He won his first Grammy Award in 1960 for the song "African Waltz". He was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame in 2006. Without a doubt, his most famous work is Hair. Galt Mac Dermot spoke with us about that and more!
Q - How does it feel to know that someone is singing the songs you helped write for Hair, on Broadway every night?
A - (Laughs) Well, it's very nice. It's better having it done than not.
Q - Is song writing something that comes easy for you?
A - When you say "easy", it's not easy to write a song, but if you do it regularly and are in touch with good lyric writers, it's nothing really but fun. I wouldn't say it's a hardship. If you've got good lyrics and a good reason to write them, you're gonna get 'em in a show. It's a very nice way to spend your time.
Q - Do you treat song writing as a business, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
A - It depends on the situation. If I have a show to write, I sit down and write the damn thing right away and don't stop until I've finished it. If I'm not writing a show and looking for things to do, I'll either find some lyrics or make up some lyrics. It depends on the circumstances.
Q - Do you write for Broadway shows?
A - I've written for every kind of situation. I worked in a church for a long time. I've written a lot of religious music. Anybody that performs, I'll write for, but mostly it's been Broadway or off-Broadway.
Q - What was your contribution to "Aquarius" and "Hair"? Did you write the lyrics and the music?
A - No, just the music. I was given the lyrics to the show, not all at once, but they gave me about ten and then they kept writing new ones. I set them all to music. I like to work that way. I don't like to take a tune and give it to the lyric writer because when I write a tune, I'll think of it in terms of lyrics. It's usually something else, an instrumental.
Q - Did you have a feeling when you saw the lyrics and wrote the music, that "Hair" and "Aquarius" were something special? Did you know that it would last?
A - I wouldn't put it that way, but I thought they were very good and I thought the tunes I was getting for them were very good. I was quite happy with the whole situation. I wasn't thinking in terms of it lasting, but I thought it would work as a show. But it wasn't that easy to make that show work. We worked a long time down there at Joe Papp's, putting in songs and taking out songs, but you have to make things work.
Q - When you went to college, did you study anything that would help you write songs?
A - Not really, only in the sense that I studied English Literature and had to read a lot of poetry. It taught me a lot about words. I don't write words if I can help it. I prefer not to.
Q - And so you play what instrument, piano?
A - Yeah.
Q - If a melody was to come to you in the middle of the night, are you the kind of guy who would jump out of bed and try to hum it into some kind of recording device?
A - It doesn't happen often, but if it does happen, I just write it. I have some paper by the bed and I write it down. I don't need to go play it on the piano. Song writing is a business with me. I have to know what I'm doing it for, the kind of songs that are required. You gotta put in a little thought. Sometimes you get an idea of a tune and you gotta write it down.
Q - The last guy who told me he viewed song writing as a business was Henry Mancini.
A - I do write when I don't have to, but it's a different process. Then I'm writing to amuse myself.
Q - What happens to that music?
A - It depends on what it is. If it's something other people might like, I might take it around. I don't do much of that now, but in the old days I used to take it around or record it with a band. I'd do something.
Q - Did you have any success in a situation like that, or no?
A - Well, I had more success with that than anything else. The first "hit" I had like that was called "African Waltz". I recorded it with my band and I took it over to England and the guy over there recorded it and made a big hit out of it.
Q - That would seem like it would've encouraged you to do more of the same.
A - I did, but I was doing everything. Writing music to lyrics and occasionally you'll get an idea for an instrumental like "African Waltz". Then you'll make a record of it and some of 'em get picked up. They do recordings of stuff I've written that I've recorded and then they copy it.
Q - If someone were to bring you a lyric that was used over and over again, would that discourage you from writing music to it? I'm guessing you're looking for intelligent lyrics.
A - I am. If the lyrics don't interest me, I don't do it. I don't even hear anything on it. Plenty of lyrics I've been given, I don't hear a tune and I just say I don't hear anything on this, so I don't do it again.
Q - After Hair, were you able to match that success?
A - Nothing came as big as Hair. Two Gentlemen Of Verona was a musical that I wrote with John Guara and it was moderately successful. Then I wrote another musical, I forget what it was called and it had some good songs in it. Then I sort of petered out. I didn't write any musicals. Writing a musical and putting one on is a huge effort.
Q - Which explains why there are so few, if any, successful musicals.
A - Well, I don't think that's why. They don't put enough energy into the music. They put energy into everything else, production and the casting, but you've got to write tunes that people want to sing. But I don't say that in a foreign sense. I haven't been to a musical in years.
Q - What was the last musical you saw?
A - I can't remember. I saw one at Lincoln Center that was moderately good, but not exciting, but awhile ago.
Q - Is it important these days for someone in the music business to live in or nearby a music city? Could you be successful if you lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming or Butte, Montana?
A - I don't know. I've never been there. I did the same thing when I was in Montreal. That's where I'm from, Montreal. But the thing is, the possibilities of having any success up there are very thin. I did make a couple of hit songs from Montreal, but the city (New York City) is equipped to make hits.
Q - You have an agent and publisher, do you?
A - I don't now. I used to have a guy, Nat Shapiro. He used to do that and he was quite successful. He'd get records made. But you know, it's all luck. You never know what song is going to be a hit or what isn't. You just do it and hope for the best.
Q - When you say "luck", that's an intangible. You can't put your finger on it. It either happens or it doesn't.
A - That's right. That's absolutely true. It's true of everybody. Everybody's dealing with the same thing. You also have a little bit of intelligence and you can say "Well, this tune could be a hit if I get it around to the right people." A little bit of intelligence will help, but you need a lot of luck too.
Q - And let's not forget co-operation. You need the right person to say yes or give you the green light.
A - Well, co-operation I think is inherent in the business. Everybody wants a hit. If you walk into a publisher and you say, "I just had a big hit. Look at this one. I've got a new one," they'll jump.