The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World”

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 – “Joy To The World”

HIT #1: April 17, 1971

STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks

Among the dwindling tribe of poor souls who insist on taking Saturday Night Live seriously, the final sketch of every episode has always held a certain mystique. Traditionally, the SNL writers use the show’s last 10 minutes to try something goofy and surreal, something that will leave sleepy people rubbing their eyes on their couches and wondering if they hallucinated what they just saw. More often than not, these final sketches are unbearable. But there have been moments when those sketches have taken on their own strange life. Sometimes, they even overshadow the more carefully planned-out things that came before. That’s pretty much happened with “Joy To The World.”

“Joy To The World” came from Hoyt Axton, a country singer-songwriter from Oklahoma whose mother Mae had co-written “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley in 1955. But Axton never got around to finishing writing “Joy To The World.” He had a melody, and he had a chorus, but he didn’t have any verses. Legend has it that Axton tried to use “Jeremiah was a prophet” as the opening line but that everyone immediately realized it sucked. So instead, Axton, trying to demonstrate the melody he’d written, just put in some nonsense placeholder lyrics: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine.” Axton wanted to rewrite those lyrics, but before he did, Three Dog Night went ahead and recorded the song with Axton’s near-gibberish temporary words intact.

Three Dog Night didn’t think they had a hit on their hands. Two of the group’s three lead singers, Danny Hutton and Cory Wells, rejected the song. (Hutton had a background in actual cartoon music, writing songs for Hanna-Barbera before Three Dog Night came together, but maybe “Joy To The World” was too goofy even for him.) But Chuck Negron, the third Three Dog Night singer, liked the idea of using the song to bring the band together.

The group tacked “Joy To The World” onto the end of their 1970 LP Naturally; it’s the last song on the album. As the single, they picked the forgettable “One Man Band,” which peaked at #19. But then a Seattle FM-radio DJ started playing “Joy To The World,” and the song started out there and spread to the rest of the country. In the end, “Joy To The World” turned out to be Billboard’s #1 single of 1971. Lots of people wanted to be friends with bullfrogs, apparently.

Considering that they never expected anything to happen with “Joy To The World,” maybe it’s admirable that Three Dog Night completely committed to the song. Negron, in particular, completely throws himself into it, rasping and howling and wailing out ad-libs. This was the right approach. If Negron had sung the song with even a the tiniest trace of wink, if he’d acted like he was in any way above it, “Joy To The World” would’ve been a total flatline. As it is, it’s a rousing and memorable bit of business.

But it’s also so stupid. The silliness isn’t the problem. Three Dog Night were good at silliness. “Mama Told Me (Not To Come),” the group’s previous #1, was a silly song. But “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” was also slyly hedonistic, and it had a monster groove working for it. “Joy To The World,” by contrast, is a pedestrian white-soul plod, and its lyrics are vague and meaningless enough that people still try to project religious significance on them. It’s a more cartoonish song than “Sugar, Sugar,” a song credited to actual cartoon characters. And it’s nowhere near as good, either.

“Joy To The World” has an irrepressible sense of fun that makes it hard to hate. But it’s more of a rote wheel-spin than a song — good enough for album filler, nowhere near good enough to block “What’s Going On” from getting to #1. And yet that’s what it did.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment from a 1997 X-Files episode where Scully lulls Mulder to sleep by singing “Joy To The World”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2003 Friends episode where Chandler sings “Joy To The World” at a piano bar:

THE NUMBER TWOS: The Jackson 5’s silky lament “Never Can Say Goodbye” peaked at #2 behind “Joy To The World.” It’s an 8.