Gary James' Interview With Jimmy Greenspoon of
Three Dog Night
Three Dog Night was one of the most successful rock groups of all time. They accumulated 12 Gold albums, 7 Gold singles, 2 Grammy nominations, 3 number one songs, 22 Top 40 singles, and became one of the Top 10 largest grossing groups in rock and roll history.
Jimmy Greenspoon played keyboards for Three Dog Night. He joined the group when he was just 19. By the time he was 20, Jimmy had earned over a million dollars, owned a three-story house high in Hollywood Hills, complete with a swimming pool and an indoor elevator and paid cash for two Mercedes Benz.
Jimmy's life came crashing down all around him when his $500 a day heroin habit caught up with him. It almost ended his musical career. Jimmy wrote his autobiography titled "One Is The Loneliest Number. (Pharos Books)
We spoke with Jimmy about the people he's known, Three Dog Night, his life then and his life today.
Q - Jimmy, you wrote "One drink, one line, one pill was never enough for me." Why do you think some people become addicted and other people don't?
A - I have an addictive personality. Whether it's sex, food, music, drugs or spending money. A lot of people have addictive personalities. Medical research says addiction is actually in the genes. It's like you're born with it.
Q - You still play keyboards with Three Dog Night, don't you?
A - Correct.
Q - How many dates a year do you perform and where do you perform?
A - All over the place. Usually, we'll go out in mid to late June and do like 3 months straight of dates, and then the rest of the year we're doing weekends or corporate parties like IBM or Merrill Lynch. A lot of major groups are doing private parties like The Beach Boys. Merrill Lynch sent us to the Bahamas, all expenses paid, to do one show for a week. We went to Hawaii for Firestone. That kind of subsidizes the off time with a little paid vacation and sun. Last time we went out with a nice little 70s package of us, Steppenwolf and Dave Mason, and played some big outdoor venues. We actually did better than most of the major established groups out there who were cancelling shows right and left. We also lowered the ticket price down to $10, $12. Promoters were screaming and yelling "You can't lower the ticket prices to $10, we'll lose money!" We said "Hey, do you wanna have 2000 people at $30 a head or do you wanna have 20,000 people at $10 a head?" Figure it out. After they got 19,000 people in one place, they more than made up for it with parking concessions. In the summertime, we'll do big outdoor venues and State Fairs.
Q - Do you have any new material out?
A - No. Basically our last album was in 1976. I won't even call "It's A Jungle" EP a record project, 'cause that was one of the best kept secrets known to man and that was in '83. We still sell over 500,000 units a year, and all that stuff that M.C.A. re-releases.
Q - They play your songs on the radio all the time.
A - It helps pay off ex-wives.
Q - What was your reason for writing the autobiography?
A - Money to pay off the ex-wife. No...
Q - You used that answer before.
A - Yeah, I have. Just to prove that I could do it and get it out. And, to help some people and let them know about my problems. I think there are a lot of fans out there. They wanted to find out some tidbits about Three Dog Night, how we formed, and how we picked certain songs. A lot of my friends already knew my problems, but, not to the extent that came out in the book. So, I wanted people to know I wasn't this perfect, wonderful person. It could happen to anybody, but, you could take it two ways. You can ruin your life completely and never get out of it and die, or turn it around and make something useful out of yourself. It's kind of like a how not to do it manual. I was keeping diaries and journals for a long time and my wife said "C'mon, you can write a book." I said "Give me a break. I'm a musician, not an author." The point being, you can do anything in life if you want to, if you just try hard enough.
Q - Who do you know that came up around the same time that you did, that held on to their money and didn't have a problem with drugs? Give me some names.
A - I can't give you David Crosby. I can't give you Stephen Stills. I can't give you John Phillips. These people were my neighbors. Frank Zappa, because he was always straight, hung onto everything he had. People thought he was so out there, that he had to be doing the most insane drugs, but he was as straight as they come. Frank is the only person I know from that era. I lived in Laurel Canyon. Frank was a neighbor. Flo and Eddie were my next-door neighbors. John and Michelle lived across the street and Cass lived up the street. All the Byrds lived around the corner. Stephen and Neil (Young) lived about a block away. Obviously, all these people were like "Hello", way out there. Timothy Leary had a place there. Ron Wood. Even the guys in The Monkees had their own problems.
Q - You write, "I was disillusioned with the whole music scene and wasn't getting anything out of the drugs that I was doing. Maybe it was because of that or just the fact that I needed to spice up my own drab life, and I began dabbling in heroin." Drab life?
A - We started taking everything for granted. It was great in the beginning. Then all of a sudden, you start to go OK, well, the album's coming out and we're not even finished with it and it shipped Gold. The concert has been sold out for a month, OK. I'm going through relationships. I'm going through money. There was nothing holding my interest anymore, 'cause you took everything you had for granted. It was one of those things where I said I swear I will never do. Then all of a sudden someone said "Try it. I can't hurt you." So you try it. You figure if you don't like it, you just won't do it anymore. Wrong. My life to the normal person, obviously, wasn't drab. In my own estimation I was just so complacent with the way things were going for me, that I took everything for granted. I finally said "C'mon, it's time to go to the next step here."
Q - You were spending $500 a day on heroin?
A - Yeah, at least $500. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. But, on average $500 a day.
Q - And cocaine?
A - That's something separate. If you got too down on the heroin, you'd buy a couple of grams of coke, and then maybe take a few pills and take 8 or 10 double kamikazes, just to get an edge on the whole thing.
Q - I recall seeing a segment on Three Dog Night on the CBS Evening News. They were pointing out how thrifty you guys were because you ate at fast food places. But, in looking back at it, was it really so sensible to have a steady diet of junk food?
A - Actually, we did that because we couldn't get into the good restaurants late at night. I remember one time we were in Dallas and we were trying to find a good place to eat. They were all closed down. So, we just took the limo and drove it into the drive-thru at Jack-In-The-Box, which was kind of a kick, 'cause everybody knew who we were. We kind of stopped the working of the place altogether. And the people in the back of us were getting kind of upset 'cause we ordered 40 tacos and 35 hamburgers and sandwiches and so on. It took them a while to make the order, and then we kept signing autographs. I know a lot of people who would go and look for the biggest Five Star restaurant with caviar and champagne and drop $400 - $500. To tell you the truth, you don't get half the portions on the plate, it didn't taste near as good, and there's something about a nice cheeseburger and fries a 2 am the morning when you have a hangover. We did eat in a lot of fast food restaurants on the road, but you have to. Truck stops and bands kind of go together, especially when you're in a tour bus traveling across country. You gotta stop. The more grease, the better.
Q - What was the club scene like in L.A. in the mid 60s?
A - It was wide open. It was insane. There were like five mini clubs and at one time, they were all going at once. There was a place called Ciro's, where the Comedy Store is now, and that's where the Byrds were playing. I was playing across the street in the house band in a place called the Statford. Cory Wells, one of the singers in Three Dog Night, was in a group called The Enemies, playing down at the Whisky. This was before Johnny Rivers. Next door to the Whisky was the London Fog where the Doors were playing. They were the house band. They had about three, four people a night. About two doors up from the that was a place called the Galaxy, where Iron Butterfly played. The Walker Brothers were down at Gazzari's. Buffalo Springfield, along with the Turtles moved into the Trip along with the Lovin' Spoonful. These people were all playing at the same time on any given night. The police would come by and sweep the entire Sunset Strip with these Sheriff buses for curfew, and just round up hundreds of kids. After a while, obviously the kids outnumbered the cops, so there wasn't much they could do. Total anarchy.
Q - You performed on the same bill as Jimi Hendrix (the Devonshire Downs Festival in L.A.). You write, "He was obviously a genius and his mind was always at work." Why was he a genius?
A - He was always like one step ahead with his ideas for recording techniques. Just the way he approached the guitar. No one had done anything like he did up to that point, and they haven't really afterwards, either. He's been imitated a lot. First of all, left-handed guitar player and the use of feedback. I saw him do some things 'live' that were amazing. Of course when he was off, forget it. Anybody could do that. He was pretty temperamental too. One night, I think I mentioned it in the book, he did a show down at the Shrine Auditorium and did two songs and got upset 'cause he was having a bad acid trip or something, threw his guitar down, flipped the bird to the audience, walked off and created a riot. About a month later, he did a make-up concert, but he did it at UCLA Royce Hall. He played for 2 hours straight and then one of his amps blew and one of Noel's amps blew. (Noel Redding, bassist for Hendrix) He said "We're gonna take an intermission and I'm gonna fix this and we're gonna come back and play for another 2 hours." This was way before Springsteen thought of doing 4 hour shows.
Q - Danny, Cory and Chuck seemed to get all of the publicity. Did that cause any resentment in the group?
A - Yeah, there was some on the musicians' part, but, the fans knew what the whole scene was, and when it came down to the music and recording stuff, anybody had an equal say. It created a little friction in the beginning. Since there were seven of us, they wanted to get the names and faces focused on just certain people. They couldn't do it with everybody. So, obviously they picked the three singers who had nothing to do with Three Dog Night. People thought Three Dog Night, yeah, three singers. It just happened to be a coincidence. They signed all the major recording contracts and we didn't have to do that. So, if any lawsuits or litigation went down, they were responsible. So, in a way, it was a good business deal 'cause they had to bear all the attorney fees and all the expenses.
Q - How come I don't remember reading about you or Chuck or Danny having problems with the police or drugs?
A - Chuck had a bust in Louisville that was publicized on Walter Cronkite (CBS Evening News) and Rolling Stone did a little blurb on his being busted, but other than that, everything was hushed up. We got lawyers and got off real easy. Actually, I never got busted. Danny and Chuck got arrested a few times for violating traffic stuff. Nothing highly publicized like Keith Richards' bust in Toronto or Hendrix's.
Q - How much of a role did Burt Jacobs play in the success of Three Dog Night?
A - Well, Burt being one of the co-managers in the beginning; Burt was great and he also was a hindrance to us in a way because Burt had the abrasive attitude. He was like a real typical New York City guy transplanted to L.A. who bet on the horses and he had bookies. He had almost like this mobster mentality, only he wasn't a mobster. In the beginning, they managed Steppenwolf and the Turtles. So, when people would call, they said "You want Steppenwolf, you gotta take this group Three Dog Night." You know, making deals that way. Burt was kind of the muscle man and Bill Utley was the brain. He was the one who said "OK, here's what's gonna happen. In 6 months, you're gonna be making $10,000 a month." Everybody's going "Yeah, right. Sure." And then boom, the plan kind of came it fruition. They were a good team in the beginning.
Q - You played stadiums. How good of a show can you put on in one of those places?
A -Except for the Beatles, we were the only band to do that up 'till that point and hold all the records until Zeppelin came in and did it. We had Rod Stewart opening for us. We had the Allman Brothers, ELO, ELP, Humble Pie, Leon Russell and Joe Cocker. We put on these extravaganzas, set up video screens and did something that no one had done up to that point, except for the Beatles. And, the Beatles had done it on a smaller scale. They only did Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl. But, we went off and did 50 of these stadiums around the country. It was quite an undertaking.
Q - Seattle, Washington, 1969. On the same bill, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor and Three Dog Night. What a show that must've been.
A - Yeah, it was great. That was like the mentality of Bill Graham and what he used to do for the Fillmore Shows. But, it all worked.
Q - Who in Three Dog Night was being invited onstage to join with Hendrix and Stephen Stills?
A - That was Michael Allsup, our guitar player. Jimi used to come into the Whisky and jam with Michael all the time. Danny lived next door to me in the canyon, so Danny and Stephen would get together and play all the time, in the studio, or jam at different gigs. I was off getting crazed and doing my own sessions. I did some stuff with Neil (Young) and some Jeff Beck things and we did an album with Donovan. So, while they were off playing clubs, I was off doing sessions.
Q - Why do you think Three Dog Night was so popular?
A - We were so diverse. Every time we put a single out, it was almost like David Bowie, you couldn't second guess what they were going to do next. The songs we picked, and the writers we used. Up 'till that point, no one had really known Paul Williams or Laura Nyro or even for that fact, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Stevie Wonder gave us a great compliment on one of the songs we did...his song. Paul Rodgers of Free, we did two of their tunes. There was nobody who had three vocalists. Then of course, Crosby, Stills and Nash came along a year or two later.
Q - Did you ever meet Jim Morrison?
A - Oh, yeah. We hung out a lot. Jim had lived next door to me for a while in the canyon also. On any given night, we would take turns being thrown out of the Whisky. Of course, he always won, because he was a lot more obnoxious and brash and abrasive than I was. One time, they threw us out of the Whisky about 15 minutes apart.
Q - What's the difference between the "groupies" you encountered and today's "groupies"?
A - There are groupies and then there are groupies. There are the ones who come to the show and get backstage. They might look like the bimbos you see on the 900 sex thing at 3 in the morning, but that's about as far as they go. They won't go back to your room.
Q - Your epilogue reads, "People fail to realize the fact that living life under the pressure of stardom can destroy you. The public can place you on the highest pedestal and just as quickly tear you down." The public didn't turn against Three Dog Night. You, and you alone were responsible for your drug habit.
A - Well, yes and no. After our fourteenth album came out, that was in the whole disco era, Bee Gees, Donna Summer, we were trying to conform with what was going on musically, which was a mistake. We should have kept on doing what we did. We kind of fell flat on our faces. The fans just said "this is something we don't like." The album didn't even make the charts. They stopped coming to the shows. But, I kind of said that in general, 'cause there are so many people who think it's gonna last forever and the bubble is never gonna burst. If you even stay out of the limelight for a second, there's so many bands waiting in the wings to fill your shoes and the people are so fickle. They'll forget about you real quick.
Q - And finally, you write "The years 1983 to early 1985, I would lose everything I owned, deplete every possible source of income." How are you set for money these days? Are you bankrupt?
A - No. I'm not bankrupt. I literally started all over again, from scratch. I've paid off some old debts from the IRS and actually gotten a small check back, which is a first for me. I'm clearing up old debts on my credit. I have a couple of houses now. I'm slowly building myself back. As long as I'm healthy and have the ability to work, I'll have money again.