NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hi! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and we’re all just re-living the Summer of ‘69, aren’t we.
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I have not talked about Podcast Republic in awhile, and that’s a shame, because it’s my favorite podcast catcher. In fact, I was using it before I even had a podcast. It’s got a lot of cool features that are constantly leaving the other apps to play catch-up. One of my favorite features is, when I’m listening in the car and I have to pause to go in the store or whatever, when I resume listening, it’s actually backed up a few seconds so I can get back in the thread of what I’m listening to. You can find Podcast Republic for FREE in the Google Play Store, or you can click the link on the How Good It Is Dot Com web page.
As it happens, I have another trivia question related to the moon landing, so I’m going to use it here, even though it’s not really music related. What baseball player is notable for having hit his first career home run on the same day as the moon landing? I’m sure there may have been a couple, but for this one player in particular, it’s especially notable.
As usual, I’ll have that player’s name, and the reason why it’s worth noting, at the end of the program.
There is no doubt that the 1968 Broadway rock musical Hair broke a lot of barriers, for a lot of reasons. Some have called it the first rock opera, but that would be incorrect from a terminology standpoint. An opera has all of its dialogue sung, whereas Hair is a play where some parts of the story happen to be sung. Hair is, however, definitely the first rock musical.
Hair was first conceived in 1964, believe it or not, by James Rado and Gerome Ragni. They’d performed together in an off-Broadway show that flopped, and later that year they began writing together on the project that ultimately became Hair. At that time they knew a bunch of people their age who were dropping out and dodging the draft, and they’d seen articles about kids being kicked out of school because of the length of their hair. Now, this is kind of a tough thing to wrap your head around these days, but in the early 1960s, when the Beatles first came to America, they were considered to have very long hair. In fact, I remember hearing an audio clip of a DJ marveling about a new band called the Rolling Stones who have hair “even longer than The Beatles”. It was kind of a weird thing for people to argue about, but there it is. At any rate, Rado and Ragni were spending time with this counterculture, and they felt that it was important to document it somehow. They brought their drafts of the show to producer Eric Blau, who in turn hooked them up with composer Galt McDermot. McDermot wasn’t much of a rock and roll guy, but he was interested in the project, so he took their words and set them to music.
The show first opened off-Broadway in October of 1967, at the Public Theater in the East Village of New York City. The rehearsals were a bit of a mess, and while the show–when it opened–didn’t get great reviews in the press, it was popular with the audiences. After its run at the Public Theater, it moved to a discotheque called The Cheetah, where it ran for another six weeks or so. After that run, the show went through a major overhaul, including the addition of over a dozen new songs. The other big change was that the plot, which was already kind of loose, was made even looser and at the same time more realistic. This spontaneity led to changes that were locked into the script. This is also the point where nudity was first written into the story line. Because of this, and the overall themes of the show, it took a little convincing to get someone to give the show a Broadway run, but it finally did open at the Biltmore Theater on April 29, 1968. The show ultimately ran for four years and over seventeen hundred performances, closing in July of 1972. But during that four years there were also regional productions going on too. At one point there were nine simultaneous productions going on in major cities across the US, plus the touring companies. In short, the show was a national, and then international, phenomenon for its time.
Now, oddly enough the music received mixed reviews from the music industry. Leonard Bernstein is said to have walked out of the production, John Fogerty was quoted as saying that he couldn’t get behind it at all, and High Fidelity magazine’s Gene Lees said he didn’t know any musician who thinks it’s good, even quoting John Lennon as saying it was dull. That said, the show did spawn several hit records, and that’s what we’re looking at today.
I’m going to take these in show order, but oddly enough the first song is also the last song. Act One opens with a character named Claude sitting at the center of the stage while the rest of the tribe mingles with the audience. Two of the tribe members cut off a lock of Claude’s hair and, as the rest of the cast converges on the stage, they celebrate themselves as children of the Age of Aquarius. Now, at the end of the play–oh, yeah: Spoiler Alert for a 50-year-old show–Claude has transformed into an invisible spirit and the tribe sings the song “The Flesh Failures,” which leads directly into “Let the Sunshine In.”
[LET THE SUNSHINE IN]
The play ends, and during the curtain call, the tribe reprises “Let the Sunshine In” and brings audience members on stage to dance with them.
These three songs were stitched together into a medley for the Fifth Dimension. As the story goes, Fifth Dimension singer Billy Davis Jr. left his wallet in a New York City taxi cab. The man who found the wallet was involved with the show and invited the group to come see it. Record producer Bones Howe says that shortly after the group had seen the show, he got a call in which they were all talking over one another, saying that they had to cut the song “Aquarius”. He was skeptical because the song is so short, but after seeing the show he got the idea to put the medley together by connecting the beginning of the show with its ending. Howe said that even though the songs are in two different keys and tempos, he resolved to “jam them together like two trains.” Part of how he did that was by grabbing just a few bars from “The Flesh Failures” to use as a lead in to “Let the Sunshine In”. And that’s why all three titles appear on the record label, even though you only hear lyrics for two of them.
The instrumental track for “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” was laid down separately by the Wrecking Crew, with Hal Blaine on drums, Joe Osborn on bass, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, and Tommy Tedesco along with Dennis Budimir on guitars. The vocals were laid down in Las Vegas, where the 5th Dimension was performing at the time, using only two microphones for the five singers. AND, Billy Davis’ solo during the last third of the record was entirely improvised.
The record was released in March of 1969, and it spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 during April and May of that year. It was also a number one record in Canada, and it was Top Five in Switzerland, West Germany, and South Africa. It was a Top 20 record in Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK. And, Billboard has it at Number 73 of their all-time Hot 100. The song has been covered many times, but has never matched the success of the Fifth Dimension’s version.
About midway through the show, two tourists approach the tribe and ask them why they have such long hair.
As a response, Claude and his friend Berger explain its significance in the song “Hair”. Now, the Broadway version of the song has a bunch of religious references in it, where they compare their hair with Jesus, and there are parts where the tribe sings “Hallelujah” repeatedly.
Well, the Cowsills got a hold of it and they recorded it, changing some words and omitting most of the religious references, which really means they cut those last two verses you just heard and changed the line “long as God can grow it” to “long as I can grow it”. Now, as near as I can tell, the Cowsills wouldn’t have recorded it except that they needed a song for their appearance on a TV special called “The Wonderful World of Pizzazz”, which was meant to be a comedic comment on hippies and their styling. The producer of the show was Carl Reiner, and he sent the band a copy of the cast soundtrack album, and asked them to perform that song specifically. Bob and Billy Cowsill arranged the song so that each member of the group got to contribute something vocally, thus allowing them each to get some camera time. It was a pretty shrewd move on their part, really. Because the show was a comedy variety show, the band put on long, wild wigs to perform the song on the show. There are clips of their appearance on the show; the best-quality one has a huge watermark on it, but it’s still so much better than any other you’ll find, that you probably won’t care. I’ll put a link up on the website for you. Look carefully, and you’ll notice a couple of things: first, the set is REALLY tiny, but creative camera angles make it look bigger, and second, you can spot a couple of times where the singers are cueing each other on different moves, including one point where they’re surreptitiously holding hands because Susan can’t see where she’s going. The song was recorded in early 1969 and the show aired on March 18 that same year. Although their label, MGM Records, wasn’t interested in releasing a single, Bill had an acetate of the song cut and he leaked it to WLS in Chicago, where it got lots of attention, and the label caved in, releasing the single just a couple of days before the show aired, and adding it to the album The Cowsills in Concert. The song went to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 and was Top 20 in a few other countries, but go figure: the song that kept it out of the Number One position? “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”
Meanwhile, back in the show, there’s a scene where a girl named Sheila gives Berger a shirt and while he’s goofing around with it, he tears it in two. Sheila begins to sing about how Berger appears to care more about the crowd than about her.
[EASY TO BE HARD]
Well, the band Three Dog Night picked it up and released it the first week of August, 1969, with Chuck Negron on lead vocals. It also wound up on their album Suitable for Framing. “Easy to Be Hard” was a Number Four record for Three Dog Night, and it was a Number Two record in Canada.
But wait! There’s still one more hit song that came from Hair! We take you now to Act Two, and we’re in fact close to the end of the show. Claude has just come down from a hallucinogenic trip, and he declares that what he wants to be…is invisible. Sheila and the rest of the tribe sing this next song, while Claude is left alone to disappear as far as the tribe is concerned.
[GOOD MORNING STARSHINE] (after first nonsense lyric)
And, as with “Easy To Be Hard,” a female lead becomes a male, as Oliver recorded the song “Good Morning Starshine” for radio and record consumption. It was easy to transpose the song for his voice, since he had that high tenor voice, and while it was a Number Three Hit in the US and Top Ten in several countries including the UK, Oliver the artist turned out to be little more than a flash in the pan. He had this hit in July of 1969 and then the theme to the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie went to Number Two just a few months later, and that was pretty much all for Oliver.
So there you have it: Four–technically, five–songs from a single Broadway show dominating the pop charts in the spring and summer of 1969. I’m happy to be corrected, but I don’t think there’s another Broadway musical that’s done anything close to that. Am I wrong? By all means, let me know. But I bet I’m not.
[TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME]
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the baseball player whose first career home run took place on July 20, 1969, the same day that Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
Well, friends, that player was Gaylord Perry, who pitched for several different teams over his 22-year baseball career. Perry was mostly known for throwing spitballs, which is against the rules, but he wasn’t caught and punished for it until 1982, the year before he retired. At any rate, from 1962 until 1971, Perry pitched for the San Francisco Giants and, like most pitchers, he wasn’t an especially good hitter. Now, there are minor variations on the story, but the basic thrust is that in 1963, his manager, Alvin Dark joked that “they’ll put a man on the moon before he hits a home run.” And that’s exactly what happened. Only an hour after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Perry hit his first career home run.
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Next week, we’re going to look at Charlie Manson and his relationship with both The Beatles and the Beach Boys.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.