If you are a rock star from Buffalo, you are going to get talked about. So it is no surprise that there are a lot of stories flying around about Cory Wells, one of the three lead singers of Three Dog Night.
Is it true, Mr. Wells, that you sang in your church choir as a boy, and –
Wells laughs, indulgently.
“There are 10 people sitting on chairs, you tell the first person a story, by the time it gets out to last person, it’s completely misconstrued,” he says.
“When I was a kid growing up in Buffalo, I used to go to St. Ann’s Church. They had a roller rink, a huge roller rink. My friend who lived on Paderewski Drive and Townsend, we used to go roller skate at St. Ann’s every Friday and Saturday. Well, lots of times we didn’t go on a Sat, ’cause there were too many little kids,” he laughs. “But we went Friday and Sunday. And there was a Baptist church, a little storefront, and I used to stop by sometimes on Friday nights with my roller skates around my neck, sit down and just listen to the gospel music. Many times I never made it to the roller skating rink.”
Such memories will make Wells, now 70, emotional on Friday, when he plays Kleinhans Music Hall with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Chuck Negron, one of the three singers original to Three Dog Night, is not with the band. (He comes to the Bear’s Den in Niagara Falls on Dec. 31.) But Wells and Danny Hutton, the third original singer, have re-created the group’s famous sound. Joining them will be two other veteran bandmates, Michael Allsup and Jimmy Greenspoon.
The concert is part of “BPO Rocks!,” a new series dreamed up by Louis Ciminelli, the BPO’s new board president.
“When I was younger, Kleinhans was the venue you would come to for a rock concert,” Ciminelli says. “The idea is to attract young audiences in an incremental way. People might go for a rock concert, and then think, ‘I think I could start coming to the BPO, maybe for pops concerts to start, then for classical concerts.’”
A busboy at Sattler’s
Wells’ ties to Buffalo are deep. He has a cottage near Dunkirk, where his family spends the summer and part of the spring. Wells loves to fish and participates in charity fishing events there.
He is the first to admit that Western New York affected his career.
“I was the goodie two-shoes. They used to call me Father Wells,” he laughs.
“I was focused, a Buffalo-grounded poor kid. I wasn’t going to jeopardize everything I achieved over a stupid drug. I had this upbringing from my mom, my family – the hard work gets you where you need to go, these things’ll jeopardize it. I don’t drink, I never did. I drank when I was a kid – everyone experiences that. But it never felt right to me.”
The sheer drama of his childhood is enough to bring a lump to your throat.
Wells was born to a single mother; his mother fell in love with a man she realized too late was married. “She had her wedding dress and everything,” Wells says.
His mother gave her son her maiden name, Lewandowski. Wells had a nomadic childhood, moving around Buffalo’s East Side. His family was close, though, and he always had music.
“I worked at Sattler’s as a busboy,” he recalls. “I ran into these African-American boys. We put together a singing group, a doo-wop group.” They played at a Sattler’s employees’ party. “This was the only part of my life when I was scared to sing in front of someone.”
The R&B sensibilities he picked up continued when, upon graduating from Burgard High School, he joined the Air Force.
Back in Buffalo, still very young, Wells came to the attention of a mover and shaker from California who saw his potential. He moved out West and found himself playing in Los Angeles’ Whisky A Go-Go, with his band, the Enemys.
“It was very prestigious,” he says. “That went on for about four years. In those days, you could make a living working at clubs.”
One night, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton rented out the Whisky, as Wells puts it, and Sonny and Cher were there.
“We were playing away, and Cher leans up on the bandstand. I can’t say what she said.” Wells laughs uproariously. “She came back and said, ‘Would you like to go on tour with us?’ Of course we said yes.”
It was on the tour that Wells met Hutton, his future bandmate. But the tour, he said, was tough.
“We rode on this rickety bus and [Sonny and Cher] flew. Every once in a while they would pop their heads on the bus and say, ‘Hi, everyone! Are you all OK?’ We did that for a month, maybe more. Then the tour was over, and I still saw her after that. I’m not going to go into that.”
The scrounging years
The band’s slot at the “Whisky” had been taken by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Wells was in for more tough times. In the middle of those, he married his wife, Mary.
“I met her on the East Side. She was 14. She went to P.S. 44, a couple of grades behind me. I actually didn’t like her when I met her. I thought she was a toughie, as most people from Buffalo were tough. She was raised on the West Side.”
She came to California to marry him.
“I was about 19. She was there for the poor years, the hungry, scrounging years. She saw the unglamorous side of rock ’n’ roll. It was amazing she married me. The sad part of it was, I was working in Las Vegas at the time, at Pussy Cat A Go Go. It was a 24/7 club. A group called Paul Revere and the Night Riders – not even Raiders – they worked from 6 till midnight. Our band worked midnight till 6 a.m. So we had one of those velvet Elvis marriages. Those little quickie marriage chapels. We got home that morning at 6, slept until 9, got three hours’ sleep, went and got married at noon, and the honeymoon was until 11.”
His voice is regretful.
“It’s tough on the woman,” he says.
Wells, the married man, appears to have been a stabilizing influence on Three Dog Night.
“The band got along pretty good,” Wells says. “I’m amazed when I hear horror stories about the rock bands then.”
They chose their songs democratically.
“There was no leader,” Wells says proudly. “That mold of who was the leader, that goes back to the ’30s. We broke that concept.
“When we got signed, the record company told us, ‘We’re signing the three singers. We’re not signing the band.’ The band was not considered part of Three Dog Night. But we made them Three Dog Night. We decided, whatever we make on the records, we’re going to share with them.”
Wells laughs that he didn’t see the potential at first of “Joy to the World,” one of their biggest hits. But he was the one who pushed Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” a funny song about a party that goes out of control.
“It was turned down by the other two singers,” he said. “I found Randy Newman’s album in Sears, Roebuck’s bargain bin for 50 cents. I loved his sarcasm and style of music and offbeat approach. It became our second-largest record.”
Were any concerts especially memorable? Wells answers immediately.
“One was in the Dallas Cotton Bowl. Rod Stewart with Small Faces opened for us. I walked out on the field, could not believe the amount of people, that 49,000 people came out to see Three Dog Night.”
“The other one was, we played at Kleinhans at 1969, 1970,” he says. “I sang ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ in the line, ‘I was born by a river,’ I sang, ‘I was born by the Niagara River.’ ”
And coming home, he says, always feels good.
“I was just there [at the cottage] a week ago, to get everything shut down, closed up for the winter,” he says. “We love coming out here. No place is more beautiful than Western New York.”