Thursday, March 17, 2011

412 Broadway, San Francisco, CA, Mr. D's, November 7-8, 1969: Three Dog Night/Hoyt Axton

(a San Francisco Chronicle ad from November 2, 1969, advertising Three Dog Night at Mr. D's, located at 412 Broadway)

When Historians look backwards, it is easy to make the path of history seem simple and inevitable, with a series of discrete events leading to a self-evident conclusion. This effect remains in force whether you look at Medieval Europe, 19th Century Railroads or 60s Rock. However, a closer look at the facts on the ground as they really happened always shows an uneven trail of dead ends and roads not taken. At the same time, the seeds of future result can be seen long before any fruit has ripened.

By November,  1969, Three Dog Night was a hugely successful band by any standard. They had just released a live album, following up on their two successful studio albums. They also had tremendously successful hit singles climbing the charts. What were they doing playing a supper club on Broadway in San Francisco, just down the street from Carol Doda at the Condor, and all the other topless clubs? Why weren't they headlining the Fillmore West, like every other hot band, or else the Berkeley Community Theater or some other venue? The weekend at Mr. D's was Three Dog Night's first headlining performance in the Bay Area, and it seemed to fly in the fact of rock orthodoxy.

Since the band's engagement at Mr. D's has seemingly been lost to rock history up until now, and I can find no other information about it besides promotion for the event, I will consider what facts I do know about the band, the venue and the rock market at the time in the hopes of finding a convincing hypothesis. Hopefully some long dormant memories of the Three Dog Night engagement at Mr. D's will be resurrected. Anyone with information, informed speculation or just a clever idea is encouraged to share them in the Comments.

Three Dog Night
Three Dog Night had initially formed in Hollywood in 1967, under the name Redwood, but became a real going concern in 1968. Although the band had a contemporary rock sound, they had a number of features that made them different than their peers. First of all, the group had three excellent lead vocalists, rather than one, and had sophisticated vocal arrangements in the style of Motown or Stax, albeit in a rock rather than a soul context. Secondly, the majority of Three Dog Night's albums featured newly arranged cover versions of contemporary rock songs, few or none of which were commissioned by the group. Three Dog Night keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon (in his fascinating autobiography One Is The Loneliest Number) cites Vanilla Fudge's dramatic re-arrangement of The Supremes "You Keep Me Hangin' On" as an inspiration.

Three Dog Night's musical discipline and cover material was in distinct contrast to the self-contained self expression of 60s rock, particularly the kind coming out of San Francisco. This did not make Three Dog Night popular with Rolling Stone magazine and its readers. Nonetheless, the band had a fantastic ear for hearing good songs and giving them a "heavy" rock treatment that worked well both on the radio and the home stereo. The majority of Three Dog Night's fans had not heard the originals anyway, as they were plucked off very obscure records, so it all sounded new to them. Time has been fairly kind to Three Dog Night--songs like "Eli's Coming" and "Liar" hold up fairly well when compared to a lot of psychedelic odes to self expression recorded in the late 60s and early 70s, and the band's contributions to their hits makes it clear that songwriting is only one piece of a hit record.

Three Dog Night's self-titled debut album on ABC-Dunhill was released in October 1968. The single "One" (a Harry Nillson song) did not hit until mid-1969. "One" peaked at #5 on the Billboard magazine charts, while the album peaked at #11. Three Dog Night's follow up album Suitable For Framing was released in June 1969 (ultimately reaching #16). By November, it had spawned two giant hits, "Easy To Be Hard"(peaking at #4) and "Eli's Coming" (#10) A third hit, "Celebrate" (#15), would climb the charts in early 1970. For some reason, ABC-Dunhill also released a live album, Captured Live At The Forum. Recorded on July 14, 1969, when Three Dog Night opened for Steppenwolf, the album recapped the most popular songs of the first two albums. It too was a huge hit, reaching #6.

Three Dog Night Live In The Bay Area 1968
San Francisco and London in the 1960s were the twin Capitals of rock music. While rock music in America was financed and produced primarily in New York and Los Angeles, the San Francisco model of rock concerts and FM radio transformed the music industry. As a result, American record companies often looked to San Francisco for credibility and innovation. This wasn't just habit: for some years after the first wave of bands came out of the Fillmore and the Avalon, a slew of innovative and popular bands came out of the Bay Area, like Sly and The Family Stone, Santana, Tower of Power, The Doobie Brothers and The Tubes, to name a few. For a new band, establishing itself in the Bay Area was one sure way to attract attention and confer credibility.

August 10, 1968: Continental Ballroom, Santa Clara, CA: Country Joe And The Fish/Eternity's Children/Three Dog Night/Weird Herald
Three Dog Night made their Bay Area debut at the Continental Ballroom just outside of San Jose. The Continental was the San Jose area's main psychedelic venue (it was located at 1600 Martin Avenue in nearby Santa Clara), but it was never associated with one promoter. As a result, it has less of an historic profile than the Fillmore or the Avalon, but all the heavy San Francisco bands played there. I do not know anything about this show other than the fact that it happened. All the members of Three Dog Night were very experienced performers by this time, but since it was still two months prior to their debut album, the crowd would have had no predisposition towards them one way or the other.

It would be very interesting to find out how Three Dog Night went over at this show (or anything else about it). Weird Herald had a tremendous reputation as a live band, but they were in the hard rocking psychedelic San Jose school of music (in which The Chocolate Watch Band ruled supreme). Country Joe and The Fish were a way more disciplined band than people realized at the time, but they were a prototype Fillmore band themselves. I know nothing about Eternity's Chidren. There's no telling how long or short Three Dog Night's set was, or what the sound was like, much less how they went over to a crowd of San Jose hippies.

San Mateo Times, Dec 20, 1968 ad
December 26,1968: Cow Palace, Daly City, CA: “Holiday Rock Festival”
Steppenwolf/Canned Heat/Santana/New Buffalo Springfield/Three Dog Night/Spencer Davis Group/Blue Cheer/The Electric Prunes/Flaming Groovies/Tender Loving Care
This KYA (1260am) sponsored event seems to have been an attempt to cash in on the model of the Monterey Pop Festival. I'm not sure if all the acts even played, and in any case they must have played short sets. Three Dog Night shared management with Steppenwolf, so that accounts for the booking. It's worth noting, however, that Three Dog Night's management has booked them at a Top 40 radio event rather than third on the bill at Fillmore West. Since the band shared management with Steppenwolf, they would not have lacked access to Fillmore West if they had desired it.

History has made the December 1968 "Holiday Rock Festival" look different than it really was. Steppenwolf and Canned Heat were the big headliners, as Three Dog Night had not had a hit yet. Santana was a popular live attraction at the Fillmore West and elsewhere, but they were some time away from recording their debut album (it was released in August 1969). The Spencer Davis Group, featuring Eddie Hardin, was a pretty good live band, but Stevie Winwood had left for Traffic two years earlier. The crowd was apparently fairly unhappy to find out that the New Buffalo Springfield only had drummer Dewey Martin from the old group, and that Steve Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay were not part of the band. Richie Furay was playing with Poco at Fillmore West that weekend, and when he heard about the band, lawyers forced Martin to change the band's name to New Buffalo.

Blue Cheer were a true Fillmore psychedelic band, but if they in fact played, I can't imagine how the suburban crowd would have reacted to guitarist Randy Holden's sonic attack. This would have been near the end of Holden's brief tenure with Blue Cheer.

(a San Francisco Chronicle ad for Martha and The Vandella's at Mr. D's, from January 5, 1969)

Mr. D's, 412 Broadway, San Francisco, CA
Broadway in San Francisco was the City's entertainment district. It abutted bohemian North Beach, which provided the City's culture--Italian food, espresso and Beat Poetry, while Broadway provided bright lights, booze and jazz. The San Francisco jazz scene in the 1950s wasn't really lucrative, but its proximity to Los Angeles made it a great incubator for talent, and the same was true of folk music at the time. Success in San Francisco at the hungry i or other clubs was often a ticket to much larger success in the 50s and early 60s. Broadway in San Francisco, along with Jack London Square in Oakland and the El Camino Real in the South Bay, was part of the circuit of entertainment that played the lounges of Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe.

Broadway changed in the early 60s when topless dancing became the principal form of entertainment. This is worthy of a blog in itself (not written by me), but it had a profound effect on San Francisco music. For one thing, topless clubs were not perceived like strip clubs are today, and indeed shared almost nothing in common with them (save the obvious). Topless clubs were racy, but sort of respectable, like seeing an R-rated movie today. While they featured women without tops (duh), they also usually had music, comedy, dancing and other kinds of performances.

The big change for San Francisco musicians was that Broadway club owners abruptly lost interest in paying for quality music. The clubs needed bands, but mainly just to keep the beat. While rock groups that were new in town found a nightly gig at a topless club a convenient way to pay the bills, no agent was going to discover them there. The rise of the topless phenomenon in the mid-60s forced all the rock musicians to play the Fillmore and the Avalon, since there were no other well paying bookings on Broadway anymore.

While Broadway's time as San Francisco's first stop in entertainment was passing, that wasn't so obvious at that moment. I'm not sure who "Mr D" was, but the club opened around late 1968, replacing a topless club called The Moulin Rouge. Mr. D's was a supper club, offering dinner, drinks and two shows a night. They shared headliners with Reno and Tahoe. Motown acts were booked regularly, like Marvin Gaye, The Temptations or Martha And The Vandellas (above), and they typically played a week long engagement. Because it was a restaurant, minors were welcome, but that was aimed more at groups of people (who might include the occasional minor) rather than teenagers per se, since it was too expensive for kids.

After a year of booking Vegas-style acts like Tony Bennett and Motown, I have to assume that Mr. D's started to see the writing on the wall. Up until the Three Dog Night show on November 7, 1969, I know of no rock act booked at Mr. D's. However, Mr. D's was booking headliners like Marvin Gaye, so their financial terms must have been reasonable. Three Dog Night was riding its third straight hit single of the year, and the band knew its way around the stage. Thus it's plain that Mr. D's was trying to hook a new audience with a popular band, and that Three Dog Night must have had various options for performing in San Francisco, and their booking agent must have consciously chosen Mr. D's. A few years later, intimate clubs for rising rock bands were par for the course, exemplified by The Bottom Line in Manhattan or The Roxy in Los Angeles, but no one was ready for it in 1969.

Three Dog Night at Mr. D's, Friday November 7 and Saturday November 8, 1969
At this point I am left with only speculation. Anyone with real insight or knowledge is urged to chime in via the Comments. Nonetheless, the evidence points to certain facts.

  • Three Dog Night had not played San Francisco since the end of 1968
  • Three Dog Night's music style and willingness to cover contemporary rock songs was different than other bands
  • Three Dog Night never played The Fillmore West

Three Dog Night had become very successful in 1969 by following a path that no other band was taking. It did not make them popular with Rolling Stone magazine, but the market was now big enough that there was room for other ways to make it as a rock band. Three Dog Night's management must have wanted the band to headline an engagement in San Francisco, rather than share billing at the Fillmore West. I think Mr. D's was pretty desperate to get in on the rock market, and made a pretty good offer for Three Dog Night. Since Three Dog Night had defied sixties rock protocol so far, skipping Fillmore West to headline a Broadway club would have been par for the course.

However, I think the show was a financial disaster. The show was mentioned in Ralph Gleason's Chronicle column on Friday night (above), but it was never reviewed to my knowledge. Mr. D's booked a few lesser rock acts for the balance of the year, and then closed. Broadway had gone from an entertainment district to a (sort of) red-light district, and there was no place for supper clubs. I think the teenagers who wanted to see Three Dog Night would not have been allowed to go to Broadway by their parents, and the adults who wanted to see them would have found it difficult to park.

I have never found any reference to Mr D's other than ads in the Chronicle, much less Three Dog Night's performance there, and thus it remains a mystery. One enduring curiosity, however, is the fact that Hoyt Axton seems to have opened for them. I don't know if this is where he met the band--probably not--but hanging around together during a disastrous weekend engagement is one way that musicians become friends, so I can't help but think the band gave a good listen Hoyt's songs, even if they didn't strike gold with them until later (as they would with "Joy To The World" and "Never Been To Spain").

Three Dog Night had numerous successful singles and albums up through the mid-1970s. Relative to their massive success, however, they were never big in San Francisco. Perhaps they were so successful elsewhere that they never needed to try, but given the few, odd performances that Three Dog Night had in the Bay Area in the 1960s, it probably wasn't a complete coincidence. After many ups and downs, the band broke up and reformed various times, but as of today Three Dog Night are still going strong.

412 Broadway mostly remained a nightclub, as it does today, even though it changed names and formats. Briefly, its history seems to be