Saturday, August 15, 2009

1969: HAIR

1969 gave us the first Broadway Musical for OUR generation ...

Described as "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical", "Hair" actually first opened off-Broadway in 1967 at Joseph Papp's Public Theater before it began its run of 1750 performances on Broadway in April of 1968. But the music of this extravaganza exploded on the pop charts in 1969 when FOUR hits from the musical dominated the pop music scene: "Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In" became a #1 Hit for The Fifth Dimension, topping the charts for six weeks that Spring. The title track, "Hair", recorded by the family act The Cowsills actually replaced "Aquarius" at #1 on The Cash Box Chart. Oliver's rendition of "Good Morning Starshine" peaked at #3 a couple of months later ... his recording of "Jean" from the Academy Award Winning Film "The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie" was ALSO a HUGE hit that year ... and Three Dog Night took "Easy To Be Hard" to #3 later that Summer. (Even The Happenings, who previously had their greatest chart success covering old standards like "I Got Rhythm" and "My Mammy" placed a Hair Medley on the charts when "Where Do I Go / Be-In / Hare Krishna" peaked at #38 later that year in Cash Box Magazine.)

Hailed as the first Rock Musical (some might debate that point ... we've even seen "West Side Story" credited with that distinction), it certainly garnered a whole lot of attention when it first hit the mainstream. It pre-dated "Jesus Christ Superstar" by a couple of years, (which is often listed in this same category) and grabbed a lot of attention for its live, on stage nudity. (This, too, was not a first ... "Oh! Calcutta" had opened earlier, shocking audiences with their full-frontal assault ... speaking of which ... and I'm going strictly from memory here ... wasn't John Lennon supposed to have something to do with "Oh! Calcutta" at some point in time??? Wasn't he supposed to write a scene or something??? Did that ever happen?)

"Hair" addressed many of the issues of the day head-on in musical fashion ... The War in Viet Nam, Drugs, The Sexual Revolution, Protests and "Be-Ins", the whole Hippie Counter-Culture ... you name it, they tried to work it into the story line. But it ALSO had a stick-in-your-head soundtrack that pop music embraced, ultimately making the whole trip more palatable to its mainstream American audience. (The musical was recently revived this year and is STILL playing to sold-out crowds some 40 years after it first debuted!)

Quoting the mini-synopsis listed in Wikipedia (which we virtually NEVER do) "'Hair' tells the story of the 'tribe', a group of politically active, long-haired hippies of the 'Age Of Aquarius' living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Viet Nam War."

Actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni say that they first began writing "Hair" back in 1964, pretty amazing in retrospect, but certainly there were war resistors even then ... and folks were just starting to grow their hair around this time, due to the influence of The Beatles and The British Invasion. It was Chicago Businessman Michael Butler who caught the play at The Public Theater and bought the rights to it with the intention of moving it to Broadway. (Ironically, Butler was planning his run for the U.S. Senate on an anti-war platform when he caught an advertisement for "Hair" in The New York Times. He went to see the show because he believed it to be about Native Americans! After catching several more showings, he bought into the production.) The play went through some major revamping prior to its Broadway run and, in fact, 13 new songs were added to the line-up, including "Let The Sunshine In", in the hopes of giving the play a more uplifting ending. Early-on stage performers during "Hair"'s initial Broadway run included Diane Keaton, Ben Vereen, Keith Carradine, Ted Lange, Melba Moore and singers Barry McGuire, Ronnie Dyson, Robin McNamara, Meatloaf and Eddie Rambeau as well as Kenny Seymour of Little Anthony and the Imperials, Joe Butler of The Lovin' Spoonful and Peppy Castro of The Blues Magoos! Ted Neeley, Gloria Jones, Jennifer Warnes and Dobie Gray were part of the Los Angeles touring company which played, ironically, at the Aquarius Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Soon Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit were also hosting productions ... and then the play moved to London where Tim Curry joined the cast. (The London run lasted for 1997 performances ... and it only closed then because the roof of the theater collapsed!!!)

Despite all of the controversy attached to it, the celebrated nude scene lasted all of twenty seconds. The stage was so dimly lit that after witnessing a London preview comedian Jack Benny quipped "Did you happen to notice if any of them were Jewish?" (lol)


The story of how The Fifth Dimension came to record their all-time biggest hit is one worth re-telling.

The band always had an ear for new material by up-and-coming songwriters and, as such, had already had major chart hits written by the likes of Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas), Neil Sedaka and the songwriting team of Ashford and Simpson ALSO provided hit material for the group in the late '60's and early '70's. But one can only surmise that Jupiter TRULY must have been aligned with Mars when you consider how "Aquarius" fell into their hands.

It seems that while out in New York City for an appearance at The Americana Hotel, Billy Davis, Jr. was finishing up some shopping when he grabbed a cab back to the hotel, only to realize when he got there that he had left his wallet inside the cab. Frantic, Davis began pacing the floor of the suite while Marilyn McCoo began looking through the phone book, trying to find a way to contact the cab company. All of a sudden the phone rang ... it seemed that the next passenger in the cab, a good samaritan (and honest citizen) by the name of Ed Gifford had found Davis' wallet and wanted to return it to him. Grateful for his honesty, Davis comp'd Gifford and his wife two tickets to that evening's Fifth Dimension show at The Royal Box in the Americana Hotel. Backstage after the show, Gifford repaid the favor by giving Billy and the rest of the group tickets to see HIS new show ... a little Broadway production called "Hair"!!! All five members of The Fifth Dimension went to the theater that night but they were unable to secure seats together. When they met outside, every single one of them was raving about the song "Aquarius" from the production. (By the way, the guy they heard sing "Aquarius" that night was none other than Ronnie Dyson, who we recently featured right here in Forgotten Hits. Ronnie would have his OWN hit from a musical a year later when "Why Can't I Touch You" from the off-Broadway production of "Salvation" went into The Pop Top Ten!!! You can read all about it here:

Click here: Forgotten Hits: Ronnie Dyson)

At their very next recording session, they told producer Bones Howe how they were SURE that this was a hit song. Howe wasn't so sure ... he recorded the song as a means to appease the band, since they all seemed to feel so strongly about it, but then told them that to HIS ears, it was only "half a song" ... he felt that it "needed an ending." A number of ideas were kicked around, including some sort of a gospel-like sing-along, but they just couldn't seem to agree on anything that pleased everyone. It wasn't until Howe went to New York to see "Hair" for himself that the idea for the perfect ending hit him. Watching the audience's reaction to the last three bars from the play's "The Flesh Failures" segment ... which simply consisted of everybody repeating the phrase, "Let The Sun Shine, Let The Sunshine In", moving the entire audience to clap their hands and sing along, Bones took those last three bars and added them on to the end of the basic "Aquarius" track that the group had already recorded. Billy Davis, Jr. did some of his very best R&B ad-libbing during the fade-out and, once they had tacked on the "cosmic opening" developed by Bill Holman (who said that he "channeled the Don Costa arrangement of Frank Sinatra's 'Lost In The Stars'"), the hit record was complete. Any reservations about the song being too long to receive sufficient airplay were quickly dispelled. It topped the Billboard Pop Chart for six straight weeks and won the Grammy for Record Of The Year.

DIDJAKNOW? - Apparently there WAS some concern about the length of the new "medley". (Kind of surprising in a way, coming on the heels of the seven minute successes of "Hey Jude" and "MacArthur Park"!) Apparently, Bones Howe had originally come up with a seven minute edit that he then cut back to about 4:50 for the single. When he played it for the legendary Bill Drake of KHJ in Los Angeles, he told Howe that it was STILL too long to play on the radio. Drake said, "If you don't feel you can cut the record down, I'll go with it. Everyone in the country will play it. If you can find a way to shorten it to three minutes, you'll get twice as much airplay." Bones said he went back to the studio and did two more edits, one just under three minutes and one just over. According to Pat Downey's Book "Top 40 Music On Compact Disc, 1955-2003", all three edits found their way into the hands of radio stations and the public. Radio was sent both the 3:50 and the 3:02 edits to choose from ... while all commercial copies clocked in at 4:49. Today you'd be hard pressed to find ANYTHING other than the 4:49 edit (unless you happened to come across one of those original DJ singles.) I'm not sure what happened to the seven minute edit ... unless it wound up as the album cut! (kk)