The Fifth Dimension

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. Billy sang in several Gospel and Soul groups while he studied at Washington Tech. He opened his own nightclub, eventually landing in Los Angeles where he hoped 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 music. 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 in Opera and Lamonte in Jazz, Marilyn in 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 new ensemble. 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 signed on 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 invited McLemore to return with more tunes for him to hear. Lamonte went back 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" and "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 started to happen. Johnny Rivers instantly liked their sound and offered to produce them, but wanted them to change their outdated group name and look. Now called The Fifth Dimension 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 The Mamas And Papas' John Phillips, called "Go Where You Wanna Go" went to Billboard's Top 20, peaking at #16.

The group 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 issued. The song entered the Top 10 and peaked at #7, staying on the Top 40 for 10 weeks, bringing the quintet to fame. The song was awarded Best Performance By A Vocal Group, Best Contemporary Group Performance, Best Contemporary Single and Record Of The Year at the Grammy Awards. It also won Song Of The Year, awarded to Jimmy Webb. The group was also nominated for Best New Artist that year. Their album went Gold.

It was actually Bones Howe, their producer, who heard a potential hit in Laura Nero's song, "Stoned Soul Picnic". Howe said, "We were looking for a piece of material that would reflect what the group 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 group, 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. It entered the Top 10, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained in the Top 40 for twelve 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. At the beginning of 1969, "California Soul" entered the Top 40, reaching #25 on Billboard's Hot 100.

In 1969, the musical Hair was on Broadway and in an interesting twist, The Fifth Dimension 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 invited us to see a play he produced. 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". He got together with arranger Bob Alcivar and put the two songs together, making them work as one single. "We recorded that song in Las Vegas in this small studio," said 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." They were very close to the railroad tracks, and while they were singing the final chorus, a train rumbled by. You can still hear the locomotive, though just barely, on the final master. "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In" remained in the #1 spot on Billboard's chart for six straight weeks and remained in the Top 40 for sixteen weeks. Both the single and album "Age Of Aquarius" went Gold and received two Grammy Awards for Record Of The Year and Best Contemporary Vocal By A Group. They were also nominated for Album Of The Year. The song was also nominated for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist. It eventually sold over three million copies, making it the biggest selling single that year. The original song was over seven minutes long and it was Bill Drake of a Los Angeles radio station who suggested the song needed to be shortened to about three minutes, so Howe released two versions, one just over three minutes and one under three minutes.

"Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In" was only the beginning of their album "Age Of Aquarius". Bones Howe told Marilyn McCoo 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", another Laura Nyro composition, was released and soared to the top of the charts, remaining in the Top 40 for fourteen weeks. "Workin' On A Groovy Thing", co-written by Neil Sedaka, peaked at #20 in 1969 and "Blowing Away", yet another Laura Nyro tune, 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. 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, which also went Gold. Another compilation LP was released after that titled "The July 5th Album". Their LPs continued to sell well. Changing labels, they went with Bell Records, headed by Larry Uttal. Their first single for the label was "The Declaration", a song not popular with the government, though at a performance which included President Nixon and the Governors of fifty 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 three songs which entered the Top 40. One was a song co-written by Neil Sedaka, "Puppet Man", released in May of 1970. Tom Jones' version hit the air waves months later. The group's rendition peaked at #24. By this time three of their albums were on Billboard's Top 50 LPs at the same time. The following month they released another Nyro tune called "Save The Country", which reached #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", which failed to chart, in 1970. In the meantime, a Los Angeles radio station called Bell Records and said that people were phoning his station when he played "One Less Bell To Answer" and they should really issue 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.

March of 1971 saw the single "Love's Lines, Angles & Rhymes" peak 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, Traveling Sunshine Show. Later that year they released their double "Live!" LP which was taped in Las Vegas. With McCoo's success on lead vocals, they released "Never My Love" in October 1971 which went to #12. In early 1972 they put out a McCoo / Davis duet also from the "Live!" LP, "Together, Let's Find Love", which settled at #37. The album also went Gold and another compilation LP was released called "Reflections".

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, peaking at #8 and eventually selling over two million singles. Five months later another McCoo solo, "If I Could Reach You", climbed to #10 on the Billboard chart. The album "Living Together, Growing Together" was pressed in 1973. The LP title was released as a single in February of that year and entered the Top 40, peaking at #32. Two other singles were issued, but both failed to chart well. That same year, they decided to release the single, "Flashback", which was not on the album. "Flashback" was also recorded by Cher, but neither artist had a hit 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 marked Bones Howe's departure from producing the group. It was also the last album that 5D cut for Bell Records.

Their last LP 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 very high.

McCoo and Davis left the group after "Earthbound". The 5th Dimension continued with ABC Records and released the single "Love Hangover" which featured Florence 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 put out 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 quit for a little while to sing as a solo artist and to form Ron Townson And Wild Honey, but later returned. Now with McCoo and Davis gone and two new members, Michael Procter and Joyce Wright, Soul Newspaper wrote a concert review after seeing them perform in 1976: "The new members are strong singers. There is no doubt this group is as good as the other, in my humble opinion." In the middle '80s, Phyllis Battle was invited to join. At that time she was working at a law firm in Los Angeles, wanting a solo career singing Jazz. She auditioned and they asked her to join knowing her vocal Jazz influence would be an asset to their sound. She stayed a member of The 5th Dimension for over a decade.

Marilyn McCoo was a 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, Lamonte and Ron 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 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, now calling themselves The Original 5th Dimension.

In 1991, The 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. In the early '90s, Billy and Marilyn returned to their solo act and the replacement members came back into the fold. After Michael Procter left to pursue a solo career, The 5th Dimension began searching for a new male singer. They found Greg Walker. Greg was once the lead singer of the famed group Santana, and also had a solo career as well as releasing a CD in 1991 titled, "Love You So Good". His voice was featured on Santana albums, "Amigos", "Inner Secrets", "Moonflower", "Beyond Appearances", "Cal Jam 2", "Blues For Salvador" and "Viva Santana". He toured with Joan Baez and also performed lead vocals for musicians and recording artists such as Herbie Hancock, Kenny G, Jeff Lorber, Rodney Franklin, and Keiko Matsui. The new version of the 5th Dimension released a CD in 1995 called "In The House" on Dick Clark's label, Click Records. It features "Say (U Love Me)", which LaRue co-wrote. It also includes two popular songs from the past, "Puppet Man" and "Stoned Soul Picnic" done in the newer 5th style. Willie Williams joined The 5th Dimension in 1998, replacing Ron Townson, who retired for health reasons. The Original 5th Dimension did occasional reunion concerts through the '90s, but decided toward the end of the decade to call it quits.

Ron Townson died at his home in Las Vegas on August 2nd, 2001 at the age of sixty-eight. He suffered renal failure after a four-year battle with kidney disease. Phyllis Battle departed in 2002, to be replaced by Van Jewell. The Fifth Dimension was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame that same year. Lamonte McLemore retired from the group in March 2006 as McCoo and Davis continued to tour separately. The five original members received a star on the St. Louis Walk Of Fame on March 18th, 2010. In October, 2011, McCoo and Davis were featured on the Cliff Richard album "Soulicious", and also appeared on Richard's tour of the same name, reprising several of their hits as well as dueting with Sir Cliff.

In 2012, '13, '14, '15 and '16, The Fifth Dimension was still actively touring as Florence La Rue And The 5th Dimension, led by La Rue with Willie Williams, Leonard Tucker, Patrice Morris and Floyd Smith.

Be sure to read Gary James' interviews with Marilyn McCoo and Florence La Rue