Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Galt MacDermot, who composed the hit Broadway musicals Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, died December 17, a day before his 90th birthday.
MacDermot was born December 18th, 1928 in Montreal and received his bachelor’s degree in music from South Africa’s Cape Town University. Three years after moving to New York in 1964, jazz critic and music publisher Nat Shapiro introduced MacDermot to Gerome Ragni and Jim Rado, actors who had just written a provocative play entitled Hair. He began setting their writings to music and the trio eventually created the musical version of Hair, which opened off-Broadway in 1967, quickly moving to star on Broadway the next year. Making the "Age of Aquarius" a household name, the show tied in seamlessly to the hippie movement and the songs became instant classics. Rado has said that the inspiration for the music came from a combination of people they met in the street, people they knew and their own imaginations. Hair won a Grammy in 1969 and was made into a hit film in 1979. The theatrical show ran for nearly 2000 performances in both London and New York.
“[Hair] succeeds in catching up the audience in the rhythm of the experience, if not in actual awareness of what is going on,” Rolling Stone wrote in 1968. “It is topical, treating contemporary youth or some of them, which is at least a welcome switch from the Broadway preoccupation with middle-age trauma.”
Songs from Hair have been recorded by numerous artists, including Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli. The Fifth Dimension released a medley of the two songs "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" in 1969, the year after the show opened on Broadway, which won Record of the Year and topped the charts for six weeks. Some other songs from the show became top 10 hits that year: The Cowsills's recording of the title song "Hair" climbed to #2 on the Billboard charts, "Good Morning Starshine" as sung by Oliver reached #3, and Three Dog Night's version of "Easy to Be Hard" went to #4. Another notable version of a song from Hair at the time was Nina Simone's medley, "Ain't Got No — I Got Life" on her 1968 album 'Nuff Said!, which reached the top 5 on the British charts. "Good Morning Starshine" was sung on a Sesame Street episode in 1969 by cast member Bob McGrath. In 1970, ASCAP announced that "Aquarius" was played more frequently on U.S. radio and television than any other song that year.
“When you say you want a rock ‘n’ roll show, you’re talking about two hours of music,” MacDermot once said, according to Playbill. “It can’t all be the same. You’ve got to get different styles. I never counted them, but I like to think they’re all a little different. ‘Aquarius’ has a bit of a West India feel. I was trying to make it spacey — like outer-spacey — and got too spacey. Jim said, ‘The kids’ll never sing a song like that.’ I agreed. It was the only song I rewrote.”
In 1971, MacDermot scored another hit with the rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, based on the Shakespeare comedy of the same name with lyrics by John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation). It won two Tonys in 1972, beating out Grease and Follies for Best Musical.
More recently, Galt's music has found a new venue with rap artists who find the rhythms of the HAIR score perfect for setting their lyrics, as in Run DMC's Grammy award-winning Down With The King, and Billboard's top chart-buster, Woo-Hah!! Got You All In Check by Busta Rhymes.
MacDermot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009 and received the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.