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The Sunshine Soul of the 5th Dimension
Going deep on the joys of the music of the 5th Dimension
In 1969, few groups were as popular as the 5th Dimension. In the spring of that year, their medley of ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Let the Sunshine In’ from Hair reigned for six weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. As autumn was giving way to winter, they were back at number one with Laura Nyro’s ‘Wedding Bell Blues.’
Back up a few months to that summer and they were among the acts that appeared at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Fast-forward 52 years, and with the release of Summer of Soul, in which their performance is featured as well as a new interview with group members Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, renewed attention is being paid to the 5th Dimension. It’s a welcome reconsideration of the group and their place in music history.
The music of the 5th Dimension is often referred to as “champagne soul,” a reflection of the deep, sophisticated polish to their records. It hits the mark for sure, but I think an even better description of their sound may be “sunshine soul.”
The use of the Wrecking Crew as their studio backing band is a direct link to the sunshine pop, California-infused vibe of groups like the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys and the Association. That harmony is at the root of their sound is another. The polish they brought to soul places them in the company of Ray Charles (think of this legendary albums of country music), Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson and Motown, for which the group initially auditioned.
The 5th Dimension was formed in the latter part of 1965. Billy Davis, Jr., Lamonte McLemore and Ron Townson were old friends hailing from St. Louis. Marilyn McCoo joined with McLemore in the early-1960s to form the Hi-Fis (Harry Elston was also a member, who later founded the Friends of Distinction, whose sound was very much influenced by the 5th Dimension). McLemore met Florence LaRue when he worked as the photographer for the Miss Bronze California pageant and asked her to join a new group he was forming after the Hi-Fis went their separate ways. Initially calling themselves the Versatiles, the group wanted a hipper, more contemporary name. Townson and his wife had just the moniker, and thus, the 5th Dimension were born.
They made a fortuitous connection with Marc Gordon, who was the soon-to-exit director of West Coast Operations for Motown. He became the group’s manager and recorded their first single—as the Versatiles—on the small Bronco label in 1966. ‘You’re Good Enough For Me,’ backed with ‘Bye Bye Baby,’ feature a more overtly soulful sound than what we think of as the 5th Dimension’s signature style. The A-side is like a lost Smokey Robinson & the Miracles recording with a strong lead by Billy Davis, Jr. The B-side is a slinkier slice of soul in which Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo share the lead.
Gordon also connected the group with singer Johnny Rivers, who was starting his own record label Soul City, a subsidiary of Imperial Records. He signed the group to the label and produced their first album.
Their second single, an almost-identical copy of the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’—in terms of the arrangement, the musicians on the recording and the vocal harmonies—hit the top 20 on the Billboard charts. Their follow-up single, ‘Another Day, Another Heartache,’ written by Steve Barri and P.J. Proby, had a similar Mamas and the Papas vibe and narrowly missed the top 40. Their next 45 was a different story completely.
We Can Fly
‘Up, Up and Away’ was written by Jimmy Webb, then a 20-year-old songwriter from Oklahoma. Johnny Rivers was the first major artist to mine Webb’s songbook, recording ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ (this was before Glen Campbell) on his 1966 album, Changes and included seven of his songs on his 1967 follow-up, Rewind. Though none were released as singles, it was a major break for Webb.
Almost immediately, it’s clear that ‘Up, Up and Away’ is a change in direction from the 5th Dimension’s earlier singles. They aren’t copying another group, they are showcasing their own distinctive approach to soul. Elegant and jazzy. Music to put a smile on your face. An immediate clue is how lighter their vocals are compared to ‘Go Where You Wanna Go,’ for example. They seem to glide along the air, much like the hot-air balloon that features so prominently in Webb’s lyrics. The bridge, where most of the Wrecking Crew drop out, illustrates the dynamic range the 5th Dimension had available to them as a group of five voices: two female, three male. Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue begin the bridge by singing “Suspended under a twilight canopy, we’ll search for a star to guide us” which Billy Davis, Jr., Lamonte McLemore and Ron Townson reply with “If by some chance you find yourself loving me,” and then with the full Wrecking Crew behind them, everyone joins in full voice to sing, “We'll find a cloud to hide us. We'll keep the moon beside us.”
Put simply, ‘Up, Up and Away,’ is pop perfection—a confection of superb craft that, if the listener allows, sweeps you happily and gladly off the ground. If only life could always sound like this! ‘Up, Up and Away’ was also a massive hit—the 5th Dimension’s first top 10 hit and the opening track of their first LP, also titled Up, Up and Away. It also cemented the first important relationship the group had with a songwriter.
It deepened with their second album, The Magic Garden, released in December 1967, which, except for the curious inclusion of the Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride,’ was written entirely by Jimmy Webb, who also served as arranger and conductor. Taking over for Johnny Rivers in the producer chair was Bones Howe, the first of nine straight 5th Dimension LPs he would helm.
There is a Garden
The Magic Garden is a concept album that tells the arc of a love affair in song. It is a lavish recording with the most famous song from it, ‘The Worst That Could Happen,’ taken into the charts by the Brooklyn Bridge with the great Johnny Maestro late in 1968. It is full of lyrical and melodic invention that depending on your taste, is part of the growing sophistication of the pop music of the late-60s or often pretentious and overly clever.
When hearing it, it often feels like a Jimmy Webb solo recording with the 5th Dimension contracted as the vocalists. That may read as a criticism but one can’t imagine anyone other than the 5th Dimension adding their touch to something like ‘Carpet Man,’ especially during the chorus where their harmonies add layers to the driving, propulsive backing by the Wrecking Crew.
Featuring a lightly swinging bossa-nova rhythm, ‘The Girl’s Song’ is the first great feature for Marilyn McCoo, who, along with Billy Davis, Jr., emerged as the de-facto lead singers of the 5th Dimension. Davis, Jr., McLemore and Townson provide dreamy backgrounds against McCoo’s lead (Florence LaRue often doubles it here). It is a deeply satisfying recording that exemplifies the sound of “sunshine soul.”
‘Summer’s Daughter’—evoking 1967’s Summer of Love quite literally—illustrates, particularly in the concluding chorus which features a key change, the many timbres the group could evoke. Listen closely to the fellas and you can hear Ron Townson’s almost-operatic lead on the top—a glimpse of his prodigious vocal gifts (a little more on Townson’s staggering versatility a bit later).
The Magic Garden was not a commercial success—it only reached #105 on the Billboard album chart—but an interesting sidebar on it comes from Miles Davis’ 1968 Blindfold Test for Downbeat with jazz writer Leonard Feather (the Blindfold Test has been a long-running feature in Downbeat and features a musician or someone else from the world of jazz being played a series of recordings without being told beforehand who or what he or she is listening to, and then asked to guess each record and then rate it). Among the records Feather played was the ‘Prologue’ to The Magic Garden. Miles liked it and proceeded to liken it approvingly to his legendary collaboration with Gil Evans reimaging Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess—a sign, among many, of Miles’ musical interests venturing further and further away from jazz.
Can You Surry? Can You Picnic?
Three months after The Magic Garden was released, the second album by a precocious 20-year-old New York singer-songwriter by the name of Laura Nyro came out. Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was a fusion of pop, soul, jazz and cabaret. Nyro’s voice and songs seemed to waft out of the street rhythms of Manhattan hurry-up bustle to create sounds that could only come from someone whose very soul was rooted in New York City. Among the album’s 13 songs was ‘Stoned Soul Picnic.’
It was through a demo tape of Nyro’s compositions that her manager, David Geffen, was circulating and Bones Howe’s conviction that ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ would be a sure-fire hit by the 5th Dimension that the group began to be Nyro’s most important populazier of her work, and the vehicle through which many came to discover and appreciate her one-of-a-kind talent (count me among them).
They had a knack for taking Nyro’s songs, smoothing out the more idiosyncratic and jagged elements and putting full emphasis on her gift for melody that crossed the same genres that the 5th Dimension crossed as well. In other words, they made them just a little more accessible.
Their recording of ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ is a perfect example. They mirror Nyro’s own arrangement using the recurring motif she plays on piano, doubling it on organ and sweetening things with strings and brass, a larger backing band and putting greater emphasis on the rhythmic shifts that occur as the song progresses. When Billy Davis, Jr. takes the lead to sing, “There’ll be trains of trust, trains of golden dust,” one can hear him almost echoing, consciously or unconsciously, Nyro’s trademark volume and vibrato. An even more direct way to hear how the 5th Dimension approached the Laura Nyro songbook is to compare her original recording of ‘Save the Country’—produced by Bones Howe and featuring the Wrecking Crew—with the 5th Dimension’s own recording in 1970. They are virtually the same.
As Howe predicted, ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ was a smash hit—even bigger than ‘Up, Up and Away’—and anchored the 5th Dimension’s third album, titled Stoned Soul Picnic also, which was released in September 1968. Here began a run of classic albums with a perfect balance between group and material. Stoned Soul Picnic also included their hit recordings of Nyro’s ‘Sweet Blindness,' and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s ‘California Soul.’
Beyond the album’s hits, ‘It’s a Great Life’ showcases the group’s absolute ease with jazz harmony and timing. ‘It’ll Never Be the Same Again,’ written by Jeff Comanor, is a powerful feature for Davis, Jr. Comanor also wrote ‘The Sailboat Song’—the first song the 5th Dimension recorded that featured Ron Townson as lead singer.
As mentioned earlier, Townson was a multi-faceted vocalist. Equally at home in pop and soul as he was in opera (search around YouTube for a clip from a 1971 TV special in which he sings an aria from ‘Pagliacci’), choral works and classical music, he brings a lightness and depth to Comanor’s song that Billy Davis, Jr. or Lamonte McLemore probably couldn’t. At the end, the rest of the group softly harmonizes and repeats the word “understand” to add to the song's atmosphere of serenity and peacefulness. I hear it and often get goosebumps.
When the Moon is in the Seventh House
How the 5th Dimension came to record ‘Aquarius’ starts with Billy Davis, Jr. losing his wallet in a New York cab when the group was in town performing. The person who retrieved it just so happened to be a producer on Hair—the musical that brought the counterculture to Shubert Alley—and was able to get the group tickets to see it for themselves. They became instantly determined to cut ‘Aquarius’ as soon as possible. When they told Bones Howe, he tried to talk them out of it. Others had given it a shot, and not successfully. They persisted and it was Howe that came with the idea of pairing ‘Aquarius’ with ‘Let the Sunshine In.’
‘Aquarius’ opens like the clouds parting to herald the start of a new day—two flutes intertwine lines and give way to Joe Osborn’s bass and Hal Blaine’s drums setting the stage for McCoo and LaRue to duet on the first verse. At around the 40 second mark, the band stops for the 5th Dimension to declare, initially acapella, “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” and with the Wrecking Crew settling into a deep groove. It is a magical moment. The lead is then traded off between McCoo and LaRue, then Davis Jr., McLemore and Townson, and then the group all together. For the second verse, the fellas echo McCoo and LaRue’s unison vocal. The second acapella “This is the dawning…” coincides with a key change to heighten the intensity. Then, at 2:17 into the track, a small transition takes everyone into ‘Let the Sunshine In.’ After multiple repeats of the refrain, Davis, Jr. emerges from the group to take over and, as he has said it in countless interviews, proceeds to “take it to church.” And that’s what he does until things fade out—you get the sense he could have gone on forever.
‘Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’ was one of the biggest hits of 1969 and unquestionably the signature recording of the 5th Dimension.
A close second, though, is ‘Wedding Bell Blues’—written and originally recorded by Laura Nyro in 1966. A plea for a fellow named Bill to “put a ring on it” so to speak, the 5th Dimension’s recording again expands Nyro’s arrangement. The instrumental palette is broadened with brass abounding, the song’s rhythms are punchier and the group expands the background vocal figures that Nyro uses. Marilyn McCoo takes the lead here and in her hands, the song becomes autobiographical. Bill here is Billy Davis, Jr. When the 5th Dimension recorded ‘Wedding Bell Blues,’ he and McCoo were engaged and soon to walk down the aisle (they have been married now for 52 years). There is a yearning, truth and ease in McCoo’s vocal that is transcendent. The rest of the group punctuates when needed to elevate her lead.
'Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In' and 'Wedding Bell Blues’ anchor The Age of Aquarius, released in May 1969. The LP includes two other hit singles: ‘Workin’ on a Groovy Thing,’ written by Neil Sedaka and Roger Atkins—dig the savvy use of an anvil during the chorus—and Laura Nyro’s ‘Blowing Away’—at the end, the group’s voices wave and intertwine, turning the song almost into a choral work.
More than their previous albums, The Age of Aquarius saw the 5th Dimension exploring jazz. The most explicit example—more in terms of how the group’s harmonies are stacked than the use of jazz time or rhythm—is ‘Don’tcha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya.’ Written by Rudy Stevenson and initially recorded by pianist Wynton Kelly in 1966, the group sing the main line of the song like how you might imagine Jackie & Roy or Lambert, Hendricks & Ross approaching it. Groovy stuff, for sure, as is ‘The Hideaway,’ written by Jimmy Webb, which also sees the group singing straight jazz with deeply syncopated accompaniment by the Wrecking Crew. ‘The Winds of Heaven,’ written by Fran Landesman (who co-wrote, among other songs, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’) and Bob Dorough (Mr. Schoolhouse Rock who was also one of the few vocalists who worked with Miles Davis) is the third track on the album that flirts with jazz. The middle section, in which drummer Hal Blaine unleashes a series of fills cushioned by Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue and a single flute, is especially memorable.
Covers of ‘Let It Be Me,’ (Billy Davis, Jr. shines), ‘Those Were the Days’ (interesting enough) and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (outrageous, in the best way) as well as ‘Skinny Man’ (a harkening back to when the 5th Dimension echoed the sound of the Mamas and the Papas) round out the album. With Stoned Soul Picnic and Portrait (released in 1970), The Age of Aquarius forms a trilogy of album-length triumphs.
How do you colour a sound?
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the release of Summer of Soul has brought new focus to the 5th Dimension. In the documentary (Full disclosure: I very much want to see Summer of Soul, but have not yet had a chance), the fact that the 5th Dimension was often seen as a Black group singing white music is explored. In the interview with Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo included in it, McCoo remarks, “We were constantly being attacked because we weren’t Black enough. Sometimes, we were called the Black group with the white sound, and we didn’t like that.” She elaborates to say, “Our voices sound the way they sound. How do you colour a sound?”
In his review of Summer of Soul, New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris focuses in part on McCoo’s remarks. Watching their performance at the Harlem Cultural Festival and the crowd’s reaction included in the doc, he emphasizes that it illustrates and confirms their rightful place at the festival. That conclusion reminded me of a exchange from last year between Chuck D and Lamonte McLemore.
Here’s more 5th Dimension love from Chuck D.
Also worthwhile checking out is Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.’s recent appearance on Questlove Supreme, the podcast hosted by Questlove, director of Summer of Soul.
Invitations to My Party
As for me, there was a time when I would have excused my love of the 5th Dimension as a “guilty pleasure.” Perhaps it was in reaction to a long-ago memory that one of the gags The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air used to establish Carlton Banks as an incurable square was to make him a 5th Dimension fanboy. Or maybe it was my worry that the music was just a little too smooth, a little too easy and a little too Vegas cheese. But then, I would sometimes find myself playing ‘Up, Up and Away’ or ‘Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’ over and over—marvelling at the harmony, the sound that the voices of Billy Davis, Jr., Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore, Marilyn McCoo and Ron Townson created, the way the music made me feel. And what did it make me feel? Good. Happy. Excited. Exhilarated. No music that does this could ever be fluffed off as some “guilty pleasure.” It’s music with soul, of the soul and for the soul.
My favourite of the 5th Dimension’s recordings of Laura Nyro’s songs is tucked at the end of 1972’s Individually & Collectively.
‘Black Patch’ was recorded by Nyro on her 1970 album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. In their version, each member of the 5th Dimension gets the opportunity to take the lead: McCoo’s light tone, LaRue’s sharper hues, Davis, Jr.’s soulful attack, Townson’s lilting approach and McLemore’s creamy baritone. The ending includes a solo by tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins—one of many jazz musicians who appeared on the 5th Dimension’s records. It lasts for almost two minutes and if you allow yourself to daydream, you can picture the 5th Dimension moving to the music, dance moves choreographed and then they come together, arm in arm, the audience applauding. They proceed to take a bow, their gift of music offered, gratefully received, profoundly appreciated and forever remembered.
Companion Playlist: I put together a Spotify playlist included all the songs (except ‘You’re So Good to Me’) by the 5th Dimension that I featured. Just over 80 minutes of great music to enjoy.