In 1967, at a time of racial tension in America, an attractive group of African American singers introduced a breezy, harmony-laden pop/soul sound that appeared to transcend all issues of race, capturing America with their dreamy uplifting version of Jimmy Webb's "Up Up and Away." The group was the 5th Dimension, and the song was the beginning of an impressive string of light, airy hits that virtually defined California soul.
Formed in 1965 by St. Louis singers Ron Townsend, Billy Davis, Jr. and LaMonte McLemore (who were respectively opera, gospel and jazz enthusiasts) and beauty pageant winners Florence LaRue and Marilyn McCoo, the group was originally formed as the Versatiles. After being put off by Motown head Berry Gordy, the quintet was signed by singer Johnny Rivers to his fledgling Soul City label and was renamed the 5th Dimension.
Following a couple of minor hits, the act hit pay dirt with its cover of "Up Up and Away," landing in the Pop and Soul Top 10 and earning a slew of Grammy Awards for the song and the group. Producer Bones Howe teamed them with hot young writers Webb, Laura Nero and Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a number of terrific hits over the next several years that would highlight the 5th Dimension's exquisite harmonies, while the group's frequent television appearances captured America with their mod, upbeat style and physical attractiveness.
In 1968 Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic" became the group's second top 10 smash, only to be surpassed by their joyous wedding proposal "Wedding Bell Blues," on which McCoo appeared to be singing directly to longtime boyfriend Davis (the duo soon married in 1969). A definitive career moment for the 5th Dimension was the decision to create a medley of two songs from the musical Hair. "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In" became the biggest selling song of 1969 and arguably made the 5th Dimension the top pop/soul group in the world.
As the 70s arrived, the group's sound changed somewhat, focusing less on harmonies than on individual leads, and their music took on an increasingly pop-oriented sound. Consequently, their Soul music following slipped, even as they maintained a leading position on the pop and adult contemporary charts. The next few years brought the wonderful Marilyn McCoo performance on "One Less Bell to Answer" and a number of midrange hits such as "Save the Country," "Last Night (I Didn't Get to Sleep at All)" and a cover of "Never My Love," but it also brought generally lower pop success and a nearly complete loss of Soul charting.
With the group's fortunes lagging, McCoo and Davis left in 1975 and had an out-of-the-box smash with their first single as a duet, the schlocky "You Don't Have to be a Star." McCoo continued on as a successful solo entertainer and television host (most notably the syndicated Solid Gold music show) over the next three decades. She and Davis wrote a book together about their lives and marriage and ultimately turned it into the album The Many Faces of Love in 2008. LaRue, McLemore and Townson continued on with the 5th Dimension, moving the group to Motown with new members Marjorie Barnes and Danny Beard for a couple of unsuccessful albums before hitting the oldies circuit.
The original version of the group reunited in 1990 for a successful Atlantic City show and then toured sporadically (and successfully) at various times over the next few years. In 1995, a reconstituted version of the group, which included LaRue, McLemore, Townson, former Santana vocalist Greg Walker (he sang on that group's fine version of "Stormy") and Phyllis Battle, released the group's final album, In The House, on Dick Clark's Click label. Townson left the act due to illness in 1999 and died in 2001 and McLemore retired from the group in 2006. Today, Florence LaRue continues to serve as the 5th Dimension's attractive ambassador to the world, leading a new version of the group that also includes Willie Williams, Leonard Tucker, Patrice Morris, and Floyd Smith. They continue to perform around the world. LaRue is also working on a one woman show covering her more than four decade career.
by Chris Rizik