Danny Hutton may be one of the best connected veteran pop stars in the Los Angeles band scene. As a singer, he’s best known by fans as one of the three lead vocalists of the late ’60s/early ’70s hit-making machine Three Dog Night. As a manager and producer, he’s revered by musicians and colleagues as an open-minded, optimistic supporter of the West Coast music industry. While his name might not be instantly recognizable, he’s certainly an iconic character who’s still very much in the thick of things in L.A.’s musical community.
On the phone with City Paper last week, Hutton had to cut things off briefly during an initial call due to a ruckus on the Sunset Strip. “I just walked out of a coffee place and one of those Hollywood tours just came by,” he told us. “They saw the Rock [wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson] standing on the corner, so now they’re all screaming at him.”
But maybe they’re screaming at Hutton. With multiple platinum hits and numerous TV appearances under his belt, he’s a bona fide star himself. “Ah, I doubt they even know who I am,” he laughs at the suggestion. “I’m getting ready to drive my eight-year-old labradoodle home from the vet,” he adds. “Her name’s Miss Wilson. Missy for short. She was a gift from Brian Wilson [of the Beach Boys].”
Hutton doesn’t drop names to show off. He’s simply in the middle of his usual scene, a menagerie of artists, celebrities, and characters. It’s a swirling community that’s been spinning around him since he first landed in L.A. 45 years ago.
Hutton, 69, was born in County Donegal, Ireland. His first major musical endeavor was as the head of Hanna Barbera Records from 1965-’66. He scored a minor pop hit in 1966 with a song called “Roses and Rainbows.” By 1967, Hutton had relocated from New York City to Los Angeles. He hooked up with vocalists Chuck Negron and Cory Wells in 1968 and put Three Dog Night together as a full-sized, versatile pop/rock ensemble shortly after. Within a year, the group was at the top of the pop charts.
“Things happened crazy fast,” Hutton says of the band’s early years together. “We got a lot of good reviews early on. Dick Clark did a big thing on us on American Bandstand, telling viewers that we were a really good live band. I think we were a strong live act, and we still are. We got a good reputation as live performers, and it has helped us sustain our careers.”
It was difficult to categorize what Three Dog Night did on their first few albums. Their material bounced from style to style, from funky blues and country to brassy pop and gritty rock ‘n’ roll.
“We were all over the place on the charts,” Hutton says. “The easy-listening charts, the pop charts, the rock ‘n’ roll charts, the R&B charts, and the country charts. In the old days, you had to physically get up and switch the records on the turntables if you wanted a different sound from a different band, but we’d go from a ballad to a country song to R&B, which made it tricky if you were trying to make out with your girlfriend to something mellow. It’s a variety, so if you wait five minutes, we’ll play something you like. I think we were like the first iPod group.”
Three Dog Night released five full-length studio albums and one concert album between 1968 and 1971. The self-titled debut featured the Top Five hit single “One,” a Harry Nilsson composition. Melodic ditties penned by such writers as Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, and Neil Young peppered the collection.
“The first album was just a collection of songs that we loved,” Hutton says. “We’d been playing at the Troubadour in L.A. when we met Jay Lasker [of ABC-Dunhill Records]. He told us, ‘OK, you guys are great. Let’s go in next week and do the album.” We said, ‘But we don’t even have any original songs yet.’ He said, ‘No, those songs you just played is your first album.’ We went from there.”
The 1969 album Suitable for Framing featured the chart-topping singles “Easy to Be Hard”, “Eli’s Coming,” and “Celebrate,” a song featuring members of Chicago as the song’s horn section. A version of Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright” was the lead track, followed by “Lady Samantha,” a tune written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. A Randy Newman song, the groovy “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” was the biggest hit from the 1970 album It Ain’t Easy.
“We used a lot of different songwriters for material,” Hutton says. “We used so many different ones that the chord structures and styles would vary greatly. We could sing anything, and the guys in the band could play anything, so that led to a lot of great stuff — and we weren’t bored very often.”
In late 1970, the electric piano-driven anthem “Joy to the World” (originally by Hoyt Axton) from the album Naturally was a huge smash on the radio. Members of the band described it to the press as a “silly kid’s song,” but it was Three Dog Night’s final No. 1 hit , and it remains one of their most enduring fan faves. The opening riff and the declarative line of “Jeremiah was a bullfrog!” practically sum up the band’s playful nature in a five-second blast.
“Sifting through songs and considering which ones to play and record was a fun process,” Hutton says. “We had three lead singers, all of whom used to front their own bands, but it was all very democratic. Everybody acted like a team. We were like brothers, so there were compromises and moments of friction, but it always worked out pretty well.”
Three Dog Night’s wild pop music adventures slowed down in the mid ’70s. They performed a final show in L.A. in 1976. Hutton turned to studio production and band management shortly afterward, and his new endeavors led him away from the pop mainstream to the punk underground.
“Fear was my favorite punk group from L.A. in the late ’70s,” Hutton says. “They were mind-blowing, so tight. I managed them for a number of years, and I got Lee Ving into acting and helped them get on the tour circuit with X and the Go-Go’s and a lot of those bands. I was with them when director Penelope Spheeris started putting the The Decline of Western Civilization documentary together. It was a fun time.”
Meanwhile, Three Dog Night’s hiatus came to end when most of the original members reconvened for a string of reunion shows and a recording session.
“We’d been back together since our reunion in 1981 with a lot of the original and longtime members on board,” Hutton says. “Cory and I love playing with these guys.”
Hutton and his sons, Tim and Dash, write, arrange, and record their own music and various bands at Hutton’s Canyon Hut Recording Studio in Laurel Canyon, outside of L.A. Constructed in Alice Cooper’s former home, the studio features plenty of classic analog gear and vintage microphones, much of which Three Dog Night used in their early days.
“I love checking out what young people are doing with music these days, and my sons get to work with a lot of new acts in our studio,” Hutton says. “We recently had Tim Armstrong from Rancid in the studio with Jimmy Cliff to work on a cover of a Clash song and other material.”
As for his own group, Hutton says things are better than ever. Three Dog Night performs between 60 and 80 concerts a year, and many of the musicians from the classic lineup are still on board, including keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon and guitarist Michael Allsup. Bassist Paul Kingery and drummer Pat Bautz complete the current lineup.
“I’m very proud of the band right now,” Hutton says. “Having Jimmy with his Hammond B3 and all his stuff is terrific. His playing has a lot of personality, and it helps the show sound like the sound on the records, if not even better. I know people are coming to see us play the hits, and we’ll do ’em all. We’ll throw in a couple of new songs and a few really deep tracks that we haven’t done in 40 years, too.”
If Hutton and his bandmates bring the joy to town like he predicts they will, they’ll surely earn cheers louder than the Rock’s on the Sunset Strip.