First Wednesday: March 1968

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll update our examination of charts from fifty years ago and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month (except for this month, when my schedule and memory failed me, delaying the post by two days. But we’re still calling it “First Wednesday”).

As had been the case for many of the months preceding it, and as would be the case for many of the following months, the month of March 1968 was dominated – at least in the U.S. – by news of the Vietnam War and of the presidential campaign just getting under way.

During the month’s first week, what is now called the First Battle of Saigon ended. The battle had started in January as part of the Tet, or New Year’s, offensive of the army of North Vietnam and the guerrilla Viet Cong. During the First Battle of Saigon, thirty-five battalions of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attacked six specific targets in the capital of South Vietnam, then called Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.

As I’ve mentioned before, the fighting – in Saigon and elsewhere in South Vietnam – ended in a clear military defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, but those forces won the war of perception, as U.S. military and civilian leaders had been telling us here in the U.S. for some time that the enemy no longer had the ability to mount major military operations. Oops.

Back in the U.S., the war was the major topic of conversation in the presidential election, then just getting underway. President Lyndon Johnson won the Democratic side of the March 12 primary election in New Hampshire, the first in the nation. But the president’s slender victory – 49 percent to 42 percent – over anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy was received by the president as a repudiation of his policies, especially in Vietnam. Consequently, on the last day of March, he announced to a nation-wide television audience that he would not seek re-election.

Between the end of the Tet Offensive and the end of President Johnson’s presidential campaign came one of the U.S.’s darkest days in Vietnam. On March 16, a battalion of American soldiers was told to enter the villages Sơn Mỹ and find the hamlets called My Lai 1, 2, 3 and 4, where Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sympathizers had been reported. Their orders, according to Wikipedia, were to “burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy foodstuffs, and perhaps to close the wells.” The battalion’s Charlie Company was told by its commander, Captain Ernest Medina, that nearly all the civilian residents of the village would have left for the market that morning by seven o’clock, meaning that anyone in the village when the company arrived was almost certainly an enemy.

Wikipedia says that, in a later court martial, some of the soldiers in Charlie Company testified that they understood their orders as being “to kill all guerilla and North Vietnamese combatants and ‘suspects’ (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells.”

And that’s what they did. The toll? Even today, fifty years later, it’s unclear. Wikipedia says that the number of civilian deaths at My Lai was either 347 (according to the U.S. military) or 504 (according to a memorial at the site in Vietnam). The consequences? The U.S. military quickly initiated a cover-up of the massacre, a cover-up that eventually unraveled, thanks largely to a whistle-blower in the U.S. Army and to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Eventually, the U.S. Army tried one general for the cover-up and one soldier – Lt. William Calley – for the massacre. The general was acquitted; Calley was convicted and would up serving four and one-half months in a military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, during which time he was allowed routine and unrestricted visits by his girlfriend, according to a book by Aryeh Neier on war crimes and their effects.

By utter coincidence, on the same day as the massacre, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the presidential race.

Also in March 1968, according to Wikipedia:

A demonstration against American policies in Vietnam took place March 17 in London’s Grosvenor Square, site of the U.S. Embassy, and turned violent. A total of ninety-one people were injured and 200 were arrested.

On March 19, student protests began at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. The protests were marked by “the first building takeover on a college campus,” which Wikipedia says marked “a new era of militant student activism on American college campuses.” For five days, students staged a sit-in of the university’s administration building, temporarily shutting down the school. The impetus for the demonstration, according to Wikipedia, was the punishment of thirty-seven students who had disrupted the university’s Charter Day celebration on March 1. Additional causes of the protests were “the school’s ROTC program and military recruitment; the disproportionate number of African-Americans being sent into combat in the Vietnam War; and the lack of curriculum of African-American studies.”

In Nanterre, France, on March 22, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven other students “occupied the eighth-floor faculty lounge in the administration building at University of Paris X Nanterre, commonly referred to as the University of Nanterre,” an action whose consequences eventually brought France into a state of revolution in the month of May.

Even during a grim month in a grim year, there was always music for solace, though any kind of solace was becoming more difficult to find. Still, we listened, and in the first week of March, these were the top fifteen songs on WDGY in Minneapolis:

“Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company
“Valley of the Dolls” by Dionne Warwick
“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by the First Edition
“Nobody But Me” by the Human Beinz
“I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite” by Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart
“I Wish It Would Rain” by the Temptations
“Spooky” by the Classics IV
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding
“Everything That Touches You” by the Association
“I Can Take Or Leave Your Loving” by Herman’s Hermits
“Goin’ Out Of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by the Lettermen
“Too Much Talk” by Paul Revere & the Raiders
“Baby, Now That I Found You” by the Foundations
“Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream
“We’re A Winner” by the Impressions

That same week, the top albums in the U.S. were:

Blooming Hits by Paul Mauriat & His Orchestra
John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan
Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles
Axis: Bold As Love by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
Herb Alpert’s Ninth by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones
Greatest Hits by Diana Ross and the Supremes
Disraeli Gears by Cream

The top fifteen singles are not bad, maybe a little gooey in spots, especially the top spot. The albums are a great set, except for one. And no, it’s not the Paul Mauriat I dismiss. That’s still a pretty good album, for what it is. It’s the Rolling Stones’ record that doesn’t fit. I have digital versions of eight of those ten albums, and I have a Supremes anthology that includes the tunes on Greatest Hits. The only one of those ten albums unrepresented on the digital shelves is Their Satanic Majesties Request. Even when I had the vinyl, I never listened to it. It’s a mostly inconsequential album, with only “She’s A Rainbow” and, maybe, “2000 Light Years From Home” having any weight.

The album I’m sharing here today wouldn’t be released until September, so it doesn’t at all reflect the upheaval and anguish of April. But today’s album does represent a trend in pop music of the merging and mingling of styles.

The 5th Dimension first hit the charts in February 1967 with the single “Go Where You Wanna Go,” a No. 16 cover of the Mamas & the Papas song. Four months later, “Up-Up And Away” went to No. 7 while the album from which the singles had been pulled, Up, Up and Away, went to No. 8. (And no, I have no idea why the song title and the album title are punctuated differently; it’s bothered me for years.) The album and the singles were all produced by Johnny Rivers and released on his Soul City label.

The sound of the 5th Dimension has been described as what would happen if the Mamas and the Papas sang in Motown. That’s a little harsh and not quite right. Yes, the sound is at least partly a blending of California pop and R&B, and it’s true that the 5th Dimension’s music is not as gritty as were the sounds coming out of Detroit and Memphis. But rather than trying to create a Motown-Lite sound, I think what Rivers and the members of the 5th Dimension were trying to do was to bring several things – including Motown grit – into L.A.-based pop.

The three male members of the 5th Dimension hailed from blues- and R&B-drenched St. Louis, while Marilyn McCoo came from Jersey City and Florence LaRue Gordon was from Pennsylvania. Add that Johnny Rivers was born John Ramistella in New York City, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to hear bits of Philly-Jersey-New York girl groups and echoes of street-corner crooning in the 5th Dimension’s music, combined with a pop-soul sensibility and all laid over a bed of L.A. session work by musicians who clearly had been listening to Motown and Stax.

The group’s third album, Stoned Soul Picnic, came out in August 1968. (The group’s second album, 1967’s The Magic Garden, spun off the minor singles “Paper Cup” and “Carpet Man” but otherwise failed to make much of an impact.) Three singles from Stoned Soul Picnic charted: “Stoned Soul Picnic” (No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the magazine’s R&B chart) and “Sweet Blindness” (No. 13 on the Hot 100) were both written by Laura Nyro, while the song-writing team of Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson created “California Soul,” which went to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album itself went to No. 21 on the Billboard 200.

Those who pore over studio credits on the backs of album jackets found much to celebrate when they looked at the back of Stoned Soul Picnic. On guitars were Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasy and Ray Pohlman. Joe Osborn and Pohlman handled bass. Larry Knechtel and Jimmy Rowles were on keyboards. Larry Bunker handled marimba, vibes and other percussion, and the drum work came from Hal Blaine. (Just listen to the fills and you’ll know that.) Also credited were the Sid Sharp Strings and the Bill Holman Brass. Marc Gordon, who was credited with Johnny Rivers as producer on Up, Up and Away a year earlier, was credited with “co-ordination,” while Rivers was called a “realizor” on Stoned Soul Picnic.

The album is a good one, falling into the genre that I call pop-soul rather than R&B: Lighter than a lot of things I listen to and certainly lighter than a lot of things that were being listened to in 1968. Heavy times need some lightness once in a while, though, and I think that’s what the 5th Dimension provided.

(The video includes a bonus track, “East of Java,” which one can only assume came from the same sessions.)


Sweet Blindness
It’ll Never Be The Same Again
The Sailboat Song
It’s A Great Life
Stoned Soul Picnic
California Soul
Lovin’ Stew
Broken Wing Bird
Good News
Bobbie’s Blues (Who Do You Think Of?)
The Eleventh Song (What A Groovy Day!)
East of Java (bonus track)


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