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Three Dog Nightmare

Stewart Oksenhorn

The success that Chuck Negron achieved as lead singer for hitmakers Three Dog Night surpassed even his greatest expectations. But that success – 18 consecutive Top 20 hits, sold-out stadium shows, more than 90 million in album sales and an enduring radio legacy that includes “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” “Shambala” and “Joy to the World” – does not quite match the miracle that Negron is still alive. And singing.

Music took Negron to the top of the world; drugs brought him down lower than imaginable. Three Dog Night, which Negron formed with singing partners Cory Wells and Danny Hutton in 1967, had its first hit, “One (Is the Loneliest Number),” in 1969. By 1975, the group had sold 50 million albums.

By 1977, Negron was a heroin addict, without a band, without friends, abandoned by his family.

“I really dedicated my life to drugs,” said Negron. “I spent 1977 to 1981 just an out-and-out junkie, shooting drugs all day, spending loads of money. I was a pathetic ass, a self-indulgent junkie.”

But things would get worse for Negron; in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he still had money to blow. After Three Dog Night broke up following a reunion that lasted from 1981 to ’85, Negron burrowed even deeper into the low life.

“I was spending $20,000 a week, buying everyone drugs and food,” said Negron, now in his mid-50s. “I went through everything – the pension plan, all the protection the business people had done. All I had was my royalties, which at the time was real slim. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even know where it all went.”

The dawn of the ’90s found Negron hitting rock bottom: homeless, broke, spending nights in an abandoned building in south-central Los Angeles. His once-athletic 6-foot-1 frame carried just 126 pounds. A rock bottom moment came in 1991, when his last remaining friend, an attorney and sometime girlfriend named Robin Silna, tried to offer Negron a last helping hand. The junkie responded by attempting to steal Silna’s car. He got caught.

“I was given an option,” said Negron. “Go to this place Cri-Help, or go to prison.” Negron had seen enough rehab centers like Cri-Help; up to that point, he had managed to fail nearly 50 rehab programs. “I asked if there was another alternative. They said no, so I chose Cri-Help.

“It’s the last house on the block. It’s a rough place. It’s like prison. And this place saved my life.”

Last fall, Negron came to Aspen to speak to the students of Aspen High School about that life and the dangers of drug use. Tonight, Friday, April 2, Negron returns to Aspen, this time to the Wheeler Opera House, where he will demonstrate the recovery of his singing career. The performance, with Negron backed by his six-piece band, is presented by Aspen High School’s HEROES class, and is a benefit for the school’s drug education programs.

Opening for Negron is Starwood, the reunited band that was a centerpiece of Aspen’s music scene in the mid-’70s. The reunited Starwood features four original members of the band – singer-guitarists Bobby Mason and Haden Gregg, bassist Bernie Mysior and saxophonist Bryan Savage. Rounding out the group will be drummer Sean Sunkel, keyboardist (and one-time Three Dog Night member) David Bluefield, saxophonist Chris Bank and percussionist Tudi Calderon. Bronx beginnings Chuck Negron grew up in the Bronx, the son of a single teen-age mother. He divided his own teen-age time between the subways and street corners, where he would sing doo-wop with his buddy Bobby Pittari, and the basketball courts, polishing the game that would earn him college scholarship offers. Despite the absence of a father and the time spent on the streets, it was not a life without guidance.

“We frowned on people who didn’t do well,” said Negron, whose first band, the Rondelles, got some local New York airplay with a recording of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” in 1958. “We frowned on the junkies.”

One of the Rondelles’ early gigs taught Negron a lesson he would find useful in later life: the power of music to change things. The all-white Rondelles earned a spot at Amateur Night at the legendary Apollo Theater, the center of music culture in predominantly black Harlem.

“Our managers were black and we had a soulful sound. But they were not happy to see us,” said Negron. “We were two middle-class white Jewish kids from the Bronx, and we were clueless. We came out on that stage and it was silent. They were like, `What the hell are you doing here?’ But the lesson I learned was that music transcends all barriers.”

It was basketball that got Negron a scholarship to Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif., just north of Santa Barbara. But it was music that would earn him stardom. During college, he began to record on local labels; by 1965, while still in college, he had signed with Columbia Records as Chuck Rondelle. Negron left school in his junior year to move to Los Angeles and pursue his singing career. But Columbia did not know quite what to do with Negron’s vocal-oriented music, so when Negron ran into two vocalists named Danny Hutton and Cory Wells, the three began looking for another deal together.

“We formed the band out of necessity,” said Negron. “We figured if we got three guys known in town as good singers, we’d get some attention.”

With their exceptional voices and a knack for finding standout material, getting attention was the easy part. By 1967, the band, led by the three singers, was together and gigging as Three Dog Night. The band’s first album, “One,” was released in 1968; in 1969, “One” became a No. 1 record.

And along with the music, the fame and the dollars, came drugs.

“Drugs were always there,” said Negron, who hadn’t tried drugs in college, but kicked off his drug experimenting with LSD. “When I got to L.A., everyone was doing stuff. Some people don’t get to walk away – they get addicted. I was one of them, and so were many of the guys in the band.”

As Three Dog Night’s music took them to the top of the charts, drugs were tearing them apart, individually and as a group. “We couldn’t function. It devastated us,” said Negron. “But drugs were part of that culture. We were productive, but it took our lives, our souls. Our wives left us, our families, our children.

“The only ones we were able to stay with was one another. But people eventually couldn’t work, even when we were riding high. Our careers kept going for a long time even after, but that was only because we were so talented.”

Negron and his mates were so strung out, they couldn’t even cash in on the bonus clause in their contract. Three Dog Night would get a million dollar bonus from their record company for getting an album out on time; all they had to do was deliver an album, and the money was theirs. “And we couldn’t even do that,” said Negron. “We couldn’t even hand them an album for a million dollars.” One more shot By the mid-’80s, the handouts Negron was looking for were far from the million dollars he was being offered 10 years earlier. The money was spent, the friends were gone, his health was shot. Oddly enough, even though his body was withered, his voice somehow survived. “I could hardly stand up, but my voice was always there,” said Negron. “It’s mind-boggling. I was alone, I was pathetic. But I was a young guy. I’m skin and bones, but I could sing.”

Perhaps even more mind-boggling is that someone would still stand by the junkie. Robin Silna was an attorney with whom Negron had worked. She not only let him stay with her – despite Negron’s occasional stealing from her to pay for his drugs – she also tried to put Negron to work. In the late ’80s, Silna set up a tour, the 35th Anniversary Rock and Roll Tour, featuring Spencer Davis, the Coasters, Negron and others. Negron’s health only permitted him to do a 20-minute set each night, but it was a way to earn some money. But Negron even blew that on dope.

Finally, in 1991, came the nine-month stay at Burbank’s Cri-Help – and the miraculous turnaround for Negron. Negron beat his addiction at Cri-Help; he has been sober for nearly eight years and reports no craving for drugs. He is married to Silna and together they have a 5-year-old daughter; Silna has parlayed the Three Dog Night catalogue into a good living.

And Negron is singing and recording again; it is the music as much as anything, said Negron, that has helped him open his eyes to life again. For several years, he has been touring as The Voice of Three Dog Night. In 1995, he released his first solo album, “Am I Still In Your Heart,” and he followed that with a Christmas album, appropriately titled “Joy to the World.”

Negron’s next album, “The Long Road Back,” is due for release in June and is designed as a soundtrack to his autobiographical book, “Three Dog Nightmare.” The book, due for publication next month and already in talks to be turned into a movie, is intended to be a cautionary tale about the potential danger of drug abuse. The topic is, obviously, one close to Negron. Unlike many celebrities recovering from substance abuse, Negron sees it as his calling to publicly share his story as an education or inspiration for others.

“I think it’s unthinkable that Jerry Garcia died in a detox and ’til the day he died, he was denying that it was drugs, that he had been a zombie for 10 years,” said Negron, who works with Cri-Help, and serves on the board of directors of the Musicians Assistance Program (MAP), an organization that aims to keep drugs out of the music industry. “He could have done something for all those Deadheads who had been following him all over.

“My story shows that anyone can make it back. These junkies know me, they know who I am. They see me as an inspiration, they know what I’ve been through. I believe that’s my mission; I believe that’s why I’m saved. This is what I’m supposed to do. If someone like me, at the top of the mountain, can be a homeless bum, anyone can go down.”


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