambala.”
Along the way, the band bolstered the careers of a number of nascent songwriting powerhouses, including Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Laura Nyro, Hoyt Axton and Randy Newman.
Newman’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” became one of the group’s biggest hits, selling more than a million copies. Newman had recorded the song about a naive man’s introduction to L.A.’s wild ’60s music scene a few years earlier, with less success.
Wells, who sang the lead, was fond of telling the story of a phone call he later received from Newman. “He said, ‘I just want to thank you for putting my kids through college.’ Then he hung up.”
“Our whole claim to fame is we discovered a lot of unknown songwriters who turned out to be giants in the industry,” Wells said last year in an interview with the Bowling Green, Ky., Daily News. “We brought them to the forefront and they became famous.”
The band broke up in the mid-1970s, then briefly reunited in the early 1980s. In recent years, Hutton and Wells toured as Three Dog Night with other musicians, including keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon and guitarist Michael Allsup from the original lineup. (Greenspoon died in March.)
Born Emil Lewandowski to a single mother in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 2, 1941, Wells grew up streetwise and had mostly black friends whose musical tastes he absorbed.
“My rhythm and blues roots show in my music,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1978. “We used to stand on the corner and sing ourselves to death.”
After high school Wells joined the Air Force, where he formed an interracial band inspired by his love of the 1950s doo-wop group the Del-Vikings.
When he completed his military duty, he returned to Buffalo and sang with a number of bands, including the Fidelitones and the Satellites. In the early 1960s he moved to California with the Vibratos, which evolved into Cory Wells and the Enemys.
The Enemys became the house band at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub on the Sunset Strip. Wells met Sonny and Cher there when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor rented the club for a party.
The husband-and-wife pop duo invited Wells to go on tour with them, which is how he met future bandmate Hutton.
As Wells told the story, after he and Hutton decided to start their own band with Negron they struggled to decide what to call themselves. Six Foot Three and Tricycle were among the names under consideration until Hutton’s girlfriend at the time gave them an idea that stuck.
“She was reading in a magazine about the aborigines in Australia,” Wells recalled in the recent interview with the Bowling Green newspaper. “Where they end up at night, they take a dog to keep them warm. The Australians got a hold of that and said it was a ‘three dog night.’”
The slang for bitter cold came to designate a band that grew super hot.
With its 1968 debut album, “Three Dog Night” — also known as “One” for the hit single “One” by Nilsson — the band began its domination of the pop-rock charts and filled stadiums with ecstatic fans. Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson were among the group’s earliest producers.
Critics initially wrote admiringly of the group’s innovative and distinctive harmonizing. Later, with the band’s ballooning commercial success, reviewers took a more negative view.
“As long as no one takes the group seriously, Three Dog Night can be enjoyed as a flashy, quite polished, energetic musical outfit that has learned the art of entertaining its audience,” pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote in The Times in 1970.
Wells said success eventually warped the band’s musical instincts.
“People were willing to accept any records we put out there,” he told The Times in 1978, after he released his first solo album. “You finally get to a point where you have hits just because you’re popular.”
But the old rocker did not mind reprising the songs his band turned into pop standards. “You’re not playing for yourself,” he told the Myrtle Beach Sun-News of South Carolina last year. “People are there for you to bring back memories for them.”
Wells, who lived in Malibu for many years until his home was destroyed along with more than 300 others in the 1994 fire that swept through the area, is survived by his wife of 50 years, Mary; daughters Coryann and Dawn Marie; and five grandchildren.
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