Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s and 70’s. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Hoyt Axton wrote this for an animated TV special called The Happy Song that never materialized. Axton, who was a popular country singer-songwriter from Oklahoma, pitched it to the group while he opened for them on a tour. Three Dog Night also had a Top 10 hit with “Never Been to Spain,” which was also written by Axton.
The opening lines of this song, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine. Never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine,” are part of some wonderful song meaning speculation. A common interpretation is that Axton’s bullfrog is the prophet Jeremiah from the Bible, and we’ve seen at least one sermon that makes the case that the song represents God’s desire to unite all people in happiness (the bullfrog, with his distinctive call that stands out in nature, is God’s voice in this interpretation).
There’s also a case for John Jeremiah, the keyboardist for the ’70s rock group Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah, who are best known for their song “Lake Shore Drive.”
Axton, however, told a different story about the famous lyric. With the chorus and melody already written, he added some placeholder lyrics where he intended to write proper verses. What came out of his mouth was that famous first line. Axton explained in the Oregon News-Review: “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.”
So it was that these nonsense placeholder lyrics became part of rock history. Religious interpretations rarely take into account that Axton was more of a hell-raiser than a student of the Bible: He was a heavy drinker and pot smoker with a passion for fast cars, women and motorcycles. By the time he wrote “Joy to the World,” he was twice divorced with hundreds of speeding tickets on his record.
The group didn’t think much of this song when they recorded it, tacking it on to the album because they needed one more song to complete it. The song ended up being a massive hit and stayed six weeks at #1 on the US Hot 100.
For the story of how this song became a runaway hit, we found the DJ who was the first to play it. The Naturally album was released in November 1970, and the first single to chart from the album was “One Man Band,” which peaked at #19 US in December. “Joy To The World” was a lowly album cut, until Larry Bergman brought it to life in Seattle.
Larry told us: “I was the DJ who first played ‘Joy To The World’ on the radio that caused it to start its journey to #1. I was working at radio station KISW-FM at the time. It was the sister station to the number one radio station in Seattle, KJR-AM. That was when AMs were more popular than FMs. My job was to select odd cuts from albums by popular artists, not necessarily their hits, and record them on tape for on-air use.
I remember I needed to find one more song to fill a tape I was producing and came across Joy To The World. It was on the second side, last cut on their Naturallyalbum. I put it on the tape and played it on the air. Within the hour the KJR DJ (Gary Shannon) came running over from the AM side and asked where I got that song. ‘People were calling,’ he said.
I told him and he had me record it on to another tape for him. He took it and played it on KJR and within a few weeks it went to #1 in Seattle. It wasn’t long after that the song reached #1 on Billboard. The station got a gold record for it and Three Dog Night came to Seattle to launch their next album.”Three Dog Night got their band name from an old Australian Aborigine saying they heard. If it was cold at night, you slept with your dogs for warmth. The next day you might tell a friend, “Man, it was a three dog night last night.” This led a lot of people to believe that the group was Australian, but they were based in California.