FORMED: 1966, Los Angeles, CA
The Fifth Dimension's unique sound lay somewhere between smooth, elegant
soul and straightforward, adult-oriented pop, often with a distinct flower-power
vibe. Although they appealed more to mainstream listeners than to a hip,
hardcore R&B audience, they had a definite ear for contemporary trends;
their selection of material helped kickstart the notable songwriting careers
of Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro, and their biggest hit was a medley from the
hippie musical Hair, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." The group's soaring,
seamless harmonies were given appropriately sweeping, orchestrated period
production by Bones Howe, which often placed their records closer to California-style
sunshine pop. That's actually part of the reason why the best singles from
the Fifth Dimension's heyday of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s still evoke
their era with uncanny precision.
The Fifth Dimension began life in Los Angeles in 1965 as the Versatiles.
Lamonte McLemore, Ron Townson, and Billy Davis, Jr. all grew up in St. Louis,
and moved to Los Angeles independently of one another; each was trained in
a different area -- jazz, opera, and gospel/R&B, respectively. Marilyn
McCoo was the first female singer to join, and she was soon augmented by
Florence LaRue; both were ex-beauty pageant winners who'd attended college
in the L.A. area. Their demo tape was rejected by Motown, but after a one-off
single for Bronco, they caught the attention of singer Johnny Rivers, who'd
just set up his own label, Soul City. Rivers signed the group in 1966 on
the condition that they update their name and image, and thus the Fifth Dimension
was born. Their first Soul City single, "I'll Be Lovin' You Forever," was
a flop, but a cover of the Mamas & the Papas' "Go Where You Wanna Go"
climbed into the Top 20.
Budding young songwriter Jimmy Webb ("Macarthur Park," "By the Time I Get
to Phoenix," etc.) supplied the Fifth Dimension with their breakthrough hit,
1967's "Up, Up and Away." An ode to the pleasures of flying in a beautiful
balloon, the song became the group's first Top Ten hit, peaking at number
seven, and went on to sweep the Grammy Awards, taking home five total (including
Record of the Year and Song of the Year). Its success pushed the Fifth Dimension's
first album, also titled Up, Up and Away, to gold sales status. The group
stuck with Webb for its second album, The Magic Garden, which featured only
one non-Webb composition; it produced a couple of minor hits in "Paper Cup"
and "Carpet Man," but nothing on the level of "Up, Up and Away." Their third
LP was thus more diverse, featuring several compositions by another up-and-coming
songwriter, Laura Nyro. The title cut, Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic," went
all the way to number three in the spring of 1968, selling over a million
copies and putting Nyro on the map. The Nyro-penned follow-up single, "Sweet
Blindness," also reached the Top 20.
The Fifth Dimension's success peaked in 1969 when the group caught a Broadway
production of Hair, and immediately decided to cut a medley of two songs
from the show. "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" was a monster hit and grew
to become one of the era's defining pop records; it spent six weeks at number
one, sold a whopping three million copies, and won the group their second
Record of the Year Grammy. Accompanying LP The Age of Aquarius went gold
and nearly hit number one, and their Nyro-penned follow-up single, "Wedding
Bell Blues," followed its predecessor to number one as well. The song was
something of a mirror of real life; Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo were married
that year, and Florence LaRue also married group manager Marc Gordon.
Johnny Rivers sold Soul City to the Bell label in 1970, and the first Fifth
Dimension LP on Bell was that year's Portrait, which spawned several minor
hits and the Top Five smash "One Less Bell to Answer," a Burt Bacharach composition.
1970 also brought a controversial performance at the White House; although
the group sang "The Declaration," a socially conscious critique, the simple
act of appearing before President Nixon further alienated the Fifth Dimension
from the black wing of their fan base, at a time when their releases had
already begun to peak higher on the pop charts than on the R&B side.
Indeed, their Bell recordings moved farther into soft pop and away from R&B
and the gently trippy vibes of their late-‘60s material. Their album sales
began to taper off, and their vocal arrangements now tended to spotlight
soloists rather than unified harmonies. McCoo emerged as a focal point, singing
lead on the 1972 Top Ten hits "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All"
and "If I Could Reach You." They proved to be the group's last major successes;
another Bacharach tune, 1973's "Living Together, Growing Together," barely
made the Top 40, and the following year's Soul & Inspiration LP marked
the end of their relationship with producer Bones Howe. 1975's Earthbound
was another full-length collaboration with Jimmy Webb, and much like The
Magic Garden, its thematic unity failed to produce a significant hit single.
It was also the last album by the original lineup; McCoo and Davis left the
group to form a duo, and scored a big hit in 1976 with "You Don't Have to
Be a Star."
The remaining trio carried on with new members, and nearly had a hit in 1976
with the LaRue-sung "Love Hangover"; unfortunately, Motown issued Diana Ross'
own version shortly after the Fifth Dimension's hit the charts, and hers
proved far more popular. Strangely enough, the Fifth Dimension signed with
Motown not long after, releasing two albums in 1978. Townson briefly left
the group to try a solo career, but soon returned, as the group resigned
themselves to the nostalgia circuit; meanwhile, McCoo served a stint as the
host of Solid Gold. Phyllis Battle joined in the mid-‘80s, and the original
quintet reunited in 1990 for a tour. In 1995, the quintet of LaRue, Townson,
McLemore, Battle, and Greg Walker recorded a new album, In the House, for
Click Records. In 1998, Willie Williams replaced Townson, who passed away
in 2001 due to kidney failure. Battle departed in 2002, to be replaced by
Van Jewel. ~ Steve Huey, All Music Guide