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Classic Track: The Cowsills’ “Hair”

Carl Reiner was pulling together a television special called "Wonderful World of Pizazz," which celebrated the hippie styling of the day, and wanted The Cowsills to appear on the show performing “Hair,” the title track to the then-hit Broadway musical sensation.

A fit 68-year-old musician, on a break from his summer tour, steps out of his car and walks up the front lawn of the Canoga Park home of a seasoned engineer, six years his senior, who greets him with a beaming smile. “There you are,” says Angel Balestier, as the two meet for the first time since, 50 years ago, he tracked Bob Cowsill and his family for what became one of 1969’s summer themes: “Hair.”

The group, The Cowsills, got its start in 1964 with brothers Bill and Bob, in their mid-teens, and their two younger brothers, bassist Barry and drummer John. After recording some singles for Johnny Nash’s Joda Records and for Phillips, without much success, the band went on to record “The Rain, The Park and Other Things,” produced and co-written by Artie Kornfeld, and adding their mother, Barbara, into the fold on vocals. The disc, issued in September 1967 by MGM Records, their new label, topped the charts and put the band on the map.

After Bill and Bob self-produced their next album, We Can Fly, which now included another older brother, Paul, and young sister, Susan (mixed by Roy Cicala at A&R Studios in New York), the group recorded a single, “Indian Lake,” with Wes Farrell at the helm.

In September 1968, after their summer tour, the Cowsill family relocated to the West Coast, into a house in Santa Monica. Not long after their arrival, a package came in the mail from none other than TV comedy legend Carl Reiner. Reiner was pulling together a television special called Wonderful World of Pizazz, which celebrated the hippie styling of the day, and wanted The Cowsills to appear on the show performing “Hair,” the title track to the then-hit Broadway musical sensation, written by its stars, James Rado and Gerome Ragni.

Reiner was quick to seize on the irony of having America’s squeaky clean family act perform a song about hippies’ affinity for long hair, and sent the original Broadway cast album to the family house, asking them to do the title track. “He sent us this album and told us, ‘Listen to this song, and go into the studio and put something down you can lip sync to,” Bob remembers. “At that point, we had never heard of ‘Hair.’ We just took it as an assignment.”

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Lee Mendelson Productions, which was producing Reiner’s special, were clients of a Hollywood recording facility, TTG Studios. TTG, located at 1441 N. McCadden Place, near Highland and Sunset, was built by engineers Ami Hadami and Tom Hidley, both A&R alums, in June 1965.

The studio was built into the former home of Radio Recorders, which had built itself a studio on the ground floor of the building. That room, Studio B (though commonly referred to as “Studio 2”), was joined by a large room on the second floor, Studio A, built for large orchestras.

Angel Balestier, a staff engineer at A&R who had worked with Hadami, Hidley and Cicala, joined his former colleagues in L.A. in 1966 at age 22. When The Cowsills made their move to the West Coast, Balestier received a call from Cicala, who asked him to look after the group’s recording needs. By then, Balestier had already been working with an impressive roster of clients, including Eric Burdon and The Animals, The Doors (assisting Bruce Botnick), Sonny & Cher (“I Got You Babe”), and Jimi Hendrix, with whom he would record just a week and a half after recording “Hair.”

The Cowsills in 1968.

One of the attractions of TTG to artists like Hendrix was the presence of a 16-track 2-inch tape machine, the first such devices in Los Angeles, which Hidley had built himself using MCI electronics and an ICM head stack, Balestier says. “It was a weird machine to use,” he notes.

Hidley also had to convince 3M to make 2-inch tape stock—Scotch 206, in this case. The Studio 2 console was built by Hidley and Paul Ford, with 16 inputs and Gotham sliding faders (it had rotary faders for the buses). The TTG echo chamber was located on the first floor, across from Hidley’s shop, and was connected to a TEAC tape machine in the adjacent room for any desired tape delay (such as Balestier used on the tail end of “Hair”). The engineer also had eight Pultec equalizers available.

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The Cowsills had rehearsed the song—rhythm and vocals—both in the pool house they now used at their new home, and then, a few days prior to the session, at SIR on Santa Monica Blvd. “Bill and I had done most of the arrangement in our little studio and worked out the overview of the approach,” Bob states. “So we had the schematic of what we were going to do going in. We knew that once we hit the studio, we had to be on this.”

Upon their arrival at TTG—likely on October 1, for the two-day sessions—it was the foursome of Bill, Bob, John and Barry to record the backing track, something they hadn’t done since 1965. The studio was set up in the typical way Balestier preferred: 12-year-old John’s Ludwig drum kit was set up in the middle of the room, facing the control room, with Barry’s Fender Bassman amp (playing his Fender Jazz bass) to his left, with Bill and Bob, on guitars, in front of them.

Balestier would mike the drum kit with a pair of Sony C37As as overheads, a Shure Unidyne 545 SD on the snare, and another 545 inside the kick drum, wrapped in a blanket. Barry’s bass was connected direct. “Remember, we didn’t have direct boxes then,” the engineer explains, “so I would just connect a cable, with a pair of alligator clips, to the back of his cabinet and run that, with a 10 or 20 dB pad, into a mic input in the wall and send it to the console.” It was a workaround he used regularly on Animals recordings, as well.

Bill and Bob mostly played acoustic guitars on the rhythm track, miked with Sony C-37P condensers. For electric parts, Bob played a 1965 Gretsch Tennessean—which he still owns and plays onstage—through a Fender Twin Reverb and miked with a Neumann U87, as well as drawing a direct signal using the alligator clip method.

The backing track for the main portion of the song—that which follows the slow acoustic intro—was recorded first. “It took a long time,” Bob notes. “It was a combination of the fact that we hadn’t done it—recording in a studio—in a very long time, and that it was pretty complex, mainly the bridge. We were a good live band, but we hadn’t recorded in a long time.”

Engineer Angel Balestier, left, and Bob Cowsill hold their Gold Records at a meeting 50 years after they worked together on “Hair.”

John had a particularly difficult time with the timing of the bridge (“I want it long, straight, curly…”), which suddenly jumps into a different rhythm than the verses and choruses. “We did a lot of takes,” he notes. “That bridge was a trouble spot; I was stankin’ up the room. I still cringe when I hear it—it just falls apart. But it still works. It was a hit.”

Once the basic rhythm track was recorded, the 1:02 intro (that’s out of 3:27!) was tracked, later added by Balestier as an edit piece. Bill and Bob once again played acoustics. Bill can be heard in the stereo mix on the left, his own guide vocal picked up by Balestier’s guitar mic, accompanied by a marching snare from John and bass by Barry. Bob overdubbted a capoed 12-string acoustic part, which arrives midway through (something which he also added as an overdub onto the main body of the song, as well).

Once that was completed, the “kids” were dismissed, and Bob and Bill set about recording overdubs/sweetening, Bob adding the above-mentioned 12-string, as well as a piano and a harpsichord.

The lead vocals were recorded, with Bill taking the first and third verses (the latter a repeat of the first, deleting the “Jesus” reference in the original third verse, to avoid any 1960s TV controversy), but with the family members each singing a line, beginning in the second verse, as well as on the bridge. “We knew it was for television, so each of us had to be seen on camera singing a line,” Bob explains. Bill sang the first verse, and then, in the second, there’s Paul (“I let it fly in the breeze…”), followed by Bob (“A home for the fleas…”).

The bridge begins with the younger boys. “I come in,” says John, “with [singing] ‘I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy,’ then Barry with, ‘Oily, greasy,” and then we all come in with, ‘Knotted, polka-dotted.’ It was a genius arrangement, really.”

That portion of the bridge, of course, ends with 9-year-old Susan’s legendary, “And spaghetti!”

“They knew they had to put me in there somewhere,” she laments. “Now I’m kind of like Carmen Miranda—she was the Chiquita banana chick, and I am the fricking ‘spaghetti girl.’ It doesn’t get any cooler than that!” she laughs.

The hallmark of all Cowsills records is, of course, the vocals, in particular the background vocal stack. “Billy and Bob would do our vocal arrangements, and they always did such an amazing job,” Susan states.

The process would begin with Bob and Bill explaining the parts for each Cowsill. The family would position themselves in a circle around a tube Neumann U47, which Balestier placed in the center of the room, with Susan up on a stool to allow her to be at the same height as the rest. The younger boys would often pair on one vocal part, with Susan high in the stack, singing the high harmony.

“We’ve got Susan, Barry and John, me, Paul and Bill, and we got it going,” Bob relates. “The best we ever were going to have, in terms of everyone there and onboard. Group parts would be changed up, with the a cappella stack at the end of the bridge (“Don’t ever have to cut it…” different from that in the intro). “That’s just us working the voices, changing them here. ‘You sing this, we’ll sing that’ kind of thing.”

Cowsills BVs were also always doubled, with those parts changed up, as well, to create a fuller track. Balestier had his own technique. “For each pass, I would have one mic set up in the center of the room for them, and then I sent that to a Leslie speaker we had for our B3 organ.” The signal from the Leslie’d U47 was then sent to the TTG echo chamber, and its return, plus the original Leslie signal, was recorded to tape, on a separate track from the main vocal mic. Then the process was repeated on a second pass, giving four vocal tracks for backgrounds.

Once the recording was completed on the second day, Balestier created the mono mix, which would be used by the television production. At this point, neither Balestier or the Cowsills realized that it would be released later—much later—as a single. While MGM had no interest in releasing the song, representing their clean family group, Bill had an acetate cut at DCT Recorders at Sunset and Cahuenga, which they ended up playing for a deejay in Chicago on WLS a few months later. It garnered plenty of attention.

The band taped the TV special in San Francisco on January 5, 1969. As the March 18 broadcast of the TV special approached, though, MGM finally had a change of heart and put the single out. Bill and Bob, meanwhile, were preparing a live album mix over at United Recording with engineer Ben Jordan, who created a stereo mix from the 16-track tape, courtesy of an additional tape machine rented from Wally Heider, who had requested one made by Hidley for his own use.

The album was completed on March 14, and The Cowsills in Concert was released, with the stereo mix of “Hair,” on May 3, becoming the band’s best-selling album.

“Hair” was indeed a megahit. “The single came out, and it took over,” Bob says. “It got caught up in a whole movement, that catapulted it even further than it probably would have gone, with ‘Aquarius’ and the whole movement that we stepped into, unbeknownst to us.”