Pilgrimage III: The Ballad of Emil Lewandowski

For those of you waiting for the final post in my "Pilgrimage" series, I apologize for the long delay. This one is rather late in coming, but it's clearly time.

Aside from his immediate family and, apparently, readers of the outdoor magazines in which his occasional fishing articles appeared, the world knows little of Emil Lewandowski, a Buffalo native who passed away in nearby Dunkirk, NY last week at the age of 74. But for those of us who came of age in the early '70s, Emil was a Top 40 titan whose soulful voice graced such hits as "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)," "Shambala" and "Let Me Serenade You." We knew him, of course, as Cory Wells of Three Dog Night.

Panned as a lightweight pop act who didn't write their own songs, 3DN sounded like manna from heaven to my boyhood ears. Here were three amazingly gifted lead singers backed by stellar musicians playing first-rate material. In my estimation Cory, Chuck Negron and Danny Hutton, the band's co-lead vocalists, were to the human voice what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar. Period. The Vocal Group Hall of Fame, at least, agrees. As for the lightweight part, have a listen to Captured Live at the Forum and tell me this band—as evidenced especially by Michael Allsup's shred-o-rama guitar—doesn't tear the roof off the place. Cory's showcase on that record, Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," is simply a tour de force, and don't get me started on the percussive genius that is Floyd Sneed. The guy drums with both ends of his sticks; maybe that's why he sounds like he has eight arms and six feet.

In the late summer of 2012, I heard that Three Dog Night was playing Buffalo, Kleinhans Music Hall to be precise, and they'd be backed by the Buffalo Philharmonic. Something told me this might be my only chance to hear my boyhood idols in concert, and the orchestral angle made it a must-see. Things were tight at the time, but I scraped enough together for the ticket, return bus fare and a one-night stay at the Hampton Inn, and on a chilly Friday night in October, there I was: last row, main floor, slightly right of centre.

Now, the band I saw was arguably Two Dog Night—Chuck having fallen out with his bandmates some years back—but especially in light of Cory's passing, I feel fortunate to have seen even that. Floyd and bassist Joe Schermie were also missing; Joe because he'd died some years back, Floyd for unknown reasons. Michael and since-deceased keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon were in attendance, so that made four of the original seven members. And somehow, between Danny, Cory and bassist Paul Kingery, they managed to cover all Chuck's parts. That alone was quite impressive.

"The use of cameras and recording devices is strictly prohibited," warned the program. Nevertheless, your intrepid Mark Martian sneaked in a tiny device and fought the good fight. But the sheer volume of band and orchestra overwhelmed my mp3 player's built-in mic, and the 2/3 of the show I did record before the battery died is muddy, distorted and unlistenable. (I've kept it in case I someday encounter an audio restoration guru.)

I'd describe the show as workmanlike—well played but not transcendent—and predictably hit-heavy. (My fawning over Captured Live at the Forum aside, 3DN were never an album-oriented band.) After "The Family of Man," the evening's first song, Cory mentioned to rapturous applause that this was his homecoming and the band's first Kleinhans show since 1970. And to my surprise, Cory played rhythm guitar on several songs: decently, too (it definitely wasn't a prop). As for the orchestra, for the most part they were hard to pick out of the mix, though the horn section shone in "Celebrate" and "Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)."

Song I Wish Had Been Played: "Eli's Coming." Runner-up: "It's for You."

Bonus Points For: Cory's neon purple tie.

Mark Mars Moment: Well, this singles act played one song so obscure even your friendly neighbourhood Mark Martian had never heard it: "You Can Leave Your Hat On," a Randy Newman-penned album cut from 1975. Cory did a great job on it, but it's really not my kind of burlesque-style R&B.

Despite the preponderance of grey hair in the crowd, it struck me during "Joy to the World" that this is essentially thinking man's children's music. You see, it wasn't me singing along as Cory made these Vegas-like wave gestures over the "joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea" line; it was that nine-year-old whose dad brought home that record, my first-ever 45, in the summer of 1971. And in that little boy's world, Chuck, Danny and Cory were giants.

As a youngster I had a special fondness for Cory, who brought a gritty, bluesy edge to the band. And as it turns out, he and I have something rather profound in common as well, a quality that's quite rare in the music biz. From the Buffalo News obituary: "'My father never, ever took drugs, and he hated alcohol,' [daughter Dawn] Cussins said. 'He was totally against any of his songs being used in beer advertisements because he never wanted to encourage kids to drink.'"

Amen to that, and thanks for the music, Cory Wells. Along with your compatriots, you are the reason I'm a singer/songwriter today. Blessings and gratitude to you. Condolences to your family and fans.

As a tribute to Cory, I've worked up a version of "The Family of Man" that I'll debut this afternoon (Sunday, October 25, 3:00 p.m.) at the Lazy Cat Café. If you're in the area, please stop by and say hello.

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Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
All pages and contents © 2017-2019 Vern Nicholson.