Monday, May 27, 2019

The Hits of the Happy Together Tour--Three Dog Night

Looking at the set list of the Happy Together Tour, it's easy to see all the titles and immediately know the artists who brought these songs to life on the radio and, if you were lucky enough to see them, in concert. Yet, for so many of the hits of the Happy Together Tour, none of the artists really are responsible for writing any of the songs that they made iconic. It is true, though, that the versions that American teenagers fell in love to hearing on the radio were not the versions recorded by the composers who wrote them. Imagine the joy of having written an amazing hit song, but never being the one to take it to the top of the charts? But when someone else breathes new life into your song, the product can be simply amazing. Sometimes you just have to know when to let go of a song so that someone else can make you a hit songwriter.

Twenty years ago, when Hoyt Axton passed away in 1999 at the age of 61, in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, it was written "Chuck Negron, former member of Three Dog Night, said he was saddened by Axton's death, adding that "thanks to Hoyt's genius, 'Joy' and its memorable opening lyric, 'Jeremiah was a bullfrog . . .' are arguably a part of Americana." Axton toured as Three Dog Night's opening act in 1969 and 1970, the story said. He wrote "Joy to the World" in 1971 and "Never Been to Spain" (Mama Told Me Not to Come) in 1972. Those are two million-sellers that Three Dog Night could thank him for. Back when they were hits, however, the band was not exactly in a thankful mood, as they were somersaulting through their career being impacted by their own poor decision-making skills, plus being led by people who they would come to view differently many years later, upon reflection. Axton's multitalented songwriter's compositions ranged from "Greenback Dollar" for the Kingston Trio as well as Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" in 1968. Hoyt's mother, Mae Axton, co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel" for Elvis Presley. It ran in the family.

Here's Hoyt singing his composition, "Joy to the World":

Now, listen when Chuck Negron sang it:

Same song, right? But, sometimes, with the right artist, there's a difference between a songwriter creating a beautiful melody with brilliant lyrics that only "interpretation by someone else" brings special qualities of the song to light. Naturally, the version of the song that Three Dog Night put out on singles and their albums was a lot like Hoyt's--full of energy, bouncy fun, and a humorous song.

But Chuck's version from two years ago, though not flawless, reflects the powerful impact of the song on the audience. Every single one of the people gathered there knew the words, the melody, and they sang along with the artist, at his invitation. The audience experience of a Happy Together Tour provides that kind of environment. They're "Your Songs," the ones you grew up to, and it's your almost right, when invited, to join in all the fun.

Another of Chuck's signature tunes is Laura Nyro's "Eli's Coming," with some of the most complex and enchanting lyrics that make little to no sense, but we all sing along with them anyway, when we hear the song on the radio, right?

Imagine in your head how you hear the opening "Eli's Coming" and the organ swelling, and after the "you'd better hide your loving heart" warning, the song explodes into sheer energy. Featured on the album "Suitable for Framing," the Three Dog Night version is definitely a power ballad and you remember the voice of Cory Wells on it, as the story goes that Chuck thought it would be a good song for Cory to sing.

And, in concert these days, the way Chuck Negron sings it, unquestionably it's a power ballad. Here's a sample:

And yet, composer Laura Nyro sang it on her album "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession" with such a soft, high voice opening that you might have picked the needle up off the vinyl before hearing it out. Not long into the song, produced in multiple changing rhythms that you're sitting there shaking your head, wondering what you just heard, but then the song wanders into another new syncopation with multiple vocal overlays.

The fact remains that Hoyt Axton and Laura Nyro left behind amazing songs that we enjoy some 50 years after they were contemporary radio hits. Their lives were over too soon, but fortunately we still know them and their work because talented classic rock artists are still very much in demand today to bring these songs to life again, night after night after night.

And so the music plays on...

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