By Sidnie Paisley Thomas, Staff Writer
Each week of Black Music Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul, profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into The Fifth Dimension’s incredible legacy.
The Fifth Dimension was a psychedelic soul group most popular in the late 1960s. The group’s five inaugural members, Lamonte McLemore, Marilyn McCoo, Florence LaRue,
Ronald Townson, and Billy Davis Jr., had a significant influence on the emerging 1970s disco scene. They facilitated a unique sound that straddled between traditional soul and the more experimental pop and disco sound on the rise at the time. Together they continuously topped the billboard charts throughout the late 1960s and early 70s reaching stardom with multiple number-one hit singles and gold albums.
THE GROUP'S FORMATION
The original five members of The Fifth Dimension wouldn’t begin producing music together until 1965. In 1960, McLemore met McCoo in Los Angeles through the music scene and the two formed a group called the Hi-Fi’s with three other mutual friends. The group saw minor success singing at local clubs, and they even produced a single under the guidance of Ray Charles in 1964. Internal conflicts led to the Hi-Fi’s disbanding soon after, but McLemore wasn’t ready to give up on his dream of creating a successful group. He recruited Davis and Towson as they knew each other from their upbringing in St. Louis, Missouri. Lead singers McCoo and LaRue connected through a mutual vocal teacher, and McLemore approached LaRue to join the band after seeing her at a Miss Bronze California Contest.
The group began producing music under the name “The Versitalles'' in 1965. McLemore and McCoo’s previously established name in the industry aided the new group in their exposure. They were soon introduced to Mac Gordon, the head of the Los Angeles Department of Motown Records. He saw promise in them and set up a meeting with the head of Motown Records,
Berry Gordy. Gordy ended up rejecting the group, but Gordon didn’t give up on them and agreed to manage their career. In 1966 Gordon introduced them to Johnny Rivers, who had just begun his own label Soul City Records. Rivers signed the group to Soul City in 1966, and they changed their name to The 5th Dimension.
The same year, they released their debut single “I’ll Be Loving You Forever.” Unfortunately, the song failed to chart. Later that year, they gained attention for their cover of the song “Go Where You Wanna Go,” originally performed by The Mamas and The Papas. This song gave them their first Hot 100 Hit, charting at number 16.
DEFINING THE ’60s
In 1967 the group released, “Up Up and Away,” the title track to their debut album. This song was their real breakthrough single, charting number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the song, you can hear the beginnings of their distinct soulful disco sound. It’s this sound that separated them from other acts at the time, they combined optimistic pop lyrics with their deep soul voices creating a sound unique to them. Alongside the development of their sound, this song would become a career-defining moment for the group as it went on to win five Grammy awards, including Record of The Year. This success catapulted their debut album to gold status.
The mass success of this song solidified the group as a hitmaker in the music industry. With help from songwriter Laura Nyro, they continued to release hits like “Stone Cold Picnic” (1968), which reached number three on the Hot 100 chart. The album, also titled Stone Cold Picnic featured the song “Sweet Blindness” which reached 13 on the Hot 100 chart. The popularity of the album led to the group receiving their second gold-status album.
The peak of the group's success came in 1969 from the song “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.” Seeing a performance of “Hair (the Musical)” inspired the group to create a track to go alongside it, thus, the creation of their most popular song. The song is a masterful display of the group's versatility and talent, their strong soulful harmonies blend perfectly with the disco production on the track. It starts slow, hooking the listener with their smooth angelic voices, and builds to a euphoric conclusion. It’s no surprise the song spent six weeks at number one on the Hot 100 chart and reached over 3 million sales. The song went on to win the group their second Record of the Year Grammy Award. The album by the same name gave the group its third gold status.
The 5th Dimension continued to release music into the ’70s, with more Hot 100 hits like “One Less Bell to Answer” and “Never My Love.” They made appearances on popular television shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and The Mike Douglas Show. In 1975,
McCoo and Davis married and left the group to pursue their solo endeavors. The remaining three members continued to produce music with various new members and saw small success with songs like “Love Hangover,” which was a bigger hit for Diana Ross. The group continued to go through a series of changes in the late ’70s and early ’80s—they signed with Motown Records, and more new members came and went.
In the fall of 1978, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis would go on to release the soul hit,
“You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show).” The song would be a crossover hit, charting for six months and reaching number 1 on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Soul singles charts. This led to them winning a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
At this time, they would also make the transition to television—having their own variety show in the summer of 1977. Marilyn would take her popularity into a new dance decade during the 1980s as host of the dance-oriented TV show, Solid Gold. Davis would also achieve success in the gospel genre and stage arenas.
Recently, their popularity resurfaced when The 5th Dimension starred in the Questlove performance documentary, Summer of Soul, depicting the 1969 Harlem Soul festival, which they were a part of alongside greats such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Sly Stone. The documentary took home an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This documentary also brought the sunshine back for them and helped dispel notions The 5th Dimension’s audience was only mainstream crossover, as they wowed black and brown audiences highlighting an important and forgotten chapter in pop culture.
WHO INFLUENCED THE 5TH DIMENSION
- The Ronettes
- The Shangri-Las
- The Beach Boys
- The Bee Gees
- The Temptations
- The Supremes
- The Mamas and The Papa’s
WHO THE 5TH DIMENSION INFLUENCED
- Donna Summer
- Sly & Family Stone
- The Friends of Distinction
- Captain And Tennille
- Earth, Wind & Fire
- Rotary Connection
- Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose
The 5th Dimension became major players in the pop-soul genre, and many describe their sound as “champagne soul.” They contributed to what is now accepted as alternative-soul.
- Record of the Year (Grammys, 1968)
- Best Performance By A Vocal Group (Grammys, 1968)
- Best Contemporary Single (Grammys 1968)
- Best Contemporary Group Performance (Vocal Or Instrumental) (Grammys, 1968)
- Record of the Year (Grammys, 1970)
- Best Contemporary Group Performance (Vocal Or Instrumental) (Grammys, 1970)
- Inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2002)
“Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In”: On this career-defining track, The 5th Dimension demonstrate the genius of the group. Their psychedelic disco aesthetic accompanied by their deep soulful voices work together to make a track that defined 1969. It starts off slow, with their voices ringing behind a funky bass. Once the beat picks up, the group's inherent joy and optimism shine as they rejoice about the age of Aquarius. The song spent six weeks at number one and sold over three million copies, making it one of the group's most successful tracks.
“Stoned Soul Picnic”: On “Stoned Soul Picnic,” the group leans into their soul roots and makes a groovy song for the perfect picnic day. The group invites you down to their stone soul picnic, with wine sassafras and moonshine, the song grooves along with lots of bass and hearty vocals from the lead singers. It’s not a surprise the song went number three on the Hot 100, no one could turn down an invitation to The 5th Dimensions kaleidoscopic picnic.
“Wedding Bell Blues”: While they’re most known for their colorful and optimistic tracks, The 5th Dimension was no stranger to sadness. On “Wedding Bell Blues,” the lead singer sings to her partner Bill whom she wants to marry, but he’s not as sure as her. Her soulful voice pleads for Bill's commitment, as she tells him how much she loved him through thick and thin. The song still incorporates their classic funky sound, with trumpets and groovy bass. This song, also written by Laura Nyro demonstrates the group's versatility and talent.
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop, and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.