The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Three Dog Night – “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)”

HIT #1: July 11, 1970

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

There’s a case to be made that Randy Newman is the greatest ironist in the history of American pop music, a form of music not exactly known for its irony. For decades, Newman has taken acidic delight in writing perfectly ridiculous things from the perspectives of other people. He’s a cult figure who is somehow synonymous with both bemused misanthropy and with Pixar. As a solo artist, Newman’s biggest hit, “Short People,” is a good-natured polemic about how “short people got no reason to live,” a message that still resonates in our troubled times. (It peaked at #2 in 1977. It’s a 7.) As a songwriter, Newman’s one #1 hit, appropriately enough, is a party song about being afraid to party.

Newman was a pop songwriter before he was a recording artist; he started writing songs for other musicians in 1962, when he was still a teenager. He wrote “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” for the former Animals singer Eric Burdon in 1966. As he did so often, Newman was taking on a character. The song’s narrator is a buttoned-up square who finds himself at a stoner party and turns into a terrified scold: “That cigarette you’re smoking’s about to scare me half to death / Open up the window, let me catch my breath!”

Newman later said that he was reflecting on his own experiences as a kid who was new to the drug scene, and while he never mentions actual drugs in the lyrics, they’re heavily implied. (That’s not perfume he’s smelling.) The whole experience had to be pretty common in 1966, when drug culture was just starting to go mainstream. Burdon’s version of the song is nothing special, but his mere presence on it makes the joke better. Burdon was, after all, the singer of one of our darkest and most depraved #1 hits, and here he was, two years later, singing about how he wants the lights to stay off because he doesn’t want to see any more crazy things.

Newman recorded his own version of “Mama Told Me” for his 1970 album 12 Songs, but that’s obviously not the one that hit. Instead, that came when Three Dog Night got ahold of the song. Three Dog Night were a curious beast: A hitmaking LA white-soul band with three different lead singers who didn’t write their own songs and who instead adapted songs from great and often unheralded songwriters. In 1969 alone, they scored top-10 hits with songs from Harry Nilsson (“One,” peaked at #5, an 8) and Laura Nyro (“Eli’s Coming,” peaked at #10, a 7), as well as the Hair soundtrack (“Easy To Be Hard,” peaked at #4, a 5).

For “Mama Told Me (Not To Come),” the lead singer was Cory Wells, a Buffalo native who’d come from tough circumstances, spent time in the Air Force, and then kicked around the Whiskey A Go-Go scene in LA before Three Dog Night came together. Of the group’s three singers, he was both the rawest and the silliest. He loved Newman’s song and pushed for the group to record it, and he knew exactly what to do with it, transforming this ironic anti-partying freakout into something that demanded to be played at a party.

Wells attacks the song with a ridiculous gusto, doing a cartoonish exaggeration of Newman’s already-goofy delivery. And the band anchors it to a serious groove, adding in a rumbling Wurlitzer riff and some spikily funky guitar work, drawing on the psychedelic soul music that was blowing minds at the time. The other two singers in the group take the song’s chorus and turn it into a hook, belting it out with an urgent sense of fun. And they vamp in it for longer than Burdon or Newman did. By the time the song is over, it’s possible to imagine that the narrator has shaken off his hang-ups, that he’s shrugged and joined the party, just as so many other people had learned to do by 1970.

At first, Newman didn’t like the idea of a zero-gravitas pop group like Three Dog Night covering his song. He changed his tune soon enough, especially when after the song hit. Later on, Wells said that Newman had called him and said, “I just want to thank you for putting my kids through college.” But Three Dog Night’s version of “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” didn’t just get Randy Newman paid. The group also took Newman’s sly, silly little joke of a song and turned it into an all-time banger.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1997’s Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild bond at a pool party while “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” plays in the background:

(This column will get around to Mark Wahlberg eventually, and that will be such a sweet sensation.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tom Jones and the Stereophonics’ video for their 2000 cover of “Mama Told Me (Not To Come),” a #4 hit in the UK:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Yo La Tengo covering “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” on 2006’s Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics, forgetting the second verse, and just using the lyrics from “One” instead:

THE 10S: The Five Stairsteps’ dazed, incandescent soul reverie “O-o-h Child” peaked at #8 behind “Mama Told Me (Not To Come).” It’s a 10.