In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Three Dog Night- “Joy To The World”
HIT #1: April 17, 1971
STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks
As I mentioned in my review of the Apple TV series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, the filmmakers constantly make the case of how 1971 was a year when music served an importance to society. It was a year when artists were making music responding to the tumultuous social and political situations of the time. But what the series doesn’t mention is that 1971’s biggest single, according to Billboard, was a proudly goofy AM radio singalong about being friends with a bullfrog named Jeremiah that happened to block Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” from #1. Chart history can be funny sometimes.
Equally more funny is that until it broke out, “Joy To The World” wasn’t intended as a big hit single. The song came from the Oklahoma-born country musician and songwriter Hoyt Axton whose mother Mae co-wrote Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” a pre-Hot 100 #1 hit in 1956. Axton originally wrote “Joy To The World” for a TV animated special called The Happy Song but it was quickly shelved before production could begin. Despite the setback, Axton kept the song with much of it already written waiting for the right moment.
That moment came about when he toured as an opening act for the ascendent pop group Three Dog Night who just scored their first #1 in 1970 with the Randy Newman written “Mama Told Me (Not To Come).” When the group was finishing recording on their latest album Naturally, Axton came into the studio to play “Joy To The World” for them to include on the album. The song was a hard sell to the band members with two of the three lead singers, Danny Hutton and Cory Wells, outright dismissing the song but the third singer Chuck Negron liked it deciding to sing the song figuring it’d be a perfect way to bring the band together. Even then, the song was recorded as an afterthought recording it only because their new album needed one more track to fulfill its track requirement and was tacked on as the last song on the album.
When Naturally was released in November 1970, Three Dog Night put out “One Man Band” as its lead single and it did moderately well on the charts peaking at #19 but it was a far cry from the big hit singles they had generated to that point. “Joy To The World” was thought of as nothing more than a silly little album cut but a Seattle radio DJ named Larry Bergman gave the song the boost it needed. Part of Bergman’s job involved playing deep cuts from artists and one day came across “Joy To The World” and played it on air. This led to lots of listeners calling in to request it which led the song to spread to other stations eventually getting its own single release culminating in its six-week run at #1 in the spring of 1971.
If you’ve paid attention to the lyrics of “Joy To The World,” you’ll notice they don’t make a whole lot of sense. That wasn’t an accident. Axton had the melody and chorus written but was having trouble writing lyrics for the verses. The famed opening line was initially going to be “Jeremiah was a prophet” but no one liked that so Axton came up with “bullfrog” instead of “prophet” and wrote the rest of the verses as placeholders for something else but Three Dog Night recorded it before he could change it, “Jeremiah was an expedient of the time. I had the chorus for three months. I took a drink of wine, leaned on the speaker, and said ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ It was meaningless. It was a temporary lyric. Before I could rewrite it, they cut it and it was a hit.” The verses were written as a way to serve the melody which is the same style that master producer Max Martin uses in his songwriting.
So “Joy To The World” is nothing but gibberish but a good kind of gibberish. Whether it’s because they recorded it without much thought of it being a hit, Three Dog Night and singer Check Negron treat the song as nothing but a silly jam. Negron delivers his lines with a full force silliness letting you know he’s not taking the song all that seriously singing about helping Jeremiah drink his wine, what he’d do if he was king of the world, to describing himself as a high night flier, a rainbow rider, and a straight-shooting son of a gun. He may not know what all of it means but he makes it all sound cool. But outside of that opening line, it’s really the chorus that makes the song where the whole band sings it again and again like a sports game rallying cry after the third verse with lots of silly ad-libs.
Musically, “Joy To The World” is anchored by an elementary kind of melody; the type you hear and instantly sounds familiar like it has always existed. The music is handled by a Fender Rhodes, some funky drumming, and stabs of guitar as well as a quick solo that’s over before you can even make it out. There’s also a sudden temporary key change towards the end perhaps to add some liveliness to the repetitiveness of the song. It all adds up to a fun little singalong. It’s a slight song- the chorus repeats for too long- but when it comes on it’s hard not to get into it and wish joy to the world and all the boys and girls.
The massive success of “Joy To The World” gave Three Dog Night not just the biggest selling single of 1971 but also their most well-known song today. It also led to another hit with a Hoyt Axton written song, the mid-tempo country-ish “Never Been To Spain,” which was released the next year and peaked at #5. (It’s a 6.) So maybe “Joy To The World” isn’t an accurate representation of 1971 in the public imagination as a song like “What’s Going On” is and didn’t deserve to block it from getting to #1. In a perfect world, both of these songs would be chart-toppers. “Joy To The World” may not be as important or legendary as the song it prevented from the top but on its own, it’s a fun and catchy little ditty. Nothing wrong with that.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Joy To The World” soundtracking the ping pong match scene in 1994’s Forrest Gump:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gillian Anderson singing “Joy To The World” on a 1997 X-Files episode:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sarah Jessica Parker singing “Joy To The World” on a 1999 Sex And The City episode:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2016 episode of The Last Man On Earth where Will Forte sets up an alarm system of talking fishes that sing “Joy To The World:”