The 5th Dimension
The three men — Billy Davis, Jr., Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore grew up together in St. Louis, Missouri, each going in separate directions in their teens; all ended up in Los Angeles with hopes of making the big time.
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Billy, in several gospel and soul groups, studied at Washington Tech. He opened his own nightclub, eventually ending up in Los Angeles, hoping to sign with Motown’s West Coast recording company. Lamonte went into professional baseball as well as photography only to discover his love for singing while in the Navy. Ron sang opera from an early age. He graduated from Lincoln University, and left for Los Angeles with aspirations in singing.
Lamonte McLemore met beauty contestant winner Marilyn McCoo while photographing her during the Miss Bronze Talent Award. Marilyn was born in New Jersey and grew up in Los Angeles. She always had a desire to go into the entertainment business, but her parents wanted her to finish school. She graduated from UCLA and accepted Lamonte’s offer to join the group he was forming.
With Billy experienced in gospel and rhythm and blues, Ron opera and Lamonte jazz, Marilyn jazz and pop, they needed another female member to complete their well-rounded vocal sound.
While photographing Florence LaRue, the winner of the Miss Bronze Talent Award the year after Marilyn won, McLemore decided to ask her to join the group he was forming. At first she didn’t accept the offer because she had graduated from Cal State University in Los Angeles and had just started teaching. Both she and Marilyn joined the group initially as a hobby, with McCoo wanting a solo singing career and LaRue still dreaming of a career in acting.
In 1965, the quintet, with their varied vocal backgrounds, named their group The Versatiles. They put together a demo tape and sent Lamonte to Detroit to see Berry Gordy at Motown Records. Gordy listened to the demo tape and was impressed with their sound but didn’t hear chart hits with the songs. He asked McLemore to return with more songs for him to hear. Lamonte returned home and the group continued to sing at local L.A. clubs.
Their future manager, Marc Gordon, would soon help change their lives. He was a director of West Coast Operations at Motown Records. Gordon was in the process of leaving Motown when he heard The Versatiles and offered to manage them. They recorded You’re Good Enough For Me /Bye Bye Baby, both co-written by Marc Gordon on the Bronco label. It wasn’t until Gordon introduced the group to Johnny Rivers, who was starting Soul City Records, that something exciting was about to happen in music.
Johnny Rivers instantly liked their sound and decided to produce them. He wanted them to change their outdated group name and look, so The 5th Dimension was the new name and with their new "mod" outfits, they were ready. The first single Rivers produced, I’ll Be Lovin’ You Forever/Train Keep On Movin’, in 1966, didn’t create much excitement with radio listeners. The follow-up single the next year, written by John Phillips was called Go Where You Wanna Go. Phillips' group, the Mamas and Papas also recorded this single. It was The 5th Dimension who took the song up Billboard’s Top 20, peaking at #16.
They agreed to hear some songs by a new songwriter named Jimmy Webb, who was under contract with Rivers. Webb was at the piano playing a song he had written about a beautiful balloon. The group loved the song, Up Up & Away, and it was released in February of 1967. An album with the same title was also released. The song entered the Top 10 and peaked at #7, staying on the Top 40 for 10 weeks, bringing this quintet to fame. The song was awarded Best Performance By A Vocal Group, Best Contemporary Group Performance, Best Contemporary Single, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year at the Grammy Awards. The album went Gold.
With the popularity of Webb’s composition, Up Up & Away, the group eagerly agreed to team up with him on their second LP, The Magic Garden, later retitled, The Worst That Could Happen. Jimmy Webb wrote all but one song on that album. Webb was going through a tough period in his personal life and his girlfriend at the time, Susan, was the inspiration for these songs. It was almost like a storybook as one song was beautifully connected to the next. Although none of these songs topped the charts, it is considered to be one of the finest of all their albums. Paper Cup (1967) and Carpet Man (1968) both entered the Top 40.
They were lucky to have been connected with so many talented songwriters. Their third album was written in part by the late Laura Nyro. Billy said their first meeting with Nyro was at a hotel where they were all staying. Her room was right above theirs and they could hear her singing. The group called her up and they got together.
It was actually Bones Howe, their producer, who heard a hit with Laura’s song — Stoned Soul Picnic. Howe said, "After The Magic Garden we were looking for a piece of material that would reflect what The 5th Dimension was. I came across a song on a demo tape that David Geffen had taken to RCA, a song written by Laura Nyro called Stoned Soul Picnic. I told David that I wanted to cut it with The 5th, but he said we couldn’t because Nyro was going to cut it on her album. But if they didn’t release it as a single, he said it’s fair game. So the album came out, and the company chose Eli’s Coming as the single. I had a test pressing of the album and rushed it to the group and said, 'This is gonna be your first million-selling single. ' They loved the song, and we went in and did the record in three days. And of course, it was their first million-selling single." It was in May 1968 when Stoned Soul Picnic was released and entered the Top 10, arriving at #3 on Billboard and remaining on the Top 40 for 12 weeks. Howe said, "They are an incomparable combination of talent, energy, and personal warmth. It’s a genuine pleasure to work with them."
Frank Sinatra presented the group with a million-selling award for Stoned Soul Picnic at Caesar’s Palace. The single eventually sold over two million copies. Sinatra said, "Without a doubt the freshest, most musical, most capable group in today’s bag." Another Nyro composition, Sweet Blindness, was released a few months later, peaking at #13 and staying on the Top 40 for 6 weeks.
In 1969 the musical Hair was on Broadway. It was interesting how they ended up recording Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In. Florence said, "It was a real fluke. We were performing in New York City and Billy lost his wallet in a taxi. The man who returned it said he had written some music for a play and he invited us to see it. The play of course was Hair. Well we heard Aquarius and we all just looked at each other and said ‘We’ve got to sing this song. It’s great.'" It was producer Howe who suggested splicing Aquarius together with lyrics from another number in the musical which became Let The Sunshine In. "We recorded that song in Las Vegas, in this small studio," says LaRue. "Our voices were all tired, we’d been performing there for over a month. It was the quickest thing we ever recorded and it was one of our biggest hits."
Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In remained in the #1 spot on Billboard for 6 straight weeks and remained on the Top 40 for 16 weeks. Both the single and album Age Of Aquarius went Gold and received two Grammy Awards. The song eventually sold over two million copies. The original song was over 7 minutes long and it was Bill Drake of a Los Angeles radio station who suggested the song needed to be shortened to about 3 minutes; so Howe released 2 versions, one just over 3 minutes and one under 3 minutes.
Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In was only the beginning of their album Age Of Aquarius. Bones Howe told Marilyn about this song that went, "Bill, I love you so, I always will. Won’t you marry me, Bill, etc. So Howe told Marilyn, 'It’d be really funny if you did this song as a joke on the album.' Marilyn and Billy were still courting; she wanted to get married and Billy was dragging his feet. So she did it, and after the album came out I got a call from a guy at a record company who said that a station in San Diego had jumped on the song and that we should release it as a single."
In September of 1969, Wedding Bell Blues, a Nyro composition, was released and soared to the top of the charts, remaining in the Top 40 for 14 weeks. Workin’ On A Groovy Thing co-written by Neil Sedaka peaked at #20 in 1969 and Blowing Away, another Laura Nyro composition, peaked at #21 in 1970.
In 1969, Florence LaRue married their manager, Marc Gordon, high above the Century Plaza Hotel in a hot air balloon. That same year Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. married.
By this time the group was touring all over the world seven-and-a-half months out of the year. They spent 3 months recording songs for their album, leaving them only about 6 weeks for a needed vacation. They were invited to appear on all the top television programs, which included The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, The John Davidson Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The Bobby Sherman Show, American Bandstand, Dinah Shore and Hollywood Palace. Ed Sullivan has said, "One of the classiest groups we’ve ever had on the show. Their class is with a Capital C."
The group were also on Frank Sinatra’s, Woody Allen’s and Burt Bacharach’s television specials. They were also in their own television musical special — The 5th Dimension: An Odyssey In The Cosmic Universe Of Peter Max, which aired in May of 1970. That same year they appeared at Expo’ 70 in Tokyo. They were selected as "Funding Artists" of the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in Washington. When Princess Grace of Monaco returned to Hollywood for the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund Gala in Los Angeles at the Music Center, it was The 5th Dimension who headlined the event. They were awarded the Friar’s Club First Annual Gold Medallion Award for Exceptional Contributions within the music industry. Letters and telegrams with congratulations were sent from Frank Sinatra, Hubert Humphrey, New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Dean Martin, and Gregory Peck, to name a few.
The group were the toast of the town. Receiving glowing reviews from critics and fellow entertainers, they were on top of the world. Lou Rawls said, "They’re the greatest thing to hit the scene in the past 5 years! They have a whole new concept within the music industry." Sammy Davis, Jr. described the group as "Absolutely fantastic! The 5th Dimension really sock it to you!" Phyllis Diller had a few words to say, "I ADORE The 5th Dimension!" Robert Hilburn, Los Angeles Times music critic, wrote about The 5th Dimension after their concert at the Greek Theater in the early 70’s, "Despite such glamorous competition as Burt Bacharach, Andy Williams and the Temptations, The 5th Dimension gave by far the most entertaining show of the young Greek Theater season Monday night. It was in a word, superb."
Two hit albums were released in 1969. The single, The Girl’s Song which featured Florence and Marilyn on lead was climbing the charts and was included on the Greatest Hits album. This album went Gold. Another album of hits released after that was The July 5th Album.
Their albums continued to sell well. Changing labels, they went with Bell Records headed by Larry Uttal. Their first single from the Bell label was The Declaration, a song not popular with the government, though at a performance which included President Nixon and the Governors of 50 states, they performed The Declaration. Only after Nixon began clapping at the song’s end did the rest of the audience dare applaud this controversial song.
The album, titled Portrait, had 3 songs which entered the Top 40. One was a song co-written by Neil Sedaka, Puppet Man, released in May of 1970 at about the same time Tom Jones’ version hit the air waves. The group's version peaked at #24. The following month they released another Nyro tune called Save The Country which peaked at #27. Stronger songs, This Is Your Life and One Less Bell To Answer, were not selected as August releases because their producer wanted a summer song. So they released On The Beach (In The Summertime) in 1970. In the meantime, a Los Angeles radio station called up Bell Records and said that people were calling his station when he played One Less Bell To Answer and they should really release it as a single. In October of 1970, One Less Bell To Answer, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David was released and flew up to #2, eventually selling over two million copies. Their album also went Gold. The group were guests on the television series with Robert Wagner called It Takes A Thief and both Puppet Man and One Less Bell To Answer were featured on the show.
In March of 1971, they released the single Love’s Lines, Angles & Rhymes which peaked at #19. It was also the title of their album that year which went Gold. That same year the group had their second television special, The 5th Dimension Traveling Sunshine Show. Later that year they released their double Live! LP which was taped in Las Vegas. With McCoo’s success with lead vocals, they released Never My Love in October 1971 which went to #12. In early 1972 they released a McCoo/Davis duet also from the Live! LP, Together Let’s Find Love, peaking at #37. This album went Gold.
In 1972 the group were singing more solo vocals than the harmonies they were initially known for. The best description of the direction of the group was the album titled Individually & Collectively. Marilyn’s solo, (Last Night) I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All, was released in March of 1972 and made the Top 10 arriving at #8 and eventually selling over two million singles. Five months later another McCoo solo, If I Could Reach You, was released reaching #10 on Billboard.
The album Living Together, Growing Together was released in 1973. The LP title was released as a single in February of 1973. It entered the Top 40 arriving at #32. Two other singles were released but failed to chart well. That same year, they decided to release Flashback and the flip side Diggin’ For A Livin’ — neither a song on the album. Flashback was also recorded by Cher but neither charted with the song.
In 1974, Soul & Inspiration was released. This album was created by different producers including Howe, Richard Carson, H.B. Barnum, and John Florez. This marks Bones Howe’s departure from producing the group. This was also the last album the group had on Bell Records.
Their final album with the original five members, Earthbound, was released in 1975 on ABC Records. It’s ironic because they began with composer Jimmy Webb on their first album and were able to work again with him on their final album before Marilyn and Billy left the group to venture in another musical direction. As on the Magic Garden LP, Earthbound’s songs flowed beautifully from song to song only this time there wasn’t a Susan in Webb’s lyrics as on The Magic Garden. Even with strong titles like Magic In My Life and Walk Your Feet In The Sunshine, these singles didn’t chart well.
McCoo and Davis left the group after Earthbound. The 5th Dimension continued with ABC Records and released the single Love Hangover which featured LaRue on lead. It was climbing the charts when Motown Records decided to quickly release Diana Ross’ version that was on her LP. It was clearly a race between The 5th Dimension and Diana Ross. Even the sheet music to the song had both The 5th Dimension and Diana Ross pictured on the cover. Ross won with Love Hangover, taking it to the top of the charts.
Ironically, The 5th Dimension agreed to sign with Motown Records and released the LP Star Dancing. Later the same year they released a follow up album, High On Sunshine.
With several name changes in The 5th Dimension, Florence LaRue and Lamonte McLemore never left the group. Ron Townson left for a little while to form Ron Townson and Wild Honey, but later returned to the group. They starred in the Tony Award musical of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin', to glowing reviews. In 1983 they released a concert video called The 5th Dimension: Live At Caesar’s Palace. They have performed for important figures such as President Reagan and President Carter. In 1995, they released a CD, In The House, on Dick Clark's label, Click Records. It features Say (U Love Me) which LaRue co-wrote. It also includes two 5th Dimension songs from the past, Puppet Man and Stoned Soul Picnic done in the newer 5th style.
McCoo was guest on The Home Show and the segment was a tour through McCoo’s and Davis’ home. Marilyn puts it this way, "On the day we were shooting, I was leading (host) Gary Collins through my house and unbeknownst to me, Florence, Ron and Lamonte were sitting in the family room." Billy had secretly arranged a surprise visit from the other members. It had been years since the five of them were all together. Donald Trump saw the reunion and thought it would be interesting to see if they would be open to the idea of a reunion performance for New Year’s Eve at his hotel in Atlantic City. It happened in 1990 with Ron’s response, "It’s been fantastic. It’s like family getting back together again." Billy Davis, Jr. felt, "Getting back together was emotional for me. We did our old hits and put in other ingredients to add a bit of life to the show." A standing-room-only crowd at the event convinced the group to take it on a city to city tour the following year calling themselves, The Original 5th Dimension.
In 1991 The Original 5th Dimension received a Star on Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame which is located at the famed Roosevelt Hotel across from Mann’s Chinese Theater.
The 5th Dimension consists of Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore, Ron Townson, Greg Walker and Phyllis Battle. Early in 1998, Willie Williams joined The 5th Dimension. They are performing with symphonies, on luxury cruises and all over the world to satisfy their many fans. Their career seems to always be Up Up & Away.
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