Recently while driving I heard the 1975 Ringo hit “No No Song” on WCBS-FM in New York. It made me think. This song proved to be Ringo’s last Top Ten hit in the U.S. when it peaked at number three in March 1975. Afterwards, Ringo had four other songs in the Top 40 between 1975 and 1981, but the highest position attained by any of the four was number 26.
Few people realize that this song was written by Hoyt Axton. A performer himself, Axton mostly wrote songs for other artists during his career. He wrote “Never Been to Spain” for Three Dog Night and “The Pusher” for Steppenwolf. However, Axton’s most successful song was “Joy to the World“, which topped the charts for six weeks in 1971 for Three Dog Night. Axton also wrote songs over the years for Joan Baez, Waylon Jennings, John Denver and Linda Ronstadt. However, it is safe to say that “Joy to the World” bankrolled his entire life afterwards.
Hoyt Axton must have had songwriting in his genetic pool. His mother, Mae Boren Axton, co-wrote a song that made a young performer famous. Her most famous song was “Heartbreak Hotel” and it became the first major hit for a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Aaron Presley. Ironically, Hoyt Axton, who also wrote and recorded his own country albums and died at age 61 in 1991, was part of an ironic cycle of hit songs for Three Dog Night that were written by someone with a famous relative in music or the arts. Let’s have a look….
1. “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)”, Three Dog Night’s first number one song was written by Randy Newman. It stayed on top for two weeks in July 1970. Randy Newman is the nephew of the famed composers Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman; all three worked on film scores in Hollywood. Alfred Newman won nine Academy Awards, more than any other composer in Oscar history. Emil Newman worked on over 200 films and tv shows, earning an Oscar nomination in 1941 for Sun Valley Serenade. Lionel Newman’s career with Twentieth-Century Fox spanned 46 years and 200 movies; he also wrote several classic TV themes, such as Dobie Gillis and Daniel Boone. Since the 1980’s, Randy Newman has concentrated primarily on writing film scores (maybe … it’s in the genes!). “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” was the number one song on the very first edition of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on the weekend of July 4, 1970. It has been used in many movie soundtracks such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Boogie Nights.
2. “Joy to the World” was Three Dog Night’s second number one hit, topping the charts for six weeks in April and May 1971. It was written by Hoyt Axton, the son of famed songwriter Mae Boren Axton, who was known as “The Queen Mother of Nashville”. Mae Boren Axton’s most famous credit is co-writing the hit “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley. Her list of songs is staggering and another one of her claims to fame is having introduced a very young Elvis Presley to Colonel Tom Parker. “Joy to the World” has been used in many movie soundtracks, most notably in The Big Chill and Forrest Gump.
3. “Black and White” was the third and final number one hit for Three Dog Night, reaching the top slot for one week in September 1972. The song was co-written by David Arkin and Earl Robinson in 1955 as a civil rights song. It was recorded by several artists over the years but none were successful until Three Dog Night’s rendition. David Arkin was the father of actor Alan Arkin and the grandfather of actor Adam Arkin. Alan Arkin twice received Oscar nominations for Best Actor, the first for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and the second for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the 2012 film Argo; Alan Arkin won his first and only Oscar for the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine for Best Supporting Actor. Adam Arkin has appeared on many television series and has received numerous nominations in his career, such a Tony nomination and three primetime Emmys.
4. “The Family of Man” reached # 12 in 1972. It was written by famed songwriter Paul Williams and his writing partner Roger Nichols, the team that also wrote the songs “An Old Fashioned Love Song” and “Out in the Country” for Three Dog Night. Paul Williams and Roger Nichols wrote many hits in the 1970’s, including the classic Carpenters’ hits “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays“. On his own, Williams wrote “Evergreen“, the number one hit by Barbara Streisand from the 1976 movie A Star is Born; “Evergreen” won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in addition to the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Paul Williams is the brother of the late John Williams, a well-known rocket scientist for NASA, as well as Mentor Williams. Mentor Williams is a songwriter who although not as prolific as his brother, has written hit songs. Mentor Williams’ most famous song is “Drift Away”, the legendary 1973 hit for Dobie Gray which resurfaced as a major hit for Uncle Kracker in 2004. Mentor is married to Lynn Anderson, whose biggest hit was “Rose Garden”, a song which successfully used 23 cliches to top the country charts in 1970 and stall at # 3 on the Top 40 in 1970.
5. “Eli’s Comin”, written by Laura Nyro, was an early Three Dog Night hit that reached # 10 in 1969. To say that Nyro is a famed songwriter is an understatement. She wrote many hits such as “Wedding Bell Blues” by The 5th Dimension, “Stoney End” by Barbra Stresiand, “And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Stoned Soul Picnic” by The 5th Dimension, and a slew of others. Laura Nyro is the niece of famous artists Theresa Bernstein and William Meyerowitz. Highly revered in the art world for her paintings, Bernstein’s career spanned many decades as she died at age 112!
May it be noted that Three Dog Night recorded a song that did not crack the Top 40 that had been written by someone with a famous family member. The song was written by Reggie Dwight, whose cousin Roy Dwight was a British soccer star that could have been considered almost a David Beckham figure of his generation. Reggie Dwight, who changed his name to Elton John in 1968 at age 21, wrote “Your Song” with writing partner Bernie Taupin, which was covered by Three Dog Night on their fourth album It Ain’t Easy in 1970. Roy Dwight was a soccer star when Reggie Dwight was a youngster who loved soccer. People would give him a hard time and say things like “Your last name is Dwight and you’re Roy Dwight’s cousin and you’re terrible at football!”, etc. Young Reggie was unable to pursue his love of soccer in anonymity because of his cousin, a national hero who starred for teams like Fulham and Nottingham Forest. It is safe to say that the former Reggie Dwight resolved this conflict by purchasing his lifelong favorite team, Watford F.C., in 1976.