MOJO Time Machine: Hippie Musical Hair Launches!

17 October, 1967 sex, drugs and draft card–burning musical Hair opened.


by Fred Dellar |

17 October, 1967

James Rado recalled that Janis Joplin was a big fan of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, the show he’d co-created with his fellow actor Gerome Ragni. “She came on numerous occasions with groups of her friends,” he recalled. “They would sit down front and rock out.” CCR’s John Fogerty wasn’t as enthusiastic, but conceded: “It is bringing rock music to a lot of people who wouldn’t listen before.”

The sex, drugs and draft card–burning theatre production split opinions wherever it played. And it did so right from its initial off-Broadway opening that Tuesday, October 17, 1967.

Tail-ending the Summer Of Love, it began its run at New York’s Shakespeare Festival Theatre. It was hardly an auspicious start. There was little in the way of pedigree for shows like this, and Rado and Ragni, who’d been piecing Hair together since late 1964, had minimal form. Galt MacDermot, the Canadian who’d penned the score, was mainly known for writing African Waltz, a hit for Cannonball Adderley in the States and Johnny Dankworth in Britain - hardly the stuff of longhair legend.

“Janis Joplin and her friends would sit down front and rock out.” 

James rado

Additionally, numerous other gremlins threatened to stymie the show. The show’s director dropped out at one point and, following a disastrous dress-rehearsal, was hastily reinstalled. The Public Theatre was still an unfinished building project, mid-conversion from the old Astor Library. And though Rado and Ragni, who let their rugs grow long and attended various Be-ins, felt their melodic lovechild truthfully represented the feelings, hopes and resentments of the East Village’s array of resident hippies and freaks, other begged to differ.

The Village Voice’s theatre critic Michael Smith, who attended the opening night, was particularly vitriolic. “I loathed and despised it,” he wrote. “It turns out to be all phoney. It exploits every obvious up-to-date issue… most of the cast are mis-cast and trying to do the wrong thing. If you’re a hippie or plain old hip, stay clear. Let it be forgotten.”

Nude Finale On Broadway

Yet, following six weeks at the Public Theatre, Hair found a temporary home at Cheetah, a club in midtown Manhattan. Beginning at 7.30pm instead of the usual theatreland start-time of 8.30, and running without an interval so the dancing could begin at 10, the musical’s fortunes began to improve. Barbra Streisand and film director Otto Preminger both stopped by watch it, and Rado, Ragni and MacDermot resolved to improve and expand the production. A new director, Tom O’Horgan was engaged, the text was revised and 13 new songs joined the original 20. In its new form, Hair eventually arrived on Broadway in April 1968, taking up residency at the Biltmore Theatre. Redirected, resigned and recast, the Broadway version also achieved notoriety when the players began appearing nude at the first act finale. The stay at the Biltmore would last five years and spawned a musical-theatre empire – at one point there were nine simultaneous productions playing at U.S. cities – resulting in MacDermot’s music dominating the airwaves.

The soundtrack, it seemed, would not die. The Fifth Dimension saw Hair and were so impressed with Ronnie Dyson’s performance of the show’s opening number, Aquarius, that they recorded it as part of a mini-medley, slotting it in alongside another Hair song, (The Flesh Failures) Let The Sunshine In. It proved to be America’s second biggest single that year and stayed at number one for six straight weeks. And on May 10, 1969, while the Fifth Dimension’s single was still top of the charts, The Cowsills’ recording of Hair, the show’s theme song, took over the No.2. spot. It was the first occasion ever that the top two singles in the U.S. charts came from the same Broadway show. It was also something of a thumbed-nose to MGM Records, who had The Cowsills under contract but initially refused to release the group’s version of the Hair theme, maintaining that, “the recording didn’t sound like them.”

There was more to come. As The Cowsills’ record began dropping, a third song from the musical, Oliver’s Good Morning Sunshine entered the charts, eventually to reach No.3. Then Three Dog Night’s Easy To Be Hard weighed in at No.4, while Nina Simone reached No.2 in the UK charts with I Ain’t Got – I Got Life in October 1968, just after Hair opened in London and commenced a half-decade stay at the Shaftesbury theatre, where it might have stayed for longer had the roof of theatre not collapsed. Still, at least they could say that they’d brought the house down.

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