Who Wrote the Three Dog Night Hit “One”?

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, plays the late 1960s rock standard, “One.” Made famous by the boogie rock outfit Three Dog Night in 1969, the song has since become a pop culture staple, regularly used in film and television anytime a forlorn mood needs to be set.

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While Three Dog Night put the song on the map, their version too often overshadows the original, the tune that laid the foundation for such lonesomeness to begin with.

Who Wrote It?

“One” was the product of beloved singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, the brain behind other hits like “Coconut” and “Everybody’s Talkin’.” The song appeared on his third studio album, the 1968 released Aerial Ballet.

Nilsson’s version opens on a pensive key, one persistently hammered on the piano, breaking the loud silence. According to Americana Highways, the idea for the song came to Nilsson during a phone call. He dialed someone and when they didn’t answer, he stayed on the line listening to the busy signal, that distant beep, beep, beep, beep and wrote the song. The piano opener, which becomes the backbone of the entire tune, is meant to be reminiscent of that tone.

The song’s composition sounds just as lonely as the lyrics suggest. Crying strings join that one piano note, effectively layering onto the song’s desolation.

The Three Dog Night Version

When Three Dog Night recorded “One” a year after Nilsson’s release, they didn’t stick to the song’s somber arrangement. They instead let the despondent lyrics speak for themselves against a building rock aria.

“Nilsson’s ‘One’ was very melancholy, lacked passion,” one of the group’s vocalists Chuck Negron told antiMusic (via American Songwriter). “We turned that into a rock and roll song. So we were brilliant in what we did with the musicians … when I heard “One” on the playback I started crying … and I said, ‘This is a hit.’”

The one thing they did cling to, however, was the faraway beep, beep, beep, beep tone reminiscent of the phone call that inspired the song. For Three Dog Night, “One” became one of their many chart-topping hits, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Other Notable Covers

“One” has become a staple in pop culture as it perfectly sets the scene for a melancholy montage to unfold. The band Filter recorded a version for the 1998 X-Files movie and the next year, Aimee Mann took on the song for the 1999 film Magnolia.

It has also been notably used in The Simpsons, sung by Lisa Simpson, and Shrek 2, crooned by Eddie Murphy’s character, Donkey.

Watch Lisa get her point across with the iconic song.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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