If you are one that doesn’t’ believe in fate, you may rethink your philosophy when you learn how the medley “Aquarius/ Let the Sunshine In” found its way to Billy Davis Jr. of the 5th Dimension.
Fate leads Billy Davis Jr. to Hair on Broadway
Billy left his wallet inside a New York City taxi. When he got back to his hotel room and discovered his blunder, he thought he would never see his wallet again. The odds of getting his wallet back were astronomical. As luck would have it, or as fate would have it, Billy received a call later the same day from a man that found his wallet. They arranged a meeting for the man to return the wallet to Billy. Billy was so grateful, that he invited the man and his wife to attend the 5th Dimension show in New York City. After the concert, the good Samaritan wanted to return the favor to Billy and invited him and his wife and bandmate, Marilyn McCoo, to see his show, the Broadway musical HAIR. It so happened, that the man that found Billy’s wallet in the cab was one of the producers of the play.
HAIR was the hottest live theater production at the time, one that was sold out for weeks in advance. Billy and Marilyn loved the musical and were blown away by a song they heard in the production called “Age of Aquarius”. The couple was so wowed by “Aquarius” that they called their producer Bones Howe, and passionately expressed their desire to record the song for the next 5th Dimension album. As Billy put it, “I told Bones, we have to cut (record) that song, it’s the best ever.”
Bones, who earned 20 Gold and Platinum awards from the RIAA over his career, was skeptical, at first, because “Age of Aquarius” wasn’t a complete song. Once he too had seen the musical, he had the idea of creating a medley- combining two numbers that were featured in the show, and putting them into one spirited recording.
“Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”: An Unlikely Medley
The two songs “Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” were very different in tempo, and arrangement, but Bones meshed them together with a clever instrumental bridge, that he called “jamming two trains together.”
In the musical, the line “let the sunshine in” was repeated in the song titled “The Flesh Failures”, and Bones used that phrase to anchor the celebratory climax in the 5th Dimension recording of the brilliantly crafted medley. The breakdown of “let the sunshine in” is where the medley takes on the sonic intensity of a gospel choir, with Billy taking the lead on a blistering vocal performance.
“Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” were composed in 1967 for the musical HAIR. The lyrics were penned by the team of James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who were both actors, composers, and playwrights. The music for HAIR was created by esteemed composer Galt MacDermot, who also won a Grammy in 1960 for a song he wrote called “African Waltz”.
The lyrics of “Aquarius” were based on the belief by a host of astronomers that the world would be entering the “age of Aquarius.” The prophecy about the planetary conjunction is described in the lyric “when the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars.”
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” a Global Hit for The 5th Dimension
Released as a single by the 5th Dimension in 1969, “Aquarius/ Let the Sunshine In” was a massive hit, all over the world. It held the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 for 6 straight weeks, hit #1 in Canada, and was a top 10 pop smash in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, and West Germany. The medley also peaked at #6 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart, on its way to becoming a certified platinum record by the RIAA. Billboard Magazine placed the song at #66 on their list of the “Greatest Songs of All Time.”
The recording won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group in 1970. The 5th Dimension was a collection of incredibly talented vocalists. The original lineup consisting of Marilyn and Billy, Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore, and Ronald Townson. The band was backed by the famed studio players known as The Wrecking Crew for their recording sessions.
Bones Howe’s Triumph
Divinely inspired, or lucky break, the success of “Aquarius/ Let the Sunshine In” was one of many triumphs for Bones Howe. He produced most of the albums by The 5thDimension, who had eleven Top 20 hits between 1966 and 1972. Bones also worked with Elvis Presley, The Association, Johnny Rivers, and the Mamas & the Papas, among others. He was also the music supervisor for the blockbuster film Back to the Future.
Marilyn and Billy left the 5th Dimension in 1975 and began performing as a duo. Their second single as a couple put them back on top, when “You Don’t Have to be a Star” rose to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977. Their performance earned them another Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Marilyn and Billy have been married for more than 50 years. In the summer of 1977, they hosted their own variety TV show- The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Show. It was the first time that an African American married couple hosted a network television series.