Three Dog Night’s Cory Wells: A Life In 9 Songs

The golden-voiced singer has died at 74—hear his music that will live forever.

Cory Wells, one of a trio of lead singers in the monumental ’70s pop group Three Dog Night, died in his sleep on October 20, 2015. He was 74.

Wells formed Three Dog Night in 1967 when he hooked up with a couple of fellow struggling vocalists, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron. Upon releasing their self-titled debut LP in 1968 and going Top 5 with the smash single, “One,” the three glorious’ harmonizers’ struggles were over—at least in terms of pumping out hit after hit over the next eight years.

Three Dog Night racked up 12 gold albums and an astonishing 21 consecutive Top 40 singles, seven of which also reached gold status. In 1972, Rolling Stone showcased group the group on its cover (posing outside their private jet) with the sarcastic-but-accurate headline: “More gold than the Stones! Bigger crowds than Creedence! Fatter purses than Elvis!”

Despite their wholesome image and occasionally taking critics’ flack for just interpreting songs rather than writing their own, Three Dog Night’s orgiastic partying and raging inter-band blowouts rivaled their most over-the-top heavy metal and arena rock contemporaries (in fact, Chuck Negron’s 1999 memoir, Three Dog Nightmare, is right on par, insanity-wise, with the 2002 Mötley Crüe bio, The Dirt. Also, check out their nightmarish banned cover art from 1974’s Hard Labor).

Fortunately, Cory Wells survived those tumultuous years, even if the band didn’t. Three Dog Night first broke up in 1976. Cory and Danny Hutton reunited in the ’80s, and had been performing under the group’s moniker to the delight of millions worldwide. Alas, now the Dog has finally been silenced.

To celebrate the life and work of Cory Wells, here’s a countdown of terrific songs on which he sings lead.

  1. “Let Me Serenade You”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Cyan (1973)

    The joyous declaration of the song’s title is lushly realized by Cory’s rich, soulful voice. It starts off cool and seductive, then steadily builds heat until no one could possible resist this vocalist’s winning proposition.

  2. “Nobody”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Three Dog Night (1968)

    Cory belts out above the driving, rollicking groove of “Nobody,” Three Dog Night’s very first single. When Hutton and Negron come in on the chorus, it sounds like Cory’s being hurled even higher by legitimately angelic (voiced) wingmen.

  3. “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Hard Labor (1974)

    Cory bouncily interprets folk-rocker John Hiatt’s “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here” as a sunny front porch invitation. Once you plunk down beside him, you’ll never want to get back up.

  4. “Celebrate”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Suitable for Framing (1969)

    Each Three Dog Night frontman gets to sing lead on a portion of the jubilant “Celebrate.” Danny Hutton kicks it off, followed by Chuck Negron. Then, working with Chicago’s brass-blasting horn section behind him, Cory Wells launches the song to full-blown anthem stature.

  5. “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Hard Labor (1974)

    “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” by New Orleans R&B great Allen Toussaint, is a gripping lover’s lament marked by flashy wit and knockout hooks. Cory Wells delivers the song exactly on those terms. Just try not to smile when he gets to the chorus: “Play something sweet/Play something mellow/Play something I can sink my teeth in like Jello!”

  6. “Try a Little Tenderness”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Three Dog Night (1968)

    Otis Redding most famously alchemized this Bing-Crosby-era chestnut in 1966 into a rousing rock-and-soul roof-raiser. Cory gives Otis a hard-charging run with the Three Dog Night version, which ultimately topped the slow-cooked-to-perfection vocals with some wickedly tasty psychedelic guitar.

  7. “Eli’s Comin’”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Suitable for Framing (1969)

    The grit in Cory Wells’ voice perfectly counterbalances Chuck Negron’s high-pitched, haunting vocals on songwriter Laura Nyro’s dramatic, mysterious commingling of a warning and a come-on. When all three singers blend on the chorus, the sound bursts with multifaceted emotion.

  8. “Shambala”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Cyan (1973)

    “Shambala” combines hippie-era Eastern mystic lyrics with old-time American gospel music to such uplifting effect, you’ll be simultaneously waving your outstretched arms in praise and keeping time by blinking your third eye. As the ideal voice to connect those two spiritual reams, Cory Wells proves to be a singing Sherpa whose results can only be defined as divine.

  9. “Never Been to Spain”

    Embedded from www.youtube.com.

    Album: Harmony (1971)

    Three Dog Night’s take on Hoyt Axton’s steady-building, cheekily ironic reflection on a life lived largely through music so blew away Elvis Presley that he recorded his own version a year later. No disrespect to The King, but there’s simply no topping Cory Well’s treatment of the song’s intrigue and slowly revealed multitude of pleasures.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).