MODESTO - One of the gifts I received from my big sisters on my 13th birthday was a copy of Three Dog Night’s first hits compilation album, “Golden Biscuits.”
We didn’t have a proper stereo at the time, but we did have a portable record player, which had a tone arm so heavy and stylus so old and dull that it probably doubled the width and depth of the groove in the vinyl with each play.
One song in particular really caught my ear. Actually, it was about two seconds of one song. The tune was “Nobody,” and just before the final verse the guitarist played a seven-note lick that I thought was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard.
I’d received my first guitar several years earlier, and I sat in front of that record player, lifting and replacing the tone arm to play that lick over and over, sometimes putting my index finger on the album’s label to slow down the song - all the better to hear each note while I tried in vain to reproduce the riff on my thick-necked nylon-stringed beginner’s guitar.
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Earlier this week, I had the chance to tell that story to Modesto’s Michael Allsup - then and now Three Dog Night’s guitarist. The band, which enjoyed a stratospheric ride from 1969-75, will be playing the Gallo Center on Oct. 12, and my full story on Allsup will be appearing in the Scene section on Oct. 4.
Allsup laughed at my story, then broke into his own.
“That’s exactly the method I used and I think it’s what everybody did back then,” Allsup said, laughing again.
“We played a gig with Toto in San Jose and Steve Lukather (Toto’s guitarist) told me after the show that he’d played my solos over and over on the records, picking up and moving the tone arm to listen again and again to learn my stuff. I damn near cried. How sweet of him to tell me that. Those are special moments, and thank you for telling me you did the same thing to my lick. That really makes my day.”
A few times a year I have the opportunity to put away my scorebook and step away from sports to write for the Scene section, doing a profile of an act soon to appear in the area.
At times, it’s been all I could handle to hide my own admiration during these interviews, especially when the person on the other end is Bill Cosby, Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, Ray Manzarek, Ronnie Montrose, Dave Mason or Jimmie Vaughan, to name a few.
Inevitably, our conversations cover so much more ground than can be covered in the limitations of the newspaper story, and Allsup was so generous with his time and thoughts that could have written a piece double the length of what eventually will appear.
We talked about how, as kids, we’d go to the local music stores just to gawk at the guitars - something I still do, thanks to the acoustic room at Guitar Center.
“When I was about 13 years old I’d go down to the old Modesto Music down on 13th just to smell the Gibson guitars and their cases,” Allsup said.
He not only discussed his theory as to why Three Dog Night isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which you’ll have to read the feature to find out, but he talked about the band’s 1985 split with Chuck Negron - one of the original three singers and the man who gave (IMO) one of pop’s greatest vocal performances in “Easy To Be Hard.”
“It’s an awkward thing for me to talk about, but just know that we had a great history with Chuck and we do wish him well,” Allsup said. “One of the guys once said that it was like being offered a million dollars to go on a tour with your ex-wife. Chuck was a great part of it back in the day.”
He talked about the challenge of keeping the performance fresh. After all, Three Dog Night is playing the same songs it made famous 40 years ago and prides itself on staying true to the original recording.
“Staying fresh - that’s the trick, isn’t it?” Allsup said. “As a classic rock band - if I don’t open a Pandora’s box by saying that - the people who come to see us want to hear the hits. If you play 20 or 30 years and all the sudden you get bored with it and change your show you risk losing the fans who get the chance to come see you once every five or 10 years. That’s an ongoing battle within all older bands.
“But there are regulars who seem to be at every show, and they’re your greatest fans, but when you start tailoring your show to please them, you’re looking for trouble. You do have change your set a little bit, and add a few things, but if you start taking out the hits soon you’ll be done.”
It seems like every time I get the chance to interview a performing artist I learn something - about the creative process, about the drive that keeps them going decade after decade.
I wish I could say the same about the vast majority of athletes I interview.
Yes, I tend to put performers on a higher pedestal than the athletes I talk to every other day. I don’t know why, but perhaps its because as a much younger man I performed on both stages and while both require high levels of commitment and dedication I know which one takes more skill and concentration just to be adequate.
Allsup said he had forgotten that “Nobody” was on the “Golden Bisquits” album. It certainly wasn’t a hit, and his theory was that it was included because it was the first song Three Dog Night ever recorded.
I only remember it because, 41 years later, I still can’t play the lick.