Buffalo-born musician and singer Cory Wells, co-founder of multi-platinum 1970s pop/soul/rock band Three Dog Night, died Tuesday at his home in Dunkirk. He was 74. No official cause of death has been given.
“It is with deep sadness and disbelief that I must report the passing of Cory Wells, my beloved band mate for over 45 years,” wrote Wells’ Three Dog Night compatriot Danny Hutton, via Twitter. “Cory was an incredible singer – a great performer, he could sing anything.”
Wells, who performed with Buffalo bands the Vibratos and the Enemys in the 1960s, formed Three Dog Night with vocalist Hutton, after relocating from Buffalo to Los Angeles in 1968. Prior to that, he endured a difficult childhood, growing up with a single mother and shuffling between several locations throughout Buffalo’s East Side during his high school years. He participated in street corner Doo-Wop singing, and was inspired by gospel music, as performed during local Baptist church services he’d attend on occasion. Those influences would serve him well in Three Dog Night, an outfit known for bringing significant soulfulness to bear on mainstream pop.
His tough childhood instilled in the young Wells a self-preservationist streak that would stay with him throughout his life, and act as a stabilizing influence during the heady days of '70s rock excess. There were drug problems within the Three Dog Night ranks, but Wells managed to stay clean.
“I was focused, a Buffalo-grounded poor kid,” Wells told The News’ Mary Kunz-Goldman in an interview conducted prior to Three Dog Night’s 2012 appearance at Kleinhans Music Hall.
“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.”
Shortly after their initial meetings in Los Angeles, Wells and Hutton added vocalist Chuck Negron, and began perfecting the three-part vocal harmony that would become their calling card. Three Dog Night struck gold right out of the gate. The band’s take on Harry Nilsson’s ballad “One” became their first hit, easing into the Top 10 in 1969 and enjoying a lengthy run. The group went on to become one of the most successful pop acts of the ’70s, on the strength of its vocal harmony-heavy marriage of R&B and soul tropes to pop smarts and tuneful accessibility.
Three Dog Night scored 12 Gold albums and racked up 21 consecutive Top 40 hits during its heyday, among them “Mama Told Me (Not To Come),” “Joy to the World,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “One,” “Liar,” “Celebrate” and “Eli’s Coming.” Several of these hits featured Wells in the role of lead vocalist.
The band had impeccable taste when it came to choosing songs to interpret, and many of Three Dog Night’s biggest hits were culled from the songbooks of top-flight writers including Nilsson, Laura Nyro, Paul Williams, Randy Newman, Russ Ballard, and Elton John & Bernie Taupin.
In October, a post on the band’s Facebook page noted that several Three Dog Night shows “have been postponed to allow for continued treatment of a nerve issue affecting Cory Wells’ back.” At the time of Wells’ death, Three Dog Night had concert engagements on the books well into 2016.