ON A DRIVE THROUGH DOWNTOWN L.A., Chuck Negron passes the abandoned building where he used to shoot heroin and the bank of pay phones where he once made drug deals. "One night about six years ago," says Negron, a former singer for the group Three Dog Night, "I was talking to my dealer on the phone when a car cruised around the corner and sprayed a sheet of bullets. I ducked as far as the phone cord allowed, which wasn't far. But I wasn't about to let that dealer get away. The bullets didn't faze me because I was already dead."
That's not much of an exaggeration. By 1990, when Negron, now 53, kicked a 23-year heroin habit, he had squandered a multimillion-dollar fortune, ruined two marriages and become an emaciated, 126-pound wraith. Negron's downward spin was as dizzying as his rise to the top with the popular '70s band that sold some 50 million albums and scored 10 Top 10 singles, including "Joy to the World" and "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)." It wasn't until 1990 that Negron finally turned his life around after checking himself into a last-ditch rehab facility. "I'm not religious, but I believe God intervened," says Negron. "I did everything I was told at the rehab center. This peace came over me, and I decided I wanted to live." And in August he came full circle, releasing Negron, his first album in 19 years. "Chuck was nervous starting out," says his wife, attorney Robin Silna, 39, of his comeback. "But confidence took over. He knew exactly what he wanted." Adds Negron: "This isn't about having a new CD. It's about being healthy. It's a gift."
Life hasn't always been generous to Negron. Born and raised in The Bronx, he was 5 when his father, Charles, a struggling nightclub singer, and his mother, Elizabeth, divorced. Unable to make ends meet, Elizabeth placed Chuck and his twin sister, Nancy, in an orphanage. Two years later she took them back, but by then her son had become a distant, distrustful child. Fortunately, he had a good voice. "I spent every afternoon playing basketball and singing old doo-wop songs," says Negron. "And that's what saved me."
After graduating from high school, Negron moved to Los Angeles. There, in 1966, he met singer Danny Hutton, who soon recruited Negron along with Cory Wells as colead vocalists for Three Dog Night. Three years later they recorded their first hit, "One (Is the Loneliest Number)." By then, Negron had experimented with LSD and marijuana, which, he believes, collectively fed a predisposition to addiction. "From the get-go, friends told me I had a problem," says Negron. "I thought I smoked occasionally, but they said, 'No, you're a pig.' "
During that time he also shifted to cocaine and downers. "I loved Seconals," he says. "The week after I first took them, I bought 5,000. For me that was like opening the door to hell." His addiction to pills derailed his first marriage, to Paula Servietti, a dental assistant. But rather than clean up, Negron, who was living in a Laurel Canyon mansion, turned to a new drug. "I thought it was coke," he says about his first heroin highs. "I tried it, got sick as a dog, threw up my guts and said, 'Get me some more.' I spent the next 23 years chasing the feeling."
He wasn't alone. In 1973, Negron married Julia Densmore, the former wife of Doors drummer John Densmore. "When Chuck is asked if he ever knew anyone worse than him, he usually says me," admits Julia, a recovering drug addict. "But we had a great marriage because every drug we got was split 50-50." Negron's relationship with his bandmates wasn't as harmonious. By 1977, the year Densmore and Negron had their son Charles, the group had disintegrated, torn apart by drug-inflamed conflicts. Rather than going solo, Negron devoted his life to being a junkie. To pay for his habits, he eventually sold everything he owned, including all of his gold albums. "Bit by bit, everything eroded," says Densmore. "We took loans against the house, and eventually our telephone and power lines were turned off."
Densmore sobered up and left her husband in 1985. A year later, while stoned, Negron attended a party in Santa Monica and met Silna. Thinking she could rescue him, she brought him home. He stole her jewelry and cash, but she stuck with him because "he didn't have anyplace to go." Finally, in 1990, when he stole her car to score a fix, Silna, fed up, tracked him to a seedy L.A. motel, then dumped him. The next day, Negron, who says he was hospitalized 35 times for his addiction over a 10-year time, called to tell her he wanted to go into detox. Silna said, "No more hospitals. If you want to leave, go suck pavement."
Desperate, Negron turned to Cry Help, a residential rehab clinic for the hopeless. "I wanted to die," he says. "I wanted my brain to stop. I was kicking heroin, pills, everything." But after a demanding, nine-month program that included cleaning toilets and baring his soul in group sessions, Negron came out clean and says he has stayed that way. He managed to win back Silna's trust: They married in 1993 and have a 21-month-old daughter, Charlotte.
These days, Negron, who lives off his Three Dog Night royalties, spends a lot of time counseling addicts at Cry Help. The experience has given him a new perspective on his life as a rock cliché. "I was a taker, a self-obsessed jerk, and I hurt a lot of people," he says. "I made millions. But what's happening to me now is proof that I've been blessed more than ever before."
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles