Classic Tracks: Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come"

Nov 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow


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In this Amy Winehouse, post-Kurt Cobain era, it may be hard to imagine a day when ingesting illegal drugs was not de rigueur. Back in the mid-1960s, however, drugs were still just beginning their tiptoe march toward the broader youth culture. While many people slapped on a cooler-than-thou front, it often masked an understandable fear of the unknown. Leave it to sardonic songwriter Randy Newman to roll all of it — the excitement, apprehension, the unshucked need for parental approval — into one giant spliff of a pop song. Newman, whose quirky performance style would eventually bring the talented writer hits of his own, was unable to make a dent with “Mama Told Me Not to Come” when he gave it to The Animals to record in 1966, and his own version four years later fared no better. For another group, however, the song became a vehicle to superstardom. With Cory Wells handling the lead vocal, “Mama” was the first Number One hit for L.A. band Three Dog Night.

“Mama Told Me Not to Come” — from the 1970 ABC/Dunhill It Ain't Easy LP — begins with a post-boogie-woogie piano figure played by keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon on a Wurlitzer electric piano that was miked directly into the console by producer Richie Podolor and engineer Bill Cooper. Its shifting meter — highly unusual for a mainstream pop record — immediately establishes the unsettled nature of the song. The powerhouse trio, whose cut-through-a-canyon vocals stamped the Three Dog Night sound, was formed by Wells along with Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron. Hutton says that Wells fought hard for the song.

“I talked to the guys about this,” says Hutton. “I don't remember when I first heard ‘Mama,’ but Cory says that he tried to get us to record it for three albums before he was able to wear us down! Randy's publishing company used to send us a lot of demos, but to tell you the truth, I wasn't bowled over when I heard the song for the first time. When we fleshed it out in rehearsal, it started to come together, but besides Cory, the rest of us remained lukewarm until we actually got down to tracking it. By the time we'd finished making the record, though, we knew we had something special.”

Podolor says that prior to recording their first album, which was produced by Gabriel Mekler, neither he nor his partner, Bill Cooper, had heard of Three Dog Night. “We cut that initial record [Three Dog Night] in just a few days. It was essentially a live album.” The group's version of Harry Nilsson's “One” leapt off the album and put Three Dog Night on the map.

After returning to Podolor's American Recording Company to cut a second album [Suitable for Framing], Three Dog Night asked him to produce their third album, also cut at American. “One of the most important decisions we made was to sonically treat the four instruments as equals to the voices,” Podolor says today. “It would have been easy — given the hugeness of their sound — to make everything subservient to the vocals, but we thought that would be a mistake.

“The players — [keyboardist] Jimmy Greenspoon, guitarist Mike Allsup, drummer Floyd Sneed and bassist Joe Shermi — are sometimes overlooked. That's a pity because they contributed mightily to the sound and success of Three Dog Night. We spent a lot of time on the parts. I remember working for about an hour with Floyd on the bass drum part he played on ‘Mama,’ making sure that it kept the track moving.”

Cooper's memories of the session are vivid. “The interaction of the bass and drums was unique on many Three Dog records, and that was certainly the case with ‘Mama.’ Joe had a Latin influence and he liked to push the down beat slightly. Floyd was one of the slyest drummers I ever heard. He listened to a lot of tribal drum recordings and would incorporate elements of that style into his playing — tom fills starting on an upbeat, for example. Together, they took a groove that could have been ordinary and turned it into something infectious, with a feel that pushed the song forward constantly.”

The character Wells created for “Mama Told Me Not to Come” — a confused but excited party-down initiate, delivering his thoughts in sing-speak with a hard to pinpoint accent — perfectly matched Newman's ironic lines. Although Podolor and Cooper say that Three Dog Night routinely entered the studio well-rehearsed, they nonetheless recall spending hours recording Wells' vocal and creating a comp track from multiple performances. “Today, of course, vocal comping is a breeze,” says Cooper. “Back in 1967, Richie was way ahead of the game. On the ‘Mama’ lead, there's a take change every three or four words.

“Cory talked, or acted, every word of that song. We got maybe three great complete takes from him and then comped them together. Three or four years ago we re-recorded all of Three Dog Night's hits in the studio using Pro Tools. I looked at waveforms of the guys' vocal lines and it was very interesting. Most professional singers produce a smooth waveform, but the waveforms from all of the singers in Three Dog Night — Danny and Cory in particular — were fat and fuzzy! That's why they have that huge sound!”

“The guys didn't have a classic blend,” says Podolor, “not the kind that you'd want from a choir, or a perfectly blended pop group like The Association. That sound lets you stack harmonies forever. But Cory, Chuck and Danny each have distinct vibratos and different textures to their voices. We had to pay a lot of attention to their use of vibrato in particular and tame it when it became problematic. We had the guys sing together around a single mic whenever we could, particularly on choruses.”

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