Said MacDermot, “I was interested in jazz and rock and roll….so theatre was another world to me.” But when he was approached by writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni, he accepted the challenge. “I was given the lyrics to the show, not all at once, but they gave me about ten and then they kept writing new ones. I set them all to music.”
Establishing a fresh new style for musicals by employing elements of rock, R&B and funk, “Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical” reflected the concerns of the hippie culture. Set in New York City’s East Village, “Hair” opened off-Broadway in October 1967, on the heels of the Summer of Love and Vietnam war protests. It then moved to Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre, opening April 29, 1968 and running until July 1, 1972, with Aquarius sung by future R&B star, 17-year-old Ronald Dyson, for whom MacDermot composed the song.
In Canada, “Hair” was staged at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre from December 29, 1969 to January 3, 1971, grossing over $1 million in the first three months, and was translated into French for a Montreal show. Record-breaking audiences flocked to hear Aquarius in “Hair” across Europe, in London’s West End, Japan, Israel, and Australia.
The U.S. vocal group The Fifth Dimension lent their soul-funk sound to the song in their mega-hit 1969 medley Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, off the Soul City album “The Age of Aquarius,” recorded in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and produced by Bones Howe with session musicians the Wrecking Crew (the same combination who recorded CSHF inductee I Saw Her Again Last Night). The single reigned at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for six weeks (eventually overtaken by The Beatles’ Get Back), and in Canada was No. 1 on the RPM and CHUM charts. It won Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Group, and is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Aquarius was everywhere in 1968-1969: on the London “Hair” original cast recording, MacDermot’s “Hair Pieces” album, and recordings by Cilla Black, Dick Hyman, the Electronic Concept Orchestra, and Zen. Boston Pops Orchestra, Ray Conniff, The Everly Brothers, Percy Faith, James Last, Mantovani, Johnny Mathis, Mercy, The Moog Machine, The Osmonds, Tito Puente, Diana Ross, Ray Stevens, The Ventures, and Andy Williams also covered it.
Charles Earland, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, George Shearing, Charlie Byrd, and Freddie McCoy made jazz covers, Ramsey Lewis turned it into disco, and The Beastie Boys sampled it in hip-hop.
In Europe Aquarius has been sung in Czech (Helena Vondrackova) and in German (Spencer Davis, Donna Summer, Marianne Mendt).
In 1979, MacDermot adapted “Hair” for the big screen. Aquarius, sung by Renn Woods, led off the soundtrack album. It has been performed on television’s “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Hollywood Palace,” and “Live with Regis and Kelly”; in films like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Forrest Gump” and on TV’s “Fame,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Simpsons,” “Gilmore Girls,” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“Age of Aquarius was just a great song,” The Fifth Dimension’s Billy Davis summarized. “It captured the feeling of the times and it had a sense of happiness.”
Galt MacDermot (born Montreal 1928), the son of a Canadian diplomat, studied music in South Africa where he developed an interest in complex rhythm. Settling in New York City in the mid-1960s, he won his first Grammy in 1961 for the song African Waltz. He is also known for “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and for writing film scores and chamber and orchestral music. MacDermot has earned SOCAN’s Lifetime Achievement Award and an Ivor Novello Award, and is in the US Songwriters Hall of Fame.