MODESTO — The road has tested his patience, and the stage has taken most of his hearing.
But Modesto's Michael Allsup counts himself among the blessed, one of a select few people who have been able to turn their love for performing music into a lifelong career, spending most of the past 45 years as guitarist for Three Dog Night.
On Oct. 12, the Davis High graduate gets a rare home game when the band plays the Gallo Center.
“We played the State Theater a few years back, but it all runs together -- even the hometown stuff,” said Allsup, recalling a 2003 show. “I’m very excited to be playing the Gallo because it’s such a beautiful venue.”
From 1969-75 Three Dog Night placed 21 singles in Billboard’s Top 40, eventually producing 13 albums that sold more than 40 million albums. According to the band’s Web site, during that time “nobody had more Top 10 hits, moved more records, or sold more concert tickets.”
The songs form a soundtrack for the post-Woodstock decade, including the first No. 1 hit “One (is the Loneliest Number),” followed by “Easy to Be Hard,” “Joy to the World,” and “Black and White.”
And with the exception of a band hiatus (1976-81) and Allsup’s own departure (1984-91) he’s been there for the entire ride of a band considered by some to be America’s most successful pop-rock vocal band.
“We’re very fortunate to have had all those hits and I want to be very clear on that,” Allsup said. “We practically never end the tour. On the other hand, life is pretty good. I got tired of the travel years ago, and I’m 66 now. I always loved the playing part. When I was 20 or 21 I couldn’t wait to get back home to tell friends where I’d been, but that feeling went away years ago. We’ll continue on as long as we can.”
The current band lineup includes four original members — Allsup, singers Danny Hutton and Cory Wells, and keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon. The third original singer, Chuck Negron, was booted from the band in 1985.
Allsup got his first guitar in grade school, and put together his first bands while attending Roosevelt Junior High. His first real gig was in 1962, when he was 15 and a member of The Chancellors, who played the Fable Room (the basement of the Hotel Covell.)
“Those days were fantastic,” Allsup said. “I loved it. I still have the little article the Bee wrote about us back then. Half the songs were what I had learned from my guitar teacher and they didn’t translate very well to a dance hall. But what a great time in my like that was. We played “Louie, Louie,” “Tequila,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Shout” - the version by Joey Dee and the Starlighters.
“I have such fond memories of playing back then and feel so fortunate to have grown up in Modesto. I didn’t realize at the time how much Modesto was musical and cultural center. It wasn’t Los Angeles, Chicago or Memphis, but on other levels it was perfect for me to play a gig at El Patio. It had a bar and a dinner place, and I could play there as long as we stayed on the dinner side.
“We’d leave there and go play The Red Vest in the after hours. That place is now the - how should I say it - the gentlemen’s club east of Empire ... not that I’m familiar with the place or anything like that.”
In July, 1968, Allsup was playing Los Angeles clubs with a band called The Family Scandal, when he ran into Joe Schermie, a bass player he’d met several years earlier in Arizona. Schermie had joined a new band that had three singers and a record contract but was looking for a guitar player to replace Ron Morgan, who was leaving to join The Electric Prunes.
Leaving The Family Scandal was not easy, but Allsup he was about to embark on an extremely challenging and rewarding musical challenge.
Three Dog Night did not write its own songs, but would go through stacks of demo tapes to find tunes they could arrange, record, and produce, turning raw tunes from writers such as Hoyt Axton, Paul Williams, Laura Nyro, Harry Nilsson and Elton John into radio-friendly hits. By Allsup’s own admission, the process was a stretch for his skills at the time.
“Some demos would have great parts built-in and I had to avoid beating myself over the head to come up with something better than what was already there,” Allsup said. “But there were other songs that were great that didn’t have any arrangement or guitar licks. It all happened between getting the demo and the finished product.
“Every song we took to the studio was that way. It was wonderful as far as developing as a player, but it always was quite a test. It also was tough at the beginning working with the producers. It was the first time anyone ever listen to my playing and critiqued it even better than I could myself. I got in the booth and gained perspective on how the guitar was supposed to fit in the overall song. It taught me how to play for the betterment of the song and not just to show off as a guitar player, and that took me a lot of time to arrive at that point.”
Allsup deflects questions about the lifestyle other than to admit the notion of “sex, drugs, rock and roll” was all true - probably more so then than now since Three Dog Night’s heyday came before the advent of AIDS.
And he also is reticent to say too much about Three Dog Night’s yearly snub by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he has a theory.
“To respond to anything about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ends up sounding like sour grapes, so I have to be careful about what I say,” Allsup said. “But are there some sour grapes in there? Of course. We’re insulted.
“On the other hand, we know that when the band first started, Ahmet Ertegun (founder and president of Atlantic Records and chairman of the Hall of Fame) was in on the bidding to sign the band and he ended up not being the guy. In our perspective, he was active until he died (2006) in keeping us out. Just look for yourself, a very large number of the acts that got into the hall in the first few years were Atlantic Records people. To this day, we’ve never even been invited. It’s a very tough subject to talk about because putting out your sour grapes is never something you want to do.”
Allsup also is dealing with a hearing deficiency that can be attributed to years on the stage as well as to genetics.
“My dad’s hearing was bad and my brother’s is as well,” Allsup said. “But the real change for me was the switch from wedge (stage monitors) to in-ear monitors. The in-ear monitors are fantastic for singers. The downside is that when anything goes wrong with the levels or if there is a spike in the mix, you have that bud so deep in your ear that it can take your hearing out, and it did. It continues to do that, but it’s my best option.
“If it sounds like I’m a little touchy about losing my hearing, well, I am, and I think any musician would say the same thing.”
But he’s adamant that his hearing is not a factor in the live show, which he claims is as strong as it’s ever been.
“Come see us because we’re a great band,” Allsup said. “I would say that anyway, but we are. You’ll have a great time and we’ll take you back when we play all those great hits. You’ll be surprised how much they sound like the album because the band is that good and I’m proud to be a part of its.
“Another reason you should see us is that I don’t know how long we’re going to be around. I say that being as close to humble as I can be.”