One is the loneliest song that you’ll ever do. The fascinating tale behind a Harry Nilsson song that was reinterpreted to perfection by Three Dog Night singer Chuck Negron.
“One”: Harry Nilsson’s Busy-tone Inspired Tune Hits for Three Dog Night
Artists can find inspiration for a song from very unlikely sources and experiences. The mercurial Harry Nilsson turned the sound of a busy signal he heard on his phone receiver into a song he titled “One”.
Nilsson wrote the song after he called someone on the telephone and received a busy signal. He stayed on the line listening to the repetitive “beep, beep, beep” indicating that the phone line he was calling was already in use. The tones of the busy signal would later be replicated as the opening notes of “One” followed by the memorable opening verse “one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”
Nilsson, naturally, recorded the first version of “One”. He included it on his third studio album Aerial Ballet. Harry’s version of his composition was slow and depressing. It was released as a single from the album in 1968 but got no love from radio and stiffed. The song would be resurrected by the band Three Dog Night, who developed a formula for finding tunes from prolific songwriters that underperformed in their original form and re-arranging them into hits. It was a brilliant strategy that helped Three Dog Night produce 21 Top 40 hits, including three #1 singles.
Three Dog Night’s Upbeat “One”
It was record executive Chuck Kaye who first made Three Dog Night’s Chuck Negron aware of the Nilsson version of “One.” Chuck liked the song and could hear its potential with some modifications. He played Nilsson’s version for his bandmates, but they found it “too down”. Chuck believed that if the key of the song was lifted to an ‘F minor’ note, it would be in the “heart and soul” of his natural singing range, and they could turn it into a more up-tempo version that would make it a radio hit.
“One” was the first of seven singles that surpassed gold status for Three Dog Night peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America, and #4 in Canada in 1969.
All three principal members of Three Dog Night (Chuck Negron, Cory Wells, and Danny Hutton) took their turn at singing lead vocals on the group’s songs. Chuck masterfully performed the lead on “One”, as he did on the band’s follow-up hit “Easy to be Hard”, which ascended even higher than its predecessor at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S.
There were no outside musicians used as hired guns for the Three Dog Night recording of “One.”. The production was performed entirely in the studio by Three Dog Night’s backing players- Jimmy Greenspoon on organ, Joe Shermie on bass, Mike Allsup on guitars, and Floyd Sneed on drums. Chuck gives the foursome tremendous props for “making the song (“One”) come alive,” essentially recreating the tune from the dreariness of the original Nilsson recording.
“One”: Pop Culture Staple
Al Kooper, who is best known for organizing the group Blood Sweat and Tears, recorded a version of Nilsson’s “One” in 1968. Australian teen pop idol Johnny Farnham released a cover of the tune in 1969 that went to #4 on the Go-Set National Top 40 chart in his native country. Go-Set is the Australian equivalent to Billboard Magazine in the U.S.
Aimee Mann recorded her rendering of the song in 1995 for the Harry Nilsson tribute album For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson. Aimee’s version was used for a critical segment of the 1999 film Magnolia and was included in the movie’s soundtrack.
Hard rock bands Dokken, Mastodon, and Filter have reworked the song giving it even more sonic edge than Three Dog Night’s hit version. Filter’s cover was used in the soundtrack for the movie The X Files: Fight the Future in 1998.
The thematic versatility and relatability of “One” have led to its frequent use in pop culture. The song has been featured in TV sitcoms, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Everybody Loves Raymond, Family Guy, The Simpsons, and The Drew Carey Show, and has been used in many TV advertisements.
Harry Nilsson: Award Winning Icon
Nilsson was revered by his peers. When the Beatles were asked at a press conference in the late 60s who their favorite American band was, they answered “Nilsson.” Harry was nominated five times for a Grammy Award, winning twice- the first in 1970 for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male for the track “Everybody’s Talkin”, and for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1970 for his interpretation of the Peter Ham/ Tom Evans classic “Without You.”