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Classic Tracks: The 5th Dimension’s “Aquariaus/Let the Sunshine In”

It seems axiomatic that the further back in time we reach, the more the actual making of records becomes almost anticlimactic to what transpired outside of the recording studio's confines.

It seems axiomatic that the further back in time we reach, the more
the actual making of records becomes almost anticlimactic to what
transpired outside of the recording studio’s confines. When 4- and
8-track recordings were the norm, what we regard as the
“mix” was actually an ongoing process, a series of artistic
and practical decisions forced by a limited number of tracks into
becoming part of the actual creation of a track, not its technical
coda. All of the above are amply illustrated by the 1969
double-Grammy-winning (including Record of the Year)
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the 5th Dimension’s smash
hit that ended up being the best-selling single of that year.

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For starters, the record was made up of two distinct songs from the
smash musical Hair, what essentially was the lyric overture to
the hit Broadway show “The Age of Aquarius” and the show’s
final production number, “Let the Sunshine In.” But that
pairing took place after an unlikely series of events that placed
record producer Bones Howe in a front-row-center seat at Hair in
New York one autumn evening in 1968. Howe, who recently had shifted
from engineering for Lou Adler and others to producing hits for artists
including The Association (“Windy,” “Never My
Love”) and The Turtles (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”), had
been contacted by entertainer-turned-entrepeneur Johnny Rivers to
produce the 5th Dimension’s Magic Garden album, which was filled
with tunes by the burgeoning songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose “Up, Up
and Away (In My Beautiful Balloon)” gave the Los Angeles-based
pop/soul group its breakthrough hit in 1967.

Riding the group’s initial success, they were doing a gig at
Manhattan’s Americana Hotel in 1968 when one of the members, singer
Billy Davis Jr. (who would go on to duet hits with another Dimension
alumnus, Marilyn McCoo), lost his wallet in a cab. A good Samaritan
returned it and Davis invited him and his wife to the show.
Coincidentally, the Samaritan turned out to be a co-producer of
Hair, and he, in turn, invited the 5th Dimension to see it. When
the group heard the stirring opening number — which, like all of
the songs in the show, were composed by Rado and Ragni — they
immediately decided to record it.

“I was fine with that,” says Howe, “but to me,
there was only half a record there. In fact, in my notes I still have a
piece of paper that says ‘Aquarius’ with an arrow running
from that to a question mark. I went to see the show myself and I heard
the last number, ‘Flesh Failures,’ which has this refrain:
‘Let the sunshine in, let the sunshine in,” etc. It was a
real downer of a song, actually, but those last three bars were like a
great gospel song. I thought if we could cut that together, we could
make a medley of it. So I called the publisher of the show and asked if
it would be okay and they were fine with that. The group took a little
convincing, though.”

Shortly after that, Howe went into Studio 3 at Wally Heider
Recording in Los Angeles, his favorite studio, which was similar in
design to the one he had used at United & Western, where he had
worked on productions with The Mamas & The Papas and The
Association. He called in vocal arranger Bob Alcivar to match keys on
the two songs and write charts for the Wrecking Crew, the session group
headed by drummer Hal Blaine, who would cut the tracks. “The two
songs were a fifth apart, and Bob said that was too big a jump, so he
moved the whole thing down a fourth,” Howe recalls. “But
the plan was to record the two pieces separately, then jam them
together like a train.”

The session players huddled in the small tracking room, playing from
the charts while the 5th Dimension was in Las Vegas opening a long
engagement at Caesars Palace with Frank Sinatra. Howe listened through
the API console as the tracks went down to the 3M 8-track machine. The
basics were cut as part of the album sessions, which ran from September
4 through December 10, 1968. Blaine’s drums — with Shure 546
microphones on snare, kick and hi-hat, and Sony C64s as overheads
— were recorded mono to track 5; the bass, recorded through an
amp also using a 546, was on track 7; guitars were on track 1; and
piano on track 3. Tracks 3 and 4 were left open for vocals, and tracks
6 and 8 for strings, percussion and other overdubs. When
“Aquarius” was finished tracking, Howe asked Blaine to do
two bars of eighth notes to set up the rhythm for “Let the
Sunshine In,” which was recorded to another reel of tape.

Howe then took the tapes to United Recording of Nevada, which Bill
Putnam, who owned United & Western in L.A., had built. The 5th
Dimension came in before the show one day to do the vocals. Howe
arranged them in the studio as they performed onstage — in a
semicircle — around two RCA DX-77 microphones, putting the female
vocals on track 3 and the male voices on track 4. The DX-77s were set
to the V-1 position. “The 77s have three cardioid
settings,” Howe explains. “V-1 and V-2 were different
low-end cutoffs, and ‘M’ was for music recording. The V-2
had a high cutoff, which made it good for radio announcing; the V-2
position left a lot more low end in there and made it a great vocal
microphone.” The signal ran through an 1176 compressor/limiter
set with what Howe swears are the best parameter settings that can be
configured on it for vocals: threshold/attack, 6; release, 7; and a
12:1 compression ratio.

The song’s vocals were recorded the next day. “I just let them
sing all day,” Howe remembers. “It was a long track with
the same parts running over and over again. I didn’t know how long the
record was ultimately going to run. Then, at one point, Billy started
scat singing on it and I told him to hold it, let me put him out there
on a separate track so I could bring it in once I knew when we could
use it.” The entire multitrack recording was transferred to a
second 3M deck as the group’s vocals were doubled.

Then came what was always a touchy part in the age of analog tape: a
multitrack edit. Howe, who says he learned editing when the common
methodology was to use four fingers and a pair of scissors, laid the
end of the first song and the beats counting out the second across a
block and cut like a surgeon. “People tell me I was a good
engineer,” he says. “I don’t know. But I can tell you I was
very good at editing. I used to practice making quarter-inch cuts on
jazz solos.” The edit, even listening to it today, is seamless
and is helped by the reverberated overlap of vocal from the first song
leading into the next, as well as the string and horn overdubs.

The tapes were taken back to Heider’s for sweetening. Bill Holman’s
string and brass arrangements were recorded using the RCA DX-77 for the
horns and AKG 405s for the strings. One interesting element was the
swirling string part that opens the track. “I wanted something
over the drums that starts the song off,” says Howe. “I had
some vague idea in my head that it needed something, but I
wasn’t sure what; something shimmering. Then, just before we left
Vegas, I was riding in an elevator at Caesars and they were playing
Sinatra everywhere — in the lounges, the hallways, the elevators
— and I heard this sound; it was just what I was looking for. I
kept listening and then realized that it was ‘Lost in the
Stars,’ the Sinatra tune, with arrangements that Don Costa had
done. I played it for Bill [Holman] and told him I wanted something
like that. Then I would fade the rhythm section in under it to start
the song.”

The mix, such as it was, was done on the fly, as Howe combined three
tapes: the 8-track with the tracks and vocals, a 2-track with the newly
recorded swirl intro part and a new 8-track to which they would all be
transferred. Howe ran the swirl tape, finding the point to start the
main 8-track and fade it up into the premix. “It was like editing
a movie, with fades in the beginning,” he says. That was then
mixed to 2-track for the final mix.

Howe now had an opus coming in at 4:49 — a lifetime in
the era of AM pop radio singles. But input would come from a
serendipitous source: Wally Heider’s studio on Cahuenga was across the
street from Martoni’s restaurant, the counterpart L.A. hangout.
Stopping in there for a bite, Howe bumped into Bill Drake, the
programming director for the Drake-Chennault radio chain, which
included tastemaker stations KHJ and KFRC, and who was the archetype
for the modern radio playlist arbiter. Drake had heard the “white
label” of the record — the prereleased version sent by the
label to stir interest at radio — and liked it. But, as he
pointed out to Howe, it was a DJ’s nightmare. “He said if I did a
shorter version, it would be a bigger hit, since DJs could fit it in,
and that ending would be great to take them into the end of an
hour,” Howe recalls. “I was gonna eat, but instead I turned
right around and went back to the studio and made some cuts. I cut a
half verse out and one of the choruses. I got it down to 2:59.

“Aquarius” was released on March 8, 1969, and spent six
weeks at Number One and remained in the Top 40 for 16 weeks, selling
more than 2 million copies in less than a month before topping out at
triple Platinum. “That record had a complicated history,”
says Howe. “It was two songs jammed into one and then they were
cut in half to make it work for radio, and it was recorded in different
sessions and different cities before that became too common. And it was
worth it because it really defined the era, and you don’t get to do
that too often.”