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Rock star Cory Wells was fighting cancer, apparently died of infection, family says

Three Dog Night rocker Cory Wells was fighting cancer when he apparently died from an infection earlier this week, his family told The Buffalo News.

The Buffalo native was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in late September and was undergoing treatment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, according to Dawn Cussins, one of the singer’s two daughters.

Close family members of the 74-year-old singer knew about the cancer diagnosis, but he was a “very private man” and did not want his friends or fans to know about it, Cussins said.

Wells died Tuesday night in Brooks Memorial Hospital in Dunkirk, where he had recently been staying in a cottage on Lake Erie that he and his wife owned, Cussins said.

According to Cussins, doctors at Brooks Memorial told the family that Wells died of septic shock caused by an infection.

“We don’t know what caused the infection. We have no idea,” Cussins said. “He became very ill on Monday, and I called 911 to have an ambulance take him to the hospital … He died Tuesday night.”

No information about Wells’ illness or the cause of his death had been made public before Cussins and one of Wells’ grandchildren spoke to The News on Friday. A Chautauqua County coroner had said he could not comment, saying the decision on whether to discuss the cause of death was up to the family.

The music world knew Wells as a charismatic singer whose soulful voice powered one of the most successful rock bands in American history. But his family and friends knew him as the former Emil Lewandowski, a loving father and grandfather who was married to the same woman for 51 years, and who would much rather spend a quiet day fishing on Lake Erie than singing before thousands of people.

His daughter said Wells became very ill on Monday in the Dunkirk cottage that he and his wife bought in the 1990s.

“He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in late September, and was receiving treatment at Roswell (Park Cancer Institute),” Cussins said on Friday. “His immediate family knew, but he didn’t want many people to know, because he was a very private person.”

Wells found out he had multiple myeloma after seeking treatment for severe back pain, Cussins said. Doctors told the family the cancer was “manageable and treatable,” Cussins said, and her father had received several radiation treatments at Roswell Park. He was scheduled to receive several more radiation treatments and, after that, chemotherapy. She said no autopsy was conducted.

Although Wells was one of the leaders of a hugely successful rock band that performed all over the world, had many top 10 hits and sold millions of records, he preferred fishing or spending quiet time with his family, according to his daughter and one of his five grandchildren, Jake Lyon.

“He loved his music, and was proud of his music, but what he really enjoyed was spending time with his family,” Cussins said. “If there was a blueprint for a great father and a great grandfather, he was it.”

Wells loved Western New York, and that is why he and his wife, Mary, bought the Dunkirk cottage after their home in Malibu, Calif., was destroyed in a wildfire in November 1993, his daughter said.

Cussins said her father was proud of maintaining a solid family life even during the early 1970s, when Three Dog Night was touring almost non-stop.

“My father never, ever took drugs, and he hated alcohol,” Cussins said. “He was totally against any of his songs being used in beer advertisements because he never wanted to encourage kids to drink.”

Formed in the late 1960s, Three Dog Night was one of the most popular bands in the country in the 1970s. The band has continued to be a popular touring attraction over the decades. Several recent concerts were canceled because of Wells’ medical problems, although the band had made no mention of cancer.

“In the years 1969 through 1974, no other group achieved more top 10 hits, moved more records or sold more concert tickets than Three Dog Night,” according to the band’s official website.

The band’s biggest hits – including “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” “Joy to the World,” “Black and White,” “Shambala” and “One” – not only sold millions of records, but were often featured in major films and television series.

Wells shared the lead vocals with two other singers, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron. Negron left the band in the 1980s, but Hutton and Wells continued to tour together.

“It is with deep sadness and disbelief that I must report the passing of Cory Wells, my beloved band mate for over 45 years,” Hutton said in a statement on the website earlier this week. “Cory was an incredible singer – a great performer, he could sing anything.”

The band’s website lists 12 concerts planned between Nov. 4 and the end of this year. So far, the band has not announced whether it will continue touring.

In an interview with The News in 2012, Wells spoke about growing up on the East Side of Buffalo, where he was born as Emil Lewandowski. He was raised by a single mother who struggled financially, Wells said.

He recalled being a “poor kid” who worked at the old Sattler’s department store, loved gospel music and formed a “doo-wop group” with some African-American friends as a teenager.

After graduating from Burgard High School and spending time in the Air Force, Wells said he moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a musical career. It was there that he met Hutton and Negron and formed the band that would become Three Dog Night.

While he enjoyed making records and performing before audiences, Wells’ real enjoyment came from spending time with family and fishing.

“There’s a lot of time on the road,” Wells told the Chicago Tribune in a 1986 interview. “I was actually fishing while I was out there on the road. While everybody else was partying, I was getting up at 4 in the morning and going fishing when we toured through places like Florida, the South, back East, up in Canada.”

Wells loved participating in fishing tournaments in Western New York, and also wrote articles on fishing for several magazines. “He wrote fishing articles under his own name for Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and American Sportsman,” Cussins said.

In addition to his wife, Wells is survived by his other daughter, Corrie LeFrenaye, and five grandchildren, Cussins said.

She said many family members rushed to Dunkirk to visit Wells after he was taken to the hospital on Monday.

“We spent a lot of time with him on Monday and Tuesday,” Cussins said. “He was pretty zoned out, but he could squeeze my hand. We left him Tuesday night and he died at around 9:30 that night … He was a humble, private man. Knowing my father, he just wanted to slip away quietly.”

Cussins said the family has been touched by the outpouring of good wishes from Three Dog Night fans, but at this point, has no plans for any kind of public memorial service.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com