“Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” raised many an eyebrow in 1970, when the drug scene was relatively new to middle-class American youth, and nobody could recall such a tune wafting out of radio speakers before.

The song is told from the point of view of an obviously naïve young man, who declares at a social gathering:


This is the craziest party

That could ever be


He goes on to explain further:


That cigarette you’re smokin’

’Bout to scare me half to death


As well as:


I’m lookin’ at my girlfriend

She’s passed out on the floor


And concludes with:


I seen so many things

I ain’t never seen before


Analyzing his lighthearted reflection on the party-till-you-drop Los Angeles music scene of the late 1960s, composer Randy Newman explained in a Rolling Stone magazine interview: “It’s a guy going to a party, and he’s a little scared.

“The first line — Will you have whiskey with your water or sugar with your tea — was a vague connection to acid. I don’t remember being thrown off by that stuff then. If I was that unsophisticated, which is possible, I wouldn’t admit it.”

Three Dog Night wasn’t the first to release Newman’s clever creation; that honor goes to Animals leader Eric Burdon, who included it on his 1967 solo album Eric is Here. P.J. Proby (“Niki Hoeky”) offered his own version later that year.

By that time, the Ray Charles-influenced songwriter/singer Newman had yet to release any solo material. By the time he did begin recording on his own in 1968, many of his songs had already been covered by other artists, including Petula Clark, Gene Pitney, the Fleetwoods, and Pat Boone (!).

Other than featuring the now-classic “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” his debut Randy Newman album proved to be inconsequential. But his second LP, 12 Songs, included his own version of “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” presented as a rollicking mid-tempo tune that went nowhere in terms of record sales.

Newman’s song was released at around the same time as Three Dog Night’s. The latter, a raucous outing fueled by a melodramatic lyric reading, was the more commercial and consequently became the bigger hit.

How big? The TDN version climbed to the peak of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and became their first of three chart-toppers, the others being “Joy to the World” (1971) and “Black and White” (1972).

Newman’s work became the very first No. 1 hit on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 syndicated radio program, and the song also appeared later on the soundtracks of G.I. Jane, Boogie Nights, and The Sweetest Thing.

Newman, who once dismissed Three Dog Night as teenyboppers, experienced a change of heart when massive royalty checks began to roll in. He called Corey Wells, one of Three Dog Night’s members who had pressed the others to record Newman’s tune.

“I just want to thank you,” the musician chuckled over the phone, “for putting my kids through college.”


Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at wryterhill@msn.com.

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