The American pop band Three Dog Night was unique for its trio of lead singers. Floyd Sneed was not one of them, but his drumming and charismatic presence was a memorable element of the band’s widespread appeal. He was the smile-flashing, showy rhythmic engine behind a hit machine famous for dependably cheerful songs delivered with tightly orchestrated pizzazz.
The Calgary-born musician died Jan. 27, in Los Angeles. He suffered from several health issues including diabetes which resulted in renal failure. He was 80.
An original member of a record label creation which scored nearly two dozen Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975, Mr. Sneed’s entry into the band was something out of a movie script.
In fact, it was in Hollywood where he played with his soul group Heat Wave at the Red Velvet club on Sunset Boulevard in 1968 when Joe Schermie, bass player for the just-forming Three Dog Night, walked by and heard what he assumed were two drummers. Entering the venue, he was surprised to find the beats all came from Mr. Sneed, whose extroverted playing and enthusiasm for Latin and African rhythms – “L’African,” as he described them – would earn him an audition, which he passed.
“Floyd was self-taught,” Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton told The Globe and Mail. “He didn’t play drums like anyone else.”
Mr. Sneed and the other members of Three Dog Night did not write their own material for the most part. Rather, the group crafted the compositions of outside songwriters into mainstream hits, starting with Harry Nilsson’s One and continuing with such durable favourites as Randy Newman’s Mama Told Me (Not to Come) and Daniel Moore’s Shambala.
With its deeper cuts, the band showed an appreciation for Canadian songwriters by recording Neil Young’s The Loner, Joni Mitchell’s Night in the City, Domenic Troiano’s The Writing’s on the Wall, Lighthouse’s I’d Be So Happy and the Band’s Chest Fever.
The music of Mr. Sneed and Three Dog Night was a light, melodic distraction to the unrest of the era. Their version of Hoyt Axton’s Joy to the World was a dopamine-inducing singalong (“Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea/ Joy to you and me”), while a Paul Williams-written hit from 1971 explained the band’s self-evident knack: “Just an old-fashioned love song, coming down in three-part harmony.”
Although Mr. Sneed was not part of the vocal sweetness, he did contribute the baritone “I wanna tell you” to the fadeout of Joy to the World.
He was fortunate to thrive in a fascinating period of rock music when drum solos were not only permitted but encouraged. Mr. Sneed received the songwriting credit for the percussion-dominated 1969 instrumental King Solomon’s Mines, so named for the 1950 African adventure film of the same name that had first inspired him as a child to become a drummer.
Though he began playing in his mid-teens, Mr. Sneed did not acquire his own drum set until a few years later on the same day in 1960 that his older sister, Maxine Sneed, married musician (and future well-known comedian) Tommy Chong. Mr. Chong was a guitarist in a series of bands in Calgary and Vancouver with Mr. Sneed’s older brother, Bernie Sneed, on keyboards.
“I watched Floyd grow up,” said the Calgary native Mr. Chong, who went on to form the successful stoner-comedy duo Cheech & Chong. “He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.”
Indeed, Cheech & Chong’s Grammy-nominated, self-titled debut album in 1971 featured a track, Blind Melon Chitlin’, inspired by Mr. Sneed. “I did the voice,” Mr. Chong said, “but Floyd gave me the material.”
Mr. Sneed was a member of the Canadian R&B band Little Daddy & the Bachelors with his brother and Mr. Chong. In 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, the group won a battle-of-the-bands competition at the Pacific National Exhibition. First prize was the opportunity to record a single – which turned out to be a cover of Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business – at Vancouver’s Aragon Recording Studios.
While Little Daddy & The Bachelors eventually morphed into Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers (which landed a recording contract with Motown Records), Mr. Sneed left Canada for the bright lights of Los Angeles.
Three Dog Night vocalists Chuck Negron, Cory Wells and Mr. Hutton attracted the most attention, but Mr. Sneed was hardly invisible behind them. He decorated his rare, clear, acrylic Zickos double-bass drum kit with hundreds of rhinestones and once had a suit tailored from Holiday Inn towels to absorb perspiration while he played. For a portion of his drum solos on stage, he would put his sticks aside to pound on the tom-toms with his bare hands.
“Floyd was one of the slyest drummers I ever heard,” recording engineer Bill Cooper told Mix magazine in 2008. “He listened to a lot of tribal drum recordings and would incorporate elements of that style into his playing.”
With Three Dog Night, Mr. Sneed graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and played on 10 albums that achieved gold or platinum status. He was with the band until 1974, returning in 1981 when they reunited for short time. He also played with other groups including SS Fools and K.A.T.T., and toured with the Ohio Players.
Though Mr. Sneed was proud of his accomplishments with one of the biggest rock bands in the world, he recognized Three Dog Night for what it was: An act which skilfully selected songs for their commercial possibilities and performed them with a slick, sunny theatricality and a dependable commitment to musical craft.
“Buying our records is like buying any kind of appliance,” he told an interviewer in 1972. “If it works, then you’ll buy another of the same kind when it wears out.”
Floyd Chester Sneed was born in Calgary, to Napoleon Sneed and Willa (née Carothers) Sneed on Nov. 22, 1942. He was a descendant of Parson Henry Sneed, who was among the first to settle Amber Valley, an Alberta community of Black Americans who escaped racism in Oklahoma and Texas in the early 1900s for the freedom – and the rigours – of Canadian Prairie homesteading.
At the age of nine, while swimming with his brother and a friend in a river near his home, he nearly drowned. “All of a sudden, I couldn’t move,” he would recall later. Struck with polio, he was hospitalized for months. The disease had a lingering effect on one of his eyes and necessitated periodic surgeries for years after.
Growing up near the Stampede Corral arena, he had dreams of becoming a hockey player. His religious parents were musical, but the sounds he heard at Calgary Standard Wesleyan Church didn’t particularly move him. “We had some of the worst music in the world in our church,” he said recently.
Occasionally he helped, if one can call it that, his hymn-singing mother babysit children. “I walked into the house once to find a kid dangling on a wall,” Mr. Chong said. “Floyd had hung a boy on a coat hook.”
Country music was unavoidable. The first concert he attended was a Johnny Cash show; his first professional gig was as a teenager recruited to fill in for Conway Twitty’s sick drummer.
Though his musical heroes were adroit jazz drummers such as Elvin Jones and Sonny Payne, he appreciated the effervescence of Gene Krupa even more. “I wanted to show off,” he admitted.
His tenure with the hard-touring Three Dog Night afforded Mr. Sneed a nightly spotlight. Drum solos stretched six minutes and more.
The party ended in the mid-1970s when personnel changes and waning popularity indicated Three Dog Night was done as a commercial force. In 1974, members including Mr. Sneed, guitarist Michael Allsup and bassist Joe Schermie formed the splinter group SS Fools with singer Bobby Kimball (later of Toto).
Though Three Dog Night presented itself as a true band – the covers of albums Harmony and Naturally featured all the members – the contractual arrangements of the Joy to the World spreaders were laid bare in 1975. Billboard magazine reported that four former Three Dog Night salaried “sidemen” including Mr. Sneed were suing the group’s singers for approximately US$500,000 in money allegedly owed and US$3-million in cumulative damages.
Despite the lawsuit, Mr. Sneed toured with former Three Dog Night singer Mr. Negron in the 1990s and 2000s.
A lifelong sketcher and doodler, in his later years Mr. Sneed devoted himself to fantastical paintings that periodically appeared in galleries. Today one of his old drum sets is on display at the Professional Drum Shop in Los Angeles, just a mile away from the Red Velvet club where he was discovered 55 years ago.
He leaves his sister, Maxine Morrow; children, Tracy (Sneed) May and Zoli Sneed; and grandchildren, Kaitlyn Grey, Payton Rozak and Riley Rozak.