Song Writing

Bones Howe and the Songs of 1969

by Bruce Pollock

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For the book By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Revolution of 1969, Bruce Pollock spoke with Bones Howe, who produced The Association and The 5th Dimension. Here is an excerpt from that interview.
Among the many people calling the publisher in 1968 for a lock of Hair's mystique was the L.A. producer Bones Howe, who'd been working with the 5th Dimension since engineering "Up Up and Away" for their first album in 1967. He'd produced hits for the Turtles ("It Ain't Me Babe") and the Association ("Windy"); he'd been a personal guest of Lou Adler at the Monterey Pop Festival where he was perhaps the only West Coast guy in attendance to appreciate Laura Nyro's gruesome performance. Later he delivered Laura's "Stoned Soul Picnic" to the 5th Dimension, for which it was their biggest r&b hit. He was shuttling back and forth between his home in L.A. and the studio in New York working on the vocals for the Stoned Soul Picnic album when the group told him they wanted to do "Aquarius."

"The thing that bothered me about it was that there'd been other releases of 'Aquarius,'" said Bones, "and none had done anything, so I was concerned about what we would do that would be any different. I went to see the show and there's a place where they do "The Flesh Failures" and at the end of the song is just a three bar repeated thing of 'Let the sunshine in' where Ragni was swinging across the stage on a chandelier and there was all kinds of craziness going on. That really stayed with me and I came out of the theater saying, I wonder if I could stick that on the end of 'Aquarius' and make that the ending.

"So I went back to the hotel and I called the publisher. I mean you don't mess with the music from a Broadway show. I started my professional career in 1956 and I knew a lot about what you can and what you can't do with songs. I said, look the 5th Dimension would like to record 'Aquarius,' but I'd like to make it a medley and I'd like to use the last three bars of 'The Flesh Failures' and I don't want to do it without permission. So he said okay, you can go ahead and do it."

The next problem was to go ahead and do it. "The record was plotted in the fall of '68 and more or less finished in January of '69," Bones said. "I had to do a lot of work with my vocal arranger, Bob Alcivar. Because they couldn't sing both songs in the same key, we had to do a modulation; we figured out how I was going to do the instrumental arrangement so we could change keys. The record itself is the result of a conglomeration of things. I began as a jazz musician and I know the standard repertoire pretty well. I kept thinking about a song called 'Lost in the Stars' and trying to find something to give you that kind of impression. I described it to Bill Holman and he wrote that beautiful woodwinds and strings part that's in the intro. We did the track in L.A. and the vocals in Las Vegas where the 5th Dimension were opening for Frank Sinatra. We were working in that studio in Las Vegas where you used to have to stop when the train went by. Once when we were doing practice runs while the train passed Billy started that riff at the end 'oh let the sunshine…' so I said, wait, let me put that on a separate track at the end. There were a lot of happy accidents making the record."

That the Age of Aquarius (harmony, understanding, sympathy, trust, mystic crystals, revelations) announced to mainstream America by the song had already irrevocably given way to Richard Nixon's vision of law and order troubled Bones Howe not in the least. "I was in my thirties then; I was never part of that culture," he said. "But I made records they liked. I spent my life in the studio. Sometimes I went to the Trip and the Crescendo and all of those places on Sunset Strip because I worked with so many of those people. I was the engineer on 'Eve of Destruction' when the Mamas and Papas came to sing backup vocals. I was there the first night they were there and did their first three albums."

Breaking in with the pot-coded ode "Along Comes Mary," the Association had a long and troubled association with drugs a lot harder than Mary Jane. Bass player Brian Cole overdosed on heroin in 1972. "In the 60s drugs were everywhere," Bones said. "As a producer you had to find ways of getting around that. You'd work in the daytime not at night. If you're working with singers you don't let them have a whole day to laugh and carry on and have a good time and then come in the studio and try to sing. You try to get them at two in the afternoon when they've just gotten up. Most of the time I worked with studio musicians — guys I worked with all the time. I loved what they did and that's why I hired them over and over again and I loved the results we got. I worked with lead sheets, chord sheets, never written arrangements. I made jazz records in the 50s and that was improvised. In the 60s I was improvising with the rhythm section and when I got to the vocal parts we worked out arrangements."

To me, a writer looking for a hook, it was the height of irony that the 5th Dimension's year that began by celebrating the Age of Aquarius ended with them recording Laura Nyro's desperate call to "Save the Country," a song she'd written in '68 soon after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and put on her thrilling New York Tendaberry album, released in 1969. To Bones, however, it represented an opportunity missed to produce a hit single for one of his favorite people.

"Clive (Davis) wanted me to record 'Save the Country' with Laura as a single and I was able to record it in LA using my rhythm section," he said. "Laura was a good friend and I used to visit her in New York whenever I was there and she made me tuna fish sandwiches. She was great and I was a huge fan and I recorded enough of her songs so that there could be a 5th Dimension album of all Laura Nyro songs. I believe she was really an important songwriter and brought poetry to her work that kept it from being just pop. But she went where she went and the world didn't follow. The difficulty with Laura was when the record was finished and she listened to it…she didn't say it to me then, but I found out later that she wasn't going to include it in the album. She was excited about it when she did it. But when she stepped back she said, wait a minute, that's not me. It was too produced, too pop for her. She wanted to do 'Save the Country' just sitting at the piano. She said 'you make records that sock it to the people. I can't sock it to the people. I just don't do that.'"

To order By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Revolution of 1969, use this link.
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Comments: 5

  • Nyrogrl from New York Tendaberryso many of us know the Brilliance the beauty the poetry the production the strings the horns the piano the chords of Laura Nyro. She did it all as a teenager and into her early 20s she had four of the most amazing albums back to back that folks were listening to more than anyone.
  • Rob Holland from Northern California My father, the late Milt Holland, used to work in that LA rhythm section on Percussion and probably sometimes Drums, for Bones. It's likely he's heard on many of these cuts playing percussion, sometimes they were not credited in those days.
    (Bones designed our home stereo system, it was so great with Altec tube gear and studio monitors, just sounded amazing, I still have those amplifiers sadly not the speakers.)
    I know that Milt was fond of bones, he appreciated his jazz sensibilities and we are working with people.
  • Deborah Huber from Prescott, WisconsinI met Larry (Ron) Lawrence in May of 1971, in Ellsworth Wisconsin. The group Punch was touring, promoting there album. Larry and I become fast good friends. Any idea how I could get in touch with him. It would be fun to catch-up. debbynelson55@aol.com
  • Anonymouswow Bones was ingenious i feel i was missing out on a
    great advanture not being part of the 60's , thanks for the history
  • Barney HoskynsGreat stuff - Bones was a genius producer and Laura Nyro was a pop goddess!
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