Whether you believe an artist launches a songwriter’s career or vice versa, it’s undeniable that the talented 5th Dimension had a creative formula that benefitted writers, the public, and themselves.
The group formed because of a beauty contest winner and a photographer. Lamonte McLemore was a photographer and his subject was Miss Bronze America of 1963, Marilyn McCoo. They decided to merge their gospel singing interests and form a group with fellow Los Angeles residents Harry Elston and Floyed Butler. The foursome hooked up with Ray Charles for a six-month tour but Elston and Butler left to form a separate group, the Friends of Distinction (RCA). Lamonte went back to picture-taking and Marilyn became an executive trainee at a department store.
In to the picture came Lamonte’s cousin Billy Davis, Jr. from St. Louis (formerly of the Emeralds of Bobbin, 1959-60), and the seeds of a new group were planted. Lamonte and Billy brought in Ron Townson, Marilyn, and a teacher from Grant Elementary School in Hollywood named Florence LaRue. Lamonte knew Florence because she was Miss Bronze America 1962 and was the one who crowned her successor Marilyn McCoo the day Lamonte was photographing them.
The group now called themselves the Versatiles and met with producer Johnny Rivers at his Soul City label. Johnny liked the group but not what he felt was a passe name, so Ron and his wife, Babette, came up with the 5th Dimension.
The first single, in November 1966, was by Willie Hutch, and the song was “I’ll Be Loving You Forever.” The producers must have been Motown fans, because the song sounded like a FOUR TOPS record along the lines of “Reach Out.” When that single failed, their second record was done in a black MAMAS AND PAPAS direction using a forgotten John Phillips cut called “Go Where You Wanna Go” from a Mamas and Papas LP.
By passing the R&B charts, “Go” went straight up the Pop listings on January 14, 1967, stopping at number 16.
Their third single, the P.F. Sloan/Steve Barri song “Another Day, Another Heartache,” was back in the black Mamas and Papas groove but by now you could hear their harmonies developing into the more familiar 5th Dimension sound of later hits. “Another Day” made it to number 45 Pop, and by May the group began working on its first LP. Fate stepped in when Rivers decided to stop production to participate in the San Remo Song Festival, and young session pianist Jimmy Webb took the weekend off to attend a fair. It was there that he saw a hot air balloon taking off, inspiring him to write “Up Up and Away.” When the group heard it their reaction was so enthusiastic that Webb wound up with that and four more songs on the LP “Up” was immediately cut and released, logging on to Billboard’s Top 100 on June 3rd and rising to number seven by July 8th. The free-and-easy big band, jazz, pop flavor of the song lifted it to standard status and made it their first million seller. It went on to win five Grammys in 1968, for Best Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Contemporary Group of the Year, Best Contemporary Single, and Best Performance By a Group of Two to Six.
The 5th Dimension continued to issue intricately arranged singles. Among them were “Paper Cup” (#34), and “Carpet Man” (#29), both by Jimmy Webb. They were particularly successful in 1968 with “Stoned Soul Picnic” (#3, Pop, #2 R&B) and “Sweet Blindness” (#13 Pop, #45 R&B) by New York writer Laura Nyro.
Another twist of fate provided the 5th Dimension with their biggest hit of all time. During a booking at New York’s Americana Hotel in 1968 Billy lost his wallet while shopping. It turned out to have been left in a taxi, and the finder cheerfully returned it to him. Billy was grateful and invited the gentleman and his wife to a 5th Dimension performance at the hotel. The honest man turned out to be one of the producers of a hit Broadway play titled Hair. He reciprocated by inviting the whole group to see his play, where they heard the incredible opening number “Aquarius” and immediately resolved to record it. When producer Bones Howe heard it he felt it was only half a song and needed additional material, possibly a gospel-styled ending. Bones then traveled to New York to see the play for himself and hit upon the needed ending. It was the final section of “The Flesh Failures” (“Let the Sunshine In”), and though the group had doubts about the coupling, Bones and former SIGNATURES vocalist (Warner Bros.) and jazz arranger extraordinaire Bob Alcivar connected to two halves, thus creating one of the most exciting records of the late ‘60s, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”
“Aquarius” took off for its meteoric rise to number one on March 8, 1969. It spent six weeks there, selling over two million copies in less than a month. “Aquarius” also went to number 11 in the U.K. and became a worldwide best seller.
The Neil Sedaka-penned follow-up, “Working on a Groovy Thing,” went to number 20, followed by the Laura Nyro winner “Wedding Bell Blues” (#1) in the fall of 1969. Wedding bells were on everyone’s mind: Marilyn married Billy and manager Marc Gordon married Florence.
In 1970, the group moved over to New York City’s Bell Records, which signaled a softer easy listening style for the quintet. They alternated between Webb and Nyro songs for charters “Puppet Man” (Webb, #24) and “Save the Country” (Nyro, #27) until they hit it big again on January 2, 1971, with the ballad “One Less Bell to Answer,” a Bacharach/David song (#2).
The group continued to record quality sides for Bell, including 1971’s “Never My Love” (THE ASSOCIATION) which hit number 12 Pop (#45 R&B) and “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All” (#8 Pop, #28 R&B) in 1972.
In November of that year the 5th Dimension performed at the White House for President Nixon.
In the fall of 1975 Marilyn and Billy went out as a duet, and both they and the 5th (now with Marjorie Barnes and Danny Beard as replacements) signed with ABC Records.
The group’s last Pop chart record was “Love Hangover” for ABC (#80) in the spring of 1976. Meanwhile, Marilyn and Billy hit gold with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” (#1 Pop and R&B) and went on through 1977 with four charters, the last being “Look What You’ve Done to My Heart” (#51) and “Shine on Silver Moon” (#86, 1978).
The 5th Dimension moved over to Motown in 1978 for a few unsuccessful LPs and singles. In June 1977 Marilyn and Billy co-hosted a six-week CBS TV variety show, which led to Marilyn having a successful run as host of 1980’s “Solid Gold.”
The 5th Dimension continued to be a popular performance attraction through the ‘80s, when Michael bell replaced Ron Townson.
Their vocal flexibility made them an ideal producer’s group and a great vehicle for sophisticated songs that other wise might never have reached the masses.
– Jay Warner