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The Opioid Crisis, Clean Living and Three Dog Night: Chuck Negron Q&A
In almost any interview with Three Dog Night vocalist Chuck Negron, the conversation inevitably turns to drugs, their abuse, and redemption.
Negron famously became a heroin addict at the height of his career, but eventually emerged from it in the 1980s, and you could say he’s been on a mission to warn others ever since. He speaks very frankly and openly about it and doesn’t shy away from the conversation.
I recently spoke with the legendary front man about a wide range of topics including his latest album, the fan-funded Generations, his time in Three Dog Night, his Latino heritage, and his immersion into the world of drug addiction.
Three Dog Night was originally founded in 1967 by Negron, along with Danny Hutton and Cory Wells, and would total twenty-one top 40 hits, which made sense considering some of their biggest hits were written by Paul Williams, Hoyt Axton, Laura Nyro, Harry Nillson, Randy Newman and Leo Sayer.
By 1973, things started to deteriorate in the band. There were lineup changes, struggles with management, and the aformentioned drug use. What follows is an engaging look at the inside of this iconic band from someone very involved, Chuck Negron.
Rock Cellar: Let me ask you first about your recent album, Generations. I read that you funded this using Kickstarter. How did that work?
Chuck Negron: My manager brought it up, utilizing Kickstarter. She was familiar with it and brought it up to me. I’m from a different generation, where we didn’t have to ask our fans to help us out. We ended up getting somewhere in the neighborhood of $76,000, and then I put in the same amount. It worked out well because it was really nice to see all the support.
Was it at all a humbling experience?
Chuck Negron: Not really. Once I got into the spirit of the whole thing and saw that many of my peers in this business were using it, I realized it was part of the norm.
Do you think you’ll do another album in the future using the same method of funding?
Chuck Negron: I might. I already have several songs that I’m in the process of completing, it will be another year before they’re ready. But I’ll probably give it a shot and see what happens.
How’s the critical reception for Generations treating you?
Chuck Negron: I’ve been getting a lot of really nice feedback about the songs, the production. Of course the album contains three never-released Three Dog Night songs, so hopefully the fans will get something that they feel relates to the reason that they’re helping me.
Were the songs recorded and produced back in the Three Dog Night era? The album has a more modern sound to it.
Chuck Negron: The vocals are all original. There are some musical components that were added because as Three Dog Night tracks they were unfinished. That’s the reason that they were never originally on any Three Dog Night albums. It needed some guitar work to bring it up to speed.
It’s an interesting album, it seems to change color depending on the mood you’re in when listening. Is this something you were aware of when you recorded it?
Chuck Negron: Well, my writing takes you through some very interesting trips, but it always tries to end up in the same place, in a very positive place. It has different avenues that it travels on, but in the end the message is one of redemption.
Faith and hope will carry you along, if you can find something that you believe in more than yourself.
What have you found that fits that bill?
Chuck Negron: When I was in rehab back at CRI-Help Rehab 26 years ago, a couple of wonderful things happened to me that gave me faith that I wasn’t in this journey of life by myself.
Isn’t it more about how much faith you have in yourself ultimately?
Chuck Negron: No, not at all. I have great faith in myself, but that’s because I have the feeling and the belief that I’m being supported by a power that’s greater than me. I also receive a great deal of support from my fans, and that’s a very powerful thing.
I find it amazing that I can mean so much to so many people even when I haven’t meant as much to myself.
You reworked “Be My Baby,” the old Ronettes standard. Did you find it hard to approach something as iconic as this song?
Chuck Negron: I don’t look at it as something to improve on. I think there’s some sort of magic that happens during the recording process, and once you have it down, you have it captured there forever. I look at all songs that I record in the same way, it’s something that you try to make different in many ways, and try to bring something different to it. In this case, it was the use of the girls and a nice, uplifting sound to recreate a great song.
What was it like working with your daughters? Was this the first time in the studio with Dad? Did you have to do a lot of coaching?
Chuck Negron: Charlie, my 23-year-old, has been working in the studio for a long time. She made her first record when she was nine years old, David Foster helped her arrange it and played piano. When she was ten, she appeared on the stage with me at The Hollywood Bowl in front of over 17,000 people. My other daughter Annabelle, it was the same thing, she kind of followed in her sister’s footsteps. She has appeared with me in Vegas and is no stranger to the studio. It’s not like I’m bringing them in and having them do something that would embarrass them, it’s something that they do very well.
I’d like to move into an area I’m sure you’re used to discussing often. Can you tell me about your time in rehab, at CRI- Help?
Chuck Negron: It was September 17, 1991. I wanted to cry help, and they took a spiritually and physically broken man, and they changed me with many tools and an unbelievable support group. Once you complete rehab, you can come back on Monday nights for meetings, and you can come back every morning for step studies. Once you graduate, you’re not just thrown out onto the streets. After two years you’re allowed to sponsor other people, helping them get their mind right, not using, etc.
Do you sponsor a lot of people?
Chuck Negron: I did for many many years. I still do benefits for them, trying to raise money, or I’ll speak on different things. I have hepatitis C and I’ll speak at the hep conventions. It’s part of my life.
Did you get it from sharing needles?
Chuck Negron: Yes, it’s part of what happens when you’re a drug addict.
Opioids can be very dangerous, especially with the populace largely turning to the medical profession to get them today.
Chuck Negron: Doctors are the new drug dealers, they’ve moved off the streets into the offices.
You don’t do any drugs at all? No weed?
Chuck Negron: No, nothing at all. As a matter of fact, a few months before my Happy Together tour, I fell and broke my hip and was in a great deal of pain, and I refused to take painkillers. I wasn’t going to take that chance.
Painkillers can be an incredibly addictive drug.
Chuck Negron: That’s the funny thing about it. You could be the owner of that button that predetermines that you could become an addict very easily, and you could go many decades without ever knowing it. And you start taking that stuff innocently enough and then all of a sudden, you’re an addict! You’re rolling the dice.
This is a very poignant statement, because it appears more and more today people are finding out the hard way that they are predisposed to addiction and find themselves addicted to painkillers, sometimes in middle age.
Chuck Negron: Yeah, it’s a button that can just get pushed, and it’s a really scary thing. You’re really rolling the dice with your life. The sad thing is that there are a lot of people that are becoming addicts now that don’t really have that criteria for addiction, but are taking these pain pills that are SO addicting, they become addicted even though they never would normally under any other circumstances. That’s why so many people are dying from this, they don’t have the addictive personalities, but the pills are just so powerful.
What do you think of the current administration’s efforts to clean up what they call “The Opioid Crisis”?
Chuck Negron: Back when heroin was first introduced and put out, it was such an effective drug for pain, and they really didn’t know of the addictive elements in it. It was sold over the counter, as was cocaine. You could get it right over the counter, until they started having all of these problems much like they are now, and they outlawed it, and that’s what they should do with these pills.
I would say that with all the technology that we have, they could find a pill that could hit the portion of the brain that would stop the pain that wouldn’t be addictive like opiates. That’s my feeling, and I feel that this is the direction that they should go. If something is killing people, you stop it, just like they did with heroin and cocaine. What the people are doing is they are getting illegal heroin and illegal pills anyway, so don’t get them addicted in the first place.
Stop it! They need to give patients something else that doesn’t get them addicted.
How much do you think you’ve blown on drugs in your lifetime?
Chuck Negron: Oh my god, my entire fortune. Millions of dollars. I was part owner of an apartment in Beverly Hills. The group America lived there, there were many musicians who lived there. I was running out of money, and I couldn’t access the funds in my pension. I paid $35,000 for it, and it was now a multi-million dollar place. That was the only money I could get, so right there was a couple of million dollars. I needed it, I was spending thousands of dollars a day on drugs. $2,000-$3,000 a day adds up over ten years.
Do you think the city of Los Angeles had anything to do with you getting into drugs, or was it more of a music thing? Los Angeles has a reputation for devouring artists.
Chuck Negron: No, I mean, I came from the Bronx [laughs]. I came from the South Bronx, you wanna talk about drugs? Where I grew up, things were pretty edgy you know. The reason I got involved in drugs was the times really, I mean, it was the 60’s, I had just left college, I had very “collegiate” clothes. I wore loafers with no socks [laughs], which are now very popular again. I didn’t have long hair like the other kids did at the time, and Columbia kind of wanted me to get into the groove of things, so they’d send me to premieres and parties.
These two girls had taken me to a party for Donovan Leitch where I ran into Danny Hutton, and we hit it off really well. He was getting high, and everyone there was getting high, and I really respected these people. Danny had a hit record at the time that was on the charts called “Roses and Rainbows,” Donovan was a big star, all of these people were very successful. At this party there were models and actors, it was very hip. I had never been to a party like this before in my life, and I saw all of these people as very attractive and very successful and I just made a left turn, and went from being a guy who never did anything to getting high with them, and then I just liked it so much I never stopped.
There’s a real reality to the fact that certain people have a real disposition, and are more predisposed to a condition of addiction to others, and that’s why you don’t want to even play around, to do drugs even socially because you don’t know until you start whether you’re one of those people or not.
How did you end up moving to Los Angeles from New York?
Chuck Negron: When I was a senior in high school, I got several basketball scholarships, and I was ready to go to Utah State, because they had done really well. I think they went to the final eight of the NCAA playoffs. The next year they won, so I would have been on the championship team. In my heart though, what I really wanted to do was to go to California, because that’s where my father and all of my family on my father’s side were. My grandmother, aunts and uncles, I was very close with them, and they all left NY for California when I was young, and I would spend summers with them. I finally got an offer from a small school. It wasn’t anything like Utah State, but it was close to my father.
It was called Hancock College, and it was a great school, a great basketball school. From there I got an deal from Cal State, Bill Sharman was the coach there. He’s the one who built up the Lakers. At any rate, when I finished at Hancock College, I had already signed on at Columbia Records under the name Chuck Rondell, They were very excited about me because I had already had a couple of regional records in Santa Maria. In my first years of college, I had signed with two different record companies and had some success on the charts, because you could have regional hits back then. So then I went to record with Columbia, and that’s how I got to L.A.
How in touch are you with your Latino heritage, you’re part Puerto Rican aren’t you?
Chuck Negron: It’s actually the closest part of my family, and the biggest part of my family that’s still alive out here in California. I’m kind of sad that I don’t speak Spanish, when I was younger I was learning it, but then my father moved and my sister and I went into the orphanage so that process stopped. I’m very proud of being a Puerto Rican. On my new album Generations, I have a song called “I’m half Puerto Rican”, and in it I “Shine like a beacon.”
When you perform live, do you give any special attention to the Three Dog Night hits?
Chuck Negron: I have to. When I went solo, the promoters told me that if I didn’t sing more Three Dog Night songs, they weren’t going to book me. I was taken aback, but something changed my opinion. I went to see David Bowie in concert, and he wasn’t playing any of his older hits, and I thought “what a fool, he should do the old stuff.” So after that, I started playing the old songs.
The more I did them the more successful my shows were.
I heard you have special glasses that feed you oxygen, is that true?
Chuck Negron: Yes, it’s true. I reached a point where the COPD was going to prevent me from performing live, I could have literally died on stage. But people aren’t going to pay to see someone singing with an oxygen mask on, so I had to do something or it was all going to be over. Luckily my girlfriend Amy stumbled across this pair of glasses that feed the oxygen from the tank, through the glasses, to the wearer. The cord has been modified to look like a guitar cable, so it’s more “rock and roll.” The audience can’t even tell. It changed my entire career.
Which of the Three Dog Night songs do you cherish the most?
Chuck Negron: I like different songs for different reasons. I like “One” because it was our first million-selling record, that one really put us in the game. It has a special place in my heart for other reasons too, it was done in one take, and at the time I was in awe of what came out of me, I couldn’t believe I’d done that.
I loved “Joy To The World” because it became a signature song for us, and it’s still a hit to this day.
I’ve always wondered, who was Jeremiah the Bullfrog?
Chuck Negron: I don’t know, he was a bullfrog, I guess, a bullfrog with an alcohol problem.