Florence LaRue remembers when Frank Sinatra presented her group, the 5th Dimension, with a gold record for their album Stoned Soul Picnic. “We were performing with him at Caesar’s Palace, and the people wanted him to present it to us onstage,” she says. “But they were afraid to ask him! Because of his reputation.”
Florence said don’t be silly, I’ll ask him. As the record company bigwigs trembled at the very thought of the famously touchy Sinatra, she walked down the hall to the great man’s dressing room. “And I asked him, and he said ‘Of course!’” Sinatra even stayed around to pose for pictures with the 5th Dimension and their award. She has one on the wall of her office, Sinatra in his tuxedo, the group members resplendent in their multi–colored stage uniforms.
“He was always very warm and loving,” LaRue says. “He would always come to me before the show with a kiss on the cheek, and say ‘Have a good show.’ He was really a wonderful man.”
Much more than just a ’60s pop act with a handful of good jukebox records, the 5t hDimension worked hard and paid attention during that era of innovation and breathlessness, and blossomed in the ’70s. Here’s a group that brought together young and old, black and white, pop and jazz, great songwriting and Top 40. They were showbiz, but they were hip, too. And they made a pussycat out of Sinatra, who liked them so much they became his permanent opening act. He toured the world with them, featured them on his TV specials and never forgot to give Florence that nightly good–luck smooch.
The 5th Dimension was one of the more distinctive vocal harmony groups to emerge in the post–Beach Boys ’60s, when harmony groups had to be innovative or die lamely trying. They had full use of some of the best songwriters, including Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro, a great arranger, a great producer. A supportive record label, and most of the top Los Angeles session musicians, who loved to straddle the 5th Dimension fence between pure pop and rhythm ‘n’ blues music.
The group had major hits, including “Up, Up and Away,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which was one of the biggest singles of the year 1969. How big? It spent more weeks at Number One (six) than the Beatles’ “Get Back” OR the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”
The group’s early success could only have come in the 1960s, when radio was not nearly as rigid as it would eventually become. For a singing group that utilized elements of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, Motown and rock ‘n’ roll to succeed, the entertainment palette—not just radio, but TV outlets like The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Palace—had to be open to a rainbow of different styles, approaches and colors.
The 5th Dimension had that old show business necessity, dazzle, that made them look like good, clean fun to Mom and Dad. They had an act that carried them, most successfully, into the mid ’70s where they were contemporaries of the Carpenters, Chicago and the Captain & Tennille.
Mostly, the 5th Dimension were five terrific voices. Lamonte McLemore, Ron Townson, Billy Davis Jr., Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue each had his or her own preferred style of music, so each voice contributed something different.
“The reason the voices worked so well together was because they were from different musical backgrounds,” Townson believes. “Florence and Marilyn were pop, Billy was R ‘n’ B and gospel, Lamonte had a hint of jazz, and I was classical and spiritual. This was a mixture and it blended just perfectly.”
Lamonte McLemore is central to the story of the 5th Dimension. He was born in St. Louis and, as a kid, hated everything but baseball. “I wanted to play ball more than anything else in the world,” McLemore says, “and I was so poor growing up that I saved all my money and bought this Marty Marion shortstop glove. I got it at night, and the next day I was knockin’ on all the kids’ doors. And it was a monsoon; it was raining so hard the kids said ‘Are you crazy?’ I didn’t care about the rain.”
One day Lamonte’s grandmother, exasperated, asked him to name the three things he loved; after baseball, there was really nothing else, so he thought fast and told her, um, photography and music. “I hated singing with a passion,” he laughs. “My folks used to beat me because I wouldn’t join the church choir. All I wanted to do was play baseball and be a gangster.”
(Eventually, he did become a photographer—he was the first black staff shooter for Harper’s Bazaar—and he was signed to the Los Angeles Dodgers system as an AA league pitcher.)
But music, ironically, was to be his life’s work. Back home in St. Louis, teenage Lamonte was recruited to sing bass in a streetcorner group, and that attracted girls. He figured OK, I really didn’t lie to my grandmother after all.
Once he was in L.A., years later, taking pictures and throwing pitches, it was natural for him to figure out how to assemble a group.
That would be the HiFis, a pop/jazz quartet that included (briefly) Ron Townson, a singing friend from St. Louis, and a 19–year–old UCLA business major named Marilyn McCoo, the daughter of two prominent physicians. McLemore had photographed the Miss Bronze California Pageant in 1964, when Marilyn won the talent segment and the title of “Miss Congeniality.”
Although she worked briefly as a social caseworker in L.A., McCoo had a four–octave range, and she had designs on a career as a pop diva. “I did not want to sing in a group,” she says. “I just did not want the hassle.”
Marilyn had debuted on TV’s “Spotlight on the Young” at age 15, and had appeared on the Art Linkletter show. She also modeled for Lamonte’s fashion layouts.
Lamonte persuaded her that “it’ll just be a hobby” and Marilyn joined the HiFis. She fully intended to become a solo, though. Group singing, McCoo, thought, was “fun” and harmless.
During a magazine photo shoot, Lamonte mentioned to Ray Charles that he, the photographer, had a group, would Mr. Charles care to check it out?
Charles said sure, son, let’s hear what you’ve got, and the HiFis dutifully auditioned; impressed, Brother Ray put them on the bill as part of the Ray Charles Revue. They toured the country, and quit the show six months later following a money dispute.
Charles produced a single, “Lonesome Mood,” with the group re–named the Vocals for the occasion. It was released on his own label, Tangerine Records.
McLemore says Charles was fun to be around. “When he comes in, they always hand him something, a book or something just to hold,” he recalls. “We were getting ready to sing, and he had this book, and it was upside down. So we couldn’t hardly sing, we were about to laugh.
“Then he turned the book around, and we all were kinda astonished: Wait a minute….”
By this time, Townson had already left the HiFis. A classically trained vocalist, he had sung with the St. Louis Municipal Opera and the Celestial Choir back home.
Ron’s family was in the catering business. One night at a job at the Los Angeles home of singer Dorothy Dandridge, Ron—in his white catering uniform—was recognized by party guest Nat “King” Cole, a family friend from St. Louis. Cole asked him to sing for Dandridge and her visitors, and after Ron reluctantly agreed he was hired to go on the road with both Dandridge and Cole. Dandridge got him into the chorus for the 1959 movie version of Porgy and Bess.
Townson was a pop singer, too—he’d joined the Penguins after “Earth Angel,” and provided the background on Ed Townsend’s 1958 hit “For Your Love.” Undecided about which direction he wanted to pursue, he was in and out of the HiFis several times.
The HiFis became the Versatiles in 1965 with the addition of Florence LaRue, who took the talent prize in the Miss Bronze California pageant that year (she sang “April in Paris,” impressing judge Eartha Kitt, Florence says, because she did it entirely in French). Florence had received her teaching certificate from Cal State, and was working at Grant Elementary School in Hollywood.
Then Townson was persuaded to come back for good, and the final ingredient was, ironically, another chum from the same St. Louis high school. Billy Davis Jr. had a heck of a voice; he could wail like Otis Redding and plead like Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Billy, who’d fronted several groups in Missouri and had even cut a couple of singles (on the Epsom label), had his sights set on a career in rhythm ‘n’ blues and had already auditioned for Motown in L.A. He was, they assured him, “on the waiting list.”
The group members chose their new moniker because their music was a versatile mix of Motown, jazz and other styles. Even Marilyn, who’d kept insisting she was on her way to a solo career, had to admit this group was special. Everyone took it seriously, and showed up for rehearsal on time, and that was the sort of thing that impressed her.
Lamonte hustled the Versatiles’ tapes all around Hollywood, and he spent a good deal of time at the L.A. offices of Motown Records. The group really wanted to be on Motown, home to their heroes.
Everyone at every label said his tape was nice, but they didn’t hear any hits. Lamonte even flew to Detroit, and Berry Gordy personally told him the same thing.
Marc Gordon, a young executive in Motown’s L.A. offices, was one of the Versatiles’ biggest fans, and he left the label not long after Lamonte’s empty–handed return from Detroit. He became the group’s manager, and promised them big things.
Soon, Gordon introduced the singers to their unlikely svengali: pop singer Johnny Rivers, who had just been given his own imprint label by Liberty Records. Rivers was looking for acts to sign and produce on Soul City. “I liked the way they looked, their personalities,” Rivers later recalled. “They presented themselves really well. They were nice people, they had a good vibe about them.”
Rivers produced “I’ll Be Loving You Forever,” the Versatiles’ 1966 debut on Soul City, but after it failed to chart he and Gordon started to re–think the group’s style. The single was very heavily R&B–influenced (in fact, it’s almost a direct steal from the Four Tops); Rivers decided to put the spotlight on his quintet’s incredible harmonies and turn them, he told his engineer Bones Howe, into a “black Mamas and Papas.”
First, the name had to go. The Versatiles, in 1967, was squaresville.
It was, by all accounts, Ron Townson and his wife, Bobette, who dreamed up “The 5th Dimension,” because there were five people in the group.
“The label said they needed a hipper name,” Florence remembers. “We liked that, because there is no fifth dimension. We’ll make the fifth dimension our dimension of sound.”
Rivers sent them to a trendy L.A. clothier for some groovy threads. “Instead of mohair suits and patent leather shoes,” he said. “No black groups were doing that at the time.”
“It was nice to meet Johnny Rivers but, you know, we weren’t really into his music that much,” says Marilyn. “‘Poor Side of Town’ was nice.
“He brought us this song called ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’ by this group called the Mamas and Papas. It was pop; it wasn’t what we liked, but he said ‘I know it can be a hit record. And we felt like ‘we need a hit; we’re got gonna stand on ceremony and say no, we won’t record that. The man’s ready to put the money behind us and all.’ So we went into the studio and recorded it, and we thought it was kinda lame.”
Lamonte: “At first, I thought it was too white. I didn’t understand what we were doing ’cause they got that Mamas and Papas song. I said ‘Aw, man …. I don’t know what this is, but I’ll go along with the program.’”
He remembers that the Mamas and Papas came down to the studio, “glad the little black group was getting off the ground … then we got to be bigger than them, and we didn’t see ‘em no more.”
In February of ’67, as “Go Where You Wanna Go” nudged into the Top 20, the 5th Dimension began recording their first album, Up, Up and Away, with Rivers at the the helm. The title song came from one of Soul City’s contract songwriters, Jimmy Webb. He’d played it for the group during a rehearsal, when Rivers was out of the country. Rivers came home to find the song arranged, rehearsed and all but recorded.
By July, “Up, Up and Away” had reached the Number 7 slot in the United States; the album—which included four other Jimmy Webb songs—hit Number 8 in August and went gold.
“I was still working as a youth job developer in Watts when the single hit,” Marilyn says. “I remember thinking that if I could make $400 a month, I could pay my rent and take care of the bills, and have a little left over.”
America had a thing for “Up, Up and Away”; in January ’68, it took four Grammys, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Contemporary Single and Best Performance by a Vocal Group. A competing version by the Johnny Mann Singers won for Best Performance By a Chorus.
Florence: “It’s really a Cinderella story, because normally when groups get together, you rehearse and sing around town for years before being discovered. We were only together a year or so when we recorded ‘Go Where You Wanna Go,’ and we changed the name.”
After the first album, Rivers and the group mutually decided they needed another producer. Engineer Bones Howe—who’d produced hits for the Association and the Turtles—got the nod. Rivers had finished one track, a cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” and for financial reasons (Soul City couldn’t afford to toss it out) it got tacked onto the end of The Magic Garden, a song cycle of Jimmy Webb compositions, each telling part of the story of his recent divorce (the album was later re–titled The Worst That Could Happen after one of its songs became a huge hit for another group, the Brooklyn Bridge).
“Jimmy,”says Howe, “was going through a major depression. I would have to go get him up out of bed and drag him to the studio. He was writing the tunes almost as we were recording them.” Webb’s “Carpet Man” and “Paper Cup” put the 5th back onto the Top 40. Several years later, “The Girls’ Song”—the only upbeat track on the album—would become a hit extract from The 5th Dimension Greatest Hits.
Billy Davis wasn’t entirely sure he liked his group’s pop sound. However, “When we were coming up we were told look, if you get something good going, don’t try to stop it. Just go with it, because you never know what God’s got in store for you.”
Howe then brought in arranger Bob Alcivar, who had worked with the New Christy Minstrels and the Association. His most famous records had been with the Sandpipers (“Come Saturday Morning”).
Alcivar, who’d sung in a vocal ensemble of his own (the Signatures), was instructed to listen carefully to the 5th Dimension’s two albums to see what they were capable of.
“When I first started with them, they were at a certain level,” Alcivar recalls. “Jimmy had been coaching and teaching them. They had been singing mostly his songs. I took on the role of vocal group person, if you will. Harmonies and parts. Jimmy did beautiful things, but he stayed away from five–part harmony. I got into that.”
Alcivar applied his magic to the songs that would become the group’s third album, Stoned Soul Picnic, released in August ’68. The technique was established: After Bones cut the rhythm tracks, and sweetened them with strings or brass, the 5th Dimension would learn Alcivar’s complicated arrangements, then come into the studio and sing them. Then the quintet would overdub the whole thing again to get a “fuller” sound. Often they overdubbed just four bars of music at a time.
“The group loved doing that, and it just got easier and easier,” says Alcivar. “They began to understand what the relationship was between parts, and so forth. And as we recorded, as they heard playbacks, they really understood where I was going.”
The first hurdle Alcivar faced when he joined the “family” was song selection. “It was kind of a problem after ‘Up, Up and Away,’ because they couldn’t continue doing that kind of song,” he explains. “Although lots of writers and publishers thought they could, and most of the material that came to them was that kind of thing—flying kites and all that kind of thing. Everybody was writing balloon songs, suddenly. They wanted to get heavier than that.
“They liked the notes I wrote, the arrangements I wrote, and I enjoyed working with them. So it was just a question of finding the right songwriter.”
At that point, manager David Geffen brought Bones a demo tape of his prize client, Laura Nyro. She’d had a hit LP on Verve, and her first Columbia album was yet to be released. The 5th quickly added Nyro to their “stable” of songwriters, and her “Sweet Blindness” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” became the group’s first non–Webb–composed hits.
After that, they scored with “California Soul,” a sort of psychedelic R&B song written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
“That very diversity,” Alcivar notes, “kind of makes up for a bland sound.”
“Some of the songs we would not have chosen,” remembers Florence, “like ‘Sweet Blindness’ and ‘Stoned Soul Picnic,’ had it not been for Bones Howe’s wonderful ear. Because we were more R’n’B, and he brought these little songs to us that were very pop. And we really didn’t hear them.
“And his productions were awesome. He was flawless, and sometimes we would spend hours and hours just trying to get a couple of notes in tune.”
As he became integrated into the 5th Dimension family, Howe immediately began to notice that the public perception of the group did not entirely match the way they saw themselves. “The problem was that they were getting so much publicity about being quote–unquote white,” the producer recalls. “And they hated that. I can understand how they hated it; they wanted to be accepted in the black R&B community.
“Unfortunately, as one R&B promoter once said to me, ‘They make too much money to be R&B singers.’ Billy wanted to be Wilson Pickett, but he wasn’t. With enough hard knocks, he maybe could’ve made it as an R&B singer, because he came out of that world. But the rest of the group didn’t. Marilyn graduated from UCLA. Her father was a doctor. This is a completely middle class group, with the exception of Lamonte and Billy.
“But there was always this pressure, because wherever they would go out and work blacks would give them pressure about being too white. And the pressure was always on me to make R&B records.”
Billy: “We took a lot of criticism, but it was all right, because I felt like we were opening up new ground. We were pioneers. We were just putting it out the way that we felt it, and the way that we wanted to sing it.”
Marilyn’s reaction was even sharper. “We weren’t thinking that it was a ‘white’ sound,” she says, “it was a ‘different’ sound. We were putting some interesting harmonics in there. When people started accusing us of betraying our blackness, we got angry. I still bristle at that today.
“I told people then, I did not grow up in a church, singing gospel music. And the kind of music I heard around the house when I was growing up happened to be pop music. It was the kind of stuff my parents listened to.”
Each 5th Dimension album project began with “listening sessions,” with songs and ideas pitched in by everyone. Once it was decided which songs the group was going to record, Alcivar would head home and draw up vocal charts. “We all sat around and listened to the tunes and voted on them,” Townson recalls. “And when Jimmy Webb was writing for us, everything that Jimmy wrote we just jumped on it. The same thing with Laura Nyro.”
Alcivar and Howe, along with Bill Holman, arranged the backing tracks for the studio musicians.
Marilyn: “I don’t know how much advance preparation Bob and Bones would go through, but I do know that once we got into the studio it was a group–oriented project, consisting of Bones, Bob and the group.”
“Remember,” says Howe, “they were touring all the time. They would come into town for 10 days. Starting with Stoned Soul Picnic, those records were all made in pieces. They were always on the road. They were very, very hard–working.
“They would come back to town and I would have them for two weeks. In the afternoon for a few hours.”
The group had its biggest year in 1969. They were so busy with tour commitments and TV appearances that Bones was forced to record their vocals for the album The Age of Aquarius in the afternoons at tiny United Recording in Las Vegas (during yet another stand at Caesar’s with Sinatra), all the while cutting the backing tracks at Wally Heider’s back in L.A.
Hair was all the rage that year—the “American Tribal Love–Rock Musical,” with its rough language, onstage nudity and songs about drug use and homosexuality, peaked the national curiosity. Suddenly, hippies were fashionable—the free love–espousing, draft card–burning hippies of Hair, anyway, who existed only on the Broadway stage under costume, wig and makeup, and who sang gloriously sweet and non–threatening hippie–like pop songs. Middle America could deal with that.
And deal with it they did—Three Dog Night had a smash with “Easy to Be Hard,” one of the emotional highlights of Hair, and the title song was a hit for the singing Cowsill family. “Good Morning Starshine” turned a singer named Oliver into a star (briefly).
But the biggest prize of all went to the 5th Dimension, who made the play’s opening song, “Aquarius,” their own. No one who hears this song today thinks of Ronnie Dyson, who sang it passionately on the Broadway stage. They think of Marilyn and Florence and the starry–eyed optimism of 1969.
“From the first time the group heard the song, we felt like it fit us,” Marilyn says. “We were all at the play, and we all slipped out when we heard it, and we got together at intermission—because we were sitting in different places in the theater—and we were all saying ‘We’ve got to record that song.’”
They brought the idea to Bones, who told them point–blank, it’s been done, it’s somebody else’s song, forget it. Alcivar said “Aquarius” was a “downer.” But the five singers insisted.
Finally, Bones agreed to cut “Aquarius” only if they’d let him join it with something else from Hair—by itself, it was simply too short. He got hooked on a section of “The Flesh Failures,” the show–closer, and assigned Alcivar the unenviable task of making them fit together. It was, Alcivar remembers, a nightmare, as the section—”Let the Sunshine In”—was in a lower key, and you never want to go to a lower key, only higher …
The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius” single was uplifting, almost spiritual in nature, and it ruled the airwaves in those early months of 1969.
One reason the single felt like a gospel wake–up call was Billy’s scat–singing, imploring the listener to “let it shine” and to “sing along,” over the finale. Unlike the carefully crafted vocals and the Vulcan mind–meld between the two original songs, this part of the record was an accident. “We were doing the background parts, and Billy just started singing over them,” Howe recalls. “I said ‘Hold on, Billy! We’ll put that on a separate track. That’s fantastic.’ He was just kind of clowning around as everyone was singing. And he got to do his R&B thing.”
According to Florence, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” was the fastest recording they ever made, they all loved it so much and were so enthusiastic about it.
Released in January of ’69, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” flew to No. 1 in March and began its six–week stay. While it was there, the album The Age of Aquarius was released …. It spent 72 weeks on Billboard’s album chart, reaching No. 2 and earning the 5th Dimension a second gold LP award (after Up, Up and Away, their debut).
The Age of Aquarius represented the high–water mark for the 5th Dimension—during 1969 they appeared on TV specials with Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra, they were repeat guests on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, and the album’s “Workin’ On a Groovy Thing” (a favorite of Florence’s, it was a Neil Sedaka composition) became a Top 20 hit.
Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” also taken from the album, made it all the way to No. 1, where it spent three weeks during August.
“Wedding Bell Blues,” with its unforgettable lament “Bill! I love you so, I always will” was on a Nyro album, not intended for the 5th Dimension. It was Bones who thought it would be a hoot for the group to record it with Marilyn taking the lead—because, as everyone in the 5th Dimension camp knew, Billy and Marilyn were an item, and had been for some time.
“She used to pick me up to take me to rehearsals,” Billy remembers. “We would talk a lot about life and things, and people, just general conversation.
“And as we talked, we found out that we had a lot in common. We talked the same language. It was wonderful. We became such great friends … we weren’t looking at each other as far as boyfriend or girlfriend, or whatever.”
Davis says he had always been “the life of the party,” but when Marilyn was around, all he did was talk to her. “To this day, that still goes on.”
Their relationship stayed platonic for the longest time, he relates. “All of a sudden, we started looking at each other onstage, and we looked different to each other. And I would say to myself ‘No, that couldn’t be happening.
“Then I noticed that she was getting in the middle of my business with some of the girls that I was going with. She didn’t like this one, and she didn’t like that one. And I didn’t like that guy, because he wasn’t treating you right. It was that kind of stuff.
“And before we knew it, we were hooked up ourselves and couldn’t believe it. I think we even tried to fight it, but it wouldn’t go away.”
Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo were married on July 26, 1969, and in September, Florence LaRue married the 5th Dimension’s manager Marc Gordon.
It wouldn’t be long before these two camps—the seats of power within the organization—would be bitterly opposed.
Still, the group finished 1969 on top of the world. The “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” single was the biggest seller of that year, and was awarded Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Group.
Soon after The Age of Aquarius, Soul City went out of business. For a while, Gordon was in negotiations with Clive Davis at Columbia Records, but the group’s contract eventually went to Bell Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures (no relation).
The first Bell album, Portrait, was released in the spring of 1970, almost simultaneously with Greatest Hits, a last gasp from Soul City.
Portrait was advanced by an innovative new single, “The Declaration,” a literal reading of the Declaration of Independence, set to stirring music from the Broadway play Bread, Beans & Things. It was a Double A–sided single, paired with a medley of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and the Young Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free.”
Clearly intended to reach for the same star as “Aquarius”—inspirational messages in medley form, from a hip, hit show—”The Declaration” missed the American Top 40.
The melody was composed by Julius Johnsen and Rene De Knight. De Knight was a longtime member of the 5th Dimension camp—he had been a friend of Florence’s, and was responsible for arranging the songs in their live shows, which included more than their hit singles. In concert, they covered hits of the day, novelty songs, standards and many things they’d never recorded in a studio. De Knight was the man.
He changed their early, Motown–ish harmonies, Florence says, and introduced “the jazz element.” De Knight, she explains, “brought in class and discipline.”
Says Ron Townson: “Rene was with a group called the Delta Rhythm Boys, that used to tour with Duke Ellington’s orchestra all the time. So he had a sense of the sound he wanted. He took the sounds from the Delta Rhythm Boys and created the 5th Dimension sound.”
(Fascinating quote from Rene De Knight in a 1967 issue of Ebony magazine: “The 5th Dimension is unique because it is the first Negro group to come along and reverse the rend of Caucasians singing Negro material. This is the way Negro singers are going to have to go. The time of singing ‘I love you, baby’ is rapidly passing.”)
Certainly change was in the air. It was around the turn of the decade; middle America was becoming more aware of black culture and the notion of equality in everyday life, segregation of public schools had ended, and the 5th Dimension sure didn’t sound like any of the ultra–hip black rhythm ‘n’ blues or soul groups around at the time.
“Tell me how you can color a sound?” asks Ron Townson. “If you can color a sound, then that’s the sound we’ll sing. We called it champagne soul. We were all different voices and we can’t help the way our voices came out. God gave us those voices.
“We didn’t try to put on anything; we didn’t try to sing like rhythm ‘n’ blues, we didn’t try to sing like gospel. It was God’s gift that each one of us had a different type of voice, and that’s the sound that came out when it blended together.”
Lamonte, who had complained that the group’s blossoming sound was “too white” back in the “Go Where You Wanna Go” days, remembers when black members of the student body at California’s Valpariso College had picketed the school’s concert–booking policy, choosing “too many white acts.”
“So they said OK, they’d get somebody. And they got us. And the black people said ‘Well, this ain’t representative of what we’re asking for at all.” The students, Lamonte heard, only knew “Up, Up and Away.”
Gordon bought up blocks of tickets and had them distributed to black students—”and they came back and thanked us, with tears in their eyes,” Lamonte says.
In October, the U.S. State Department paid for a 5th Dimension tour of Eastern Europe, where American musical stars, black, white or green, were in short supply. The group performed in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and even in Turkey. They were, everyone remembers, treated like kings and queens.
The Nixon administration took a shine to the 5th Dimension—this might have contributed, actually, to the group’s lack of cachet with the rock ‘n’ roll audience—and the quintet appeared at the Nixon White House in 1972.
Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country” and Neil Sedaka’s “Puppet Man” were also issued as singles from Portrait, but neither tore up the chart. In August, a newly–recorded single, “On the Beach (In the Summertime)” was released and didn’t do much either.
(Ironically, these were probably the strongest 5th Dimension singles, melodically and in terms of performance, since “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”)
Earlier in the year, the group had guest–starred on Robert Wagner’s TV drama It Takes a Thief. The episode (“To Sing a Song of Murder”), which was little more than a 60–minute promo for Portrait, featured the 5th in the recording studio, with Bones, recording “Puppet Man” and Marilyn’s solo from the album, the Bacharach/David song “One Less Bell to Answer.” In fact, the episode even suggested some romantic interplay between Wagner’s character, Al Mundy, and Marilyn.
“One Less Bell to Answer” was the key song in It Takes a Thief. A bomb was rigged to explode, taking out the president of a third–world nation, when its final chord came over the radio.
In the fall, long after Portrait had seemingly worn out its welcome, “One Less Bell to Answer” began getting serious airplay. Howe remembers it all started on a tiny Middle–of–the–Road FM station in California, “where nobody ever called in for anything. And suddenly they were getting all these calls, every time they played ‘One Less Bell to Answer.’”
Bell issued it as a fourth single, and by mid–December it was No. 2 in the nation, behind George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”
After “One Less Bell to Answer,” almost all the 5th Dimension singles issued by Bell featured Marilyn McCoo on lead vocals. At first, the group went along with it, but within two or three years, the decision was not sitting well. Instead of being a celebratory moment in time, “One Less Bell to Answer” was the beginning of the end.
“With any group,” points out Bob Alcivar, “you reach a point where you say well, what do we do now? We’ve gone this far … how many different ways can you write a chord?”
The group’s next single, the sinewy smooth “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” appeared in the spring of 1971, and despite its unwieldy title and somewhat ridiculous concept (love as a mathematical equation) it was a Top 20 hit. Marilyn’s vocal was sublime and sexy.
At the end of the year, Bell issued The Fifth Dimension—Live, a double album recorded at an unspecified location. Featuring many of Rene De Knight’s longtime arrangements of stage favorites such as “Ode to Billie Joe,” “Mac Arthur Park” and “Shake Your Tambourine,” the album—with orchestra conducted by Bob Alcivar—attempted to showcase each of the group members’ vocal talents, and stressed their harmony work.
“Rene understood how to put together an entertaining live show,” Marilyn says. “And that was one of the reasons why we worked so much, because our shows were hot. It was high energy, and we had interesting charts.”
However, the single issued was a re–make of the pop ballad “Never My Love,” which Alcivar had originally arranged for the Association back in ’67. The single featured Marilyn on a smoky lead vocal, with the others barely audible in the rear, backing her up.
And “Never My Love” wasn’t even a live recording; the group and Howe cut it in a studio and dubbed on the audience sounds and applause.
The single made it to No. 12; the Live album barely registered.
In 1971, the Ed Sullivan Show dedicated a lengthy segment to the 5th Dimension’s fifth anniversary. Ed even rolled out a really big cake with a “5″ on top.
To promote the Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes album, the group starred in a TV special, The 5th Dimension Traveling Sunshine Show. Ron got to sing an operatic aria, the others got solos, and Dionne Warwick, the Carpenters and even Merle Haggard appeared as guest stars.
It was, however, clear that Marilyn was being looked upon as the standout star of the quintet.
By now, tensions were mounting inside the 5th Dimension camp. After all their years of hard work, the group had turned into Marilyn McCoo and her backing singers.
According to Howe, who worked with the label’s promotion people to pick the singles, there usually wasn’t much choice: It was Marilyn or nothing. “Ronald had this kind of operatic tenor voice, and it was always hard finding things for him to sing,” he says. “He was always pushing to sing something.
“They were always finding people whose songs they wanted to record, and there are a few of them scattered through the various albums. Ninety–nine percent of production is psychiatric manipulation. I would’ve traded ‘Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep’ for another piece of junk that’s on that album. I had to trade songs with them, and I gladly did it because my concern was getting hit singles, and getting three or four of them on an album, so we could sell some albums.
“They were constantly coming at me with these weak R&B songs. If you go through the albums, you’ll find them. They’re in there, interwoven, they’re cut number five on side two.”
Says Marilyn: “After ‘One Less Bell’ came out, people started coming to me and saying ‘When are you leaving the group?’ But by then, I wasn’t planning to leave. I had no reason to. I was not chomping at the bit to leave the group.”
The 5th Dimension’s final big singles appeared in 1972; “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All” and “If I Could Reach You” were more Marilyn solos. The group members were angry and frustrated, while the money-changers at Bell Records were happy with their cash cow.
“At first, they weren’t supposed to do that.” Billy says. “That was the agreement amongst all of us that that wasn’t going to happen. So when they started doing that, it was like any other company: They started wearing the voice out. They’ll wear it out until it doesn’t happen any more, instead of turning it around, re–creating with somebody else.
“Doing the same thing the Temptations would do—they’d switch the leads, so people weren’t getting tired of that one sound.”
“Billy was furious that Marilyn was getting all these hits,” Howe recalls. “I was really under the gun. They’d call me to these meetings, and they would just rake me over the coals because Billy wanted hit singles. He was the lead singer, you know, and I started recording Marilyn.
“I remember him saying to me ‘If you keep sticking songs out there by the same girl, she’s bound to get a hit.’ He was married to her at the time! Well, I knew I had a good thing, and I kept saying to them look, it’s not Marilyn McCoo & the 5th Dimension, it’s the 5th Dimension! But I would go to the concerts and I would see them go nuts when she’d come out onstage.
“So I was frantically trying to do everything I could to keep everybody else happy, so that Marilyn could continue to have hit singles. And if you look at the string of singles, starting with ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ they’re all her.”
The Individually and Collectively album (1973) attempted to patch some of the damage by giving each of the five singers a solo. Even though included “Last Night,” “If I Could Reach You” and the quintet’s bravura rendition of Laura Nyro’s “Black Patch,” it was their least successful album since The Magic Garden.
“The time came when there was more focus on ‘What’s my song going to be?’ and ‘What do I get to do?’ and less on the group,” Marilyn recalls. “It was getting to be so stressful I was taking Valium to go to rehearsal.”
Bones: “I knew that Ronald was unhappy because he wanted to sing lead, and Florence felt she was being passed over … there was a lot of sizzling inside the group that I wasn’t party to, because I wasn’t in the dressing room when they were on the road.”
There were two strong camps: Billy and Marilyn, and Marc and Florence. Everybody had their own ideas about what would be best for the group, but after a while no one could squeeze a hit out of any of them. The friction, by 1974, was almost unbearable.
“And of course, music was changing,” Marilyn reflects. “Billy and I really wanted to incorporate the new musical sounds into the 5th Dimension sound.
“And not everybody was feeling that way. Some members felt like ‘Hey, our sound has worked, why would we change it now?’ And we were saying well, if we don’t change it, we’re gonna get left behind.”
The gas gauge was perilously close to Empty in 1973, as the 5th Dimension aligned themselves, somewhat reluctantly, with the big–budget Hollywood remake of the film Lost Horizon. Their recording of Bacharach/David’s “Living Together, Growing Together”—dreadful song, soulless record—was a chart stiff and something of a coffin nail (it did not, pointedly, feature Marilyn, or anyone else, on lead vocals). Howe says Columbia Pictures—which owned their label—forced them to record the songs from the movie.
Says Billy: “Everything comes to an end, I don’t care what it is. The most consistent thing in all of our lives is change. And sooner or later that’s gonna happen.”
For the 5th Dimension, the end came in 1975. The blame was placed on Bones Howe, and halfway through the Soul & Inspiration album he was fired; he subsequently produced Tom Waits on Asylum Records. Bell Records morphed into Arista, and the group’s contract was negotiated over to ABC.
Jimmy Webb, who by then had forged a successful recording career of his own, was persuaded to produce the group’s first ABC album, Earthbound. At the group’s specific request, it was a deeply–felt R&B record.
The life, however, was gone. Doomed to failure, Earthbound got no radio play and did not produce a hit single.
Six months before its release, Billy and Marilyn told Marc Gordon they were leaving to try a career as a singing husband–and–wife duo. They were persuaded to stay, finish the album and keep a lid on it until Earthbound had run its course.
When the break came, it was not pretty. Billy and Marilyn did not talk to the others for half a year.
“I felt really bad about it,” Marilyn says. “We used to joke about how 50 years from then we were going to be rolling around onstage, singing ‘Up Up and Away’ in our wheelchairs. Because we really planned on being together.”
Florence: “I felt many things. I was angry, and I was confused. I was trying to be happy for them. And at the time I was also young and immature.”
Today, she believes, “I think Marilyn and I have become closer than we were when she was in the group. We’ve both grown up, and gotten closer to the Lord, and matured a bit.” Florence and Marc are no longer married.
Billy and Marilyn, recording on ABC, took “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” to Number One in 1976 and registered two or three more hits before settling into the cabaret circuit, where they remain, quite comfortably, to this day. Most recently, the twosome toured the country in a review of Duke Ellington songs.
Marilyn hosted TV’s Solid Gold in the early ’80s, and her 1993 album of inspirational music, The Me Nobody Knows, was nominated for a Grammy. She and Billy are active and outspoken on Christian issues.
Florence, Ron and Lamonte recruited new members and continued to record as the 5th Dimension on several labels throughout the ’70s. They toured as the stars of a roadshow production of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin.’
They released The 5th Dimension In the House, a hip–hop record with updates of “Puppet Man” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” in 1995 on Dick Clark’s Click Records label. Although Ron has semi–retired, the others perform on a regular basis.
The final tally: Twenty Top 20 singles, three Number Ones (“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and “Wedding Bell Blues”), five gold albums and a legacy of sublime sounds, a blending of voice and spirit that could not be duplicated today, when most of the breath of innovation has been squeezed from an act long before it gets near a recording studio.
“Aquarius” enjoyed a renaissance after it was included on the Forrest Gump soundtrack; typically, it then found another new life as a commercial for Burger King.
(One of the most interesting 5th Dimension records to see the light of day, a CD single of “Aquarius” featuring five distinct remixes, appeared on Gump‘s coattails in 1994. By far, the strangest was the “LSD Flashback Mix,” which clocked in at 12:18.)
In 1997, the group was finally given a proper retrospective, the two–CD Up, Up and Away: The Definitive Collection on Arista.
No one has forgotten how great they were, how pure and joyful and harmonious they blended in that original Age of Aquarius. It’s best that way. Once or twice a year, all five get together to sing as The Original 5th Dimension. They’ve been doing the reunion shows since 1991.
“I enjoy to this day to get up and do all of those songs, because it’s a part of my history,” Billy says. “I still feel the same joy that I felt during the first 10 years of the group. It’s a magic that happens.”
“I didn’t think it would ever happen,” Marilyn says. “Well, you grow up, and you start to see the world as it is. We were friends; we had some wonderful experiences together. We have a history here.”
(Rest in Peace Ron Townson 1933-2001)