Rarely has a cover inverted every single thing about the original as much as Three Dog Night’s version of Mama Told Me Not To Come. Written by one of America’s greatest songwriters as an ironic commentary on LA’s hedonistic party scene, it was turned into one of the party anthems of the early 70s.
Randy Newman was a rising songwriter when he came up with this tale of a straight-laced stiff who has ended up at a dissolute soirée he can’t wait to get away from. Animals frontman Eric Burdon recorded it first, bellowing out an unmemorable version on his 1966 solo album Eric Is Here, before Newman himself laid down his own nervy, piano-centred take on it on 1970’s 12 Songs. But it was Three Dog Night – arguably the biggest early 70s band that nobody talks about any more – who made it their own when they recorded it the following year.
The LA-based outfit were already famous for two things: having three singers, and notching up hits with other people’s songs, among them Harry Nilsson’s One and Laura Nyro’s Eli’s Coming. Cory Wells, one of their vocalists, had heard Newman’s version of Mama Told Me Not To Come, and took it to his bandmates.
“And they kept turning it down, saying: ‘No, it’s not a hit, it’s not a hit,’” said Wells. “And it was.”
The key was to keep the original’s spindly musical skeleton, but pack on the muscle, turning it into an enthusiastically funky bar-room blast. Where Randy Newman sounded like he really was regretting coming to that party, Three Dog Night absolutely did not. If Newman’s original had its back pressed against the wall, nervously looking for the exit, Three Dog Night’s version had its pants around its ankles and was one toke away from diving head-first into the punch bowl.
When Newman sang: ‘I seen so many things I ain’t never seen before,” he meant it. When Wells sang it, he was practically rubbing his hands with glee. According to Wells, Newman was sniffy about these unsophisticated longhairs covering his song – until the royalties began rolling on.
Wells, who died in 2017, liked to tell a story of picking up the phone one day to find Newman on the other end: “He said: ‘I just want to thank you for putting my kids through college.’ Then he hung up.” It’s a cute story, although Newman denied that he made much money from the song. “I remember getting a cheque for six thousand dollars,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “I said: ‘Where’s the rest?’ They said: ‘Well, you know…’”
Covering someone else’s song isn’t a competition, but if it was then Three Dog Night definitely won this one. Their take on it gave them the first of their three US No.1s. It was their version that appeared on the soundtracks of Boogie Nights and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. And when Tom Jones bellowed his way through Mama Told Me Not To Come with the Stereophonics as his backing band on his 1999 cover, it wasn’t Randy Newman they were ripping off, it was Three Dog Night.