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“How Do You Color a Sound?”: The ‘Wonder Bread’ Soul of the 5th Dimension 


By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Saturday, August 7, 2021.


What is a more mainstream example of America, than a sandwich made with white bread? And that is perhaps what Motown’s Berry Gordy was thinking when he launched a short-lived merchandising partnership with Schafer Bakeries in Lansing, MI. “The Supremes Special Formula White Bread”, featured Motown’s flagship trio, The Supremes, on its packaging. Long-forgotten, especially after the Supremes were featured in an ad for Coke in 1968, the endeavor might be best remembered as an unintended metaphor for the comparative blandness of the Motown brand, as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Sly & the Family Stone took Soul music metaphorically “higher” towards the end of 1960s.  The irony of Motown’s white bread dreams is that there was another group, one that Gordy passed over, that was even more white bread than Gordy could have ever conjured. For a brief period in the late 1960s, the 5th Dimension fully realized the post-racial crossover success that Gordy had imagined for his stars, while raising the legitimate question of what is means to sound Black in music.

The 5th Dimension always preferred to describe their music as “Champagne Soul”, a term that captured the ambitions and aspirations of a cohort of Black Americans, not quite fully formed in the late 1960s. To listen to the 5th Dimension was to hear a mélange of middle-of-the road Pop, show-tunes, folk music, with flourishes of Jazz, Soul, and a tinge of Gospel. If music were to sound like America, it might sound like the 5th Dimension – at least in the 1960s.  For many though, the group is remembered as a quintet of Pop music performers, whose choice of songs and style of singing betrayed any idea that they were, in fact, Black Americans. Recording and performing for more than 50 years – the group was one of the first Black acts to have a regular residency in Las Vegas – The 5th Dimension’s most classic lineup of Billy Davis Jr., Lamonte McLemore, Ronald Townson, Marilyn McCoo, and Florence LaRue solidified in 1966 and stayed intact until 1975, when Davis and McCoo departed (and scored their chart-topping single “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” in 1976).  

The trio of Davis, McLemore and Townson were all natives of St. Louis, MO, and found themselves hustling on the fringes of the entertainment industry in the early 1960s.  They were joined by McCoo, a New Jersey-born daughter of two physicians, who moved their family out to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. McCoo was an undergraduate at UCLA competing in the Miss Bronze California Pageant contest when she was spotted by McLemore who was working as a professional photographer. McLemore met the fifth member Florence LaRue the same way; she won the Miss Bronze California Pageant – in the era before Black women were allowed to compete in mainstream beauty contests – the year after McCoo competed.  


Initially named the Versatiles – considering the versatility of their voices – the group shopped their demo to labels in the Los Angeles area, specifically targeting Motown, whose West Coast office was run by Marc Gordon.   "Oh, man, they're really good songs, you know," McLemore recalls Gordy saying, “But I don't hear no hit."  Gordon, though, heard enough in the group that he agreed to manage them.  Shortly thereafter the group recorded their first single, “I'll be Lovin' You Forever”, a song that sounds right out of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook, for Johnny Rivers’ fledgling Soul City Records, a subsidiary of Liberty Record.  Rivers, who was a successful solo artist with hit songs like “The Poor Side of Town”, “Secret Agent Man'' and a rather credible cover of The Four Tops’ “Baby, I Need Your Lovin'” was looking for a Soul act for his label. 


“I'll be Lovin' You Forever'' made little impact, but the group was open to Rivers' suggestion that they change their name. With an assist from Townsend and his wife, The Versatiles became the 5th Dimension.  In addition, the group also shed the withering Motown sound of that era, at least after they were introduced to a young White singer-songwriter named Jimmy Webb, who   incidentally, had been a writer for Motown’s publishing arm Jobete. One of Webb’s early credits was “My Christmas Tree,” which became a Christmas standard of sorts for Motown as it was recorded by The Supremes, The Temptations, and the Jackson 5 among others.  


In a lengthy interview with HistoryMakers, McLemore recalls the group was sitting with Gordon, and Webb (who Gordon also managed), and as the group lamented their need for songs, Webb similarly lamented the need for folk to sing his songs.  Webb was working on “Up, Up and Away” (inspired by hot air ballooning) and gave the song to the 5th Dimension to record.  The pairing proved fruitful for both the 5th Dimension and Jimmy Webb, who contributed five original tunes to the 5th Dimension’s debut Up – Up and Away and eleven songs to their follow-up The Magic Garden (both released in 1967). 

Up, Up and Away” made the 5th Dimension stars, but not without the pitfalls the group faced within an industry that didn’t quite know what to do with them given that their music didn’t sound Black. For example, the first single from their debut album was a cover of The Mama and the Papa’s "Go Where You Wanna Go", a song that originally appeared on the Mama and Papas debut album that featured certified “middle-of-road” pop classics like “California Dreaming” and “Monday, Monday.” The 5th Dimension’s lead single, which outperformed the Mama’s and the Papa’s version on the pop charts, placed the 5th Dimension firmly within the aesthetic of “Sunshine Pop”.  A group like The Association (“Cherish”) was a particular reference point, as the 5th Dimension doubled-down on the sound by bringing in Bones Howe, who produced the Association's big hits “Never My Love” and “Windy”,  for their subsequent albums.



Yet even within the 5th Dimension’s parent company Liberty Records, there was doubt that the group could sell “sunshine pop”. The Fifth Dimension may have found their initial home on pop radio stations, but according to McCoo “when [stations] found out we were Black, they weren't so anxious to play our music.”  This fact was borne out when label-mates, the “Lilly-White”  Johnny Mann Singers recorded a version of “Up, Up and Away” after hearing the 5th Dimension’s version, hoping to take advantage of pop radio’s reticence at supporting a Black group that sounded “White.” As McLemore recalls to HistoryMakers, “We were on the same label now, and they did our song...we're going up the charts with our own company, competing against it. Fortunately, ours won out.” Even though the Johnny Mann Singers earned a Grammy in the category of Best Performance by a Chorus at the 10th Annual Grammy Awards, the 5th Dimension won six Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Best Performance by a Vocal Group and Best Contemporary Pop single.  

Yet the 5th Dimension’s early Grammy success offered a striking dissonance from what was happening in the world of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, as evidenced by those same 1967 Grammy Awards where Aretha Franklin won her first two Grammys in the Rhythm & Blues category for “Respect,” Sam & Dave won a Grammy for “Soul Man,” and in the Jazz category Julian “Cannonball” Adderley won his only Grammy for “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” -- three songs that represent a potent cross-section of where Black popular music was in that moment.  Indeed, none of the five singles released on Up – Up and Away and the follow-up The Magic Garden appeared on the Rhythm & Blues chart. There was something visually arresting about the cover art to Up – Up and Away five “Negroes in a Hot Air Balloon,”  while cities like Newark and Detroit were going up in flames during Black protests against police brutality and demands for Civil Rights.


The group felt the disconnect with Black audiences intimately, touring the college circuit and being  confronted by Black students – 1967 being the year of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and “I Got the Feelin’” – who didn’t think the 5th Dimensions’ music represented them. “We felt like, why don't they even give us a chance, you know?” McCoo tells Here & Now, “It was a little hurtful at that time.”  As McCoo shared in the film Summer of Soul, a documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969,  “Sometimes we were called the black group with the white sound...Our voices sound the way they sound. How do you color a sound?”


The irony of the 5th Dimension’s eventual Soul breakthrough in 1968 with “Stoned Soul Picnic”, is that they did so singing the music of another relatively unknown White singer-songwriter in Bronx-born Laura Nyro. The title track to their third album, “Stoned Soul Picnic” was the first 5th Dimension record to chart on the Soul/R&B charts, peaking at #2  making it the group’s highest charting single on the so-called “Black Music” charts, and one of two songs  during the group classic formation that fared better on the Soul/R&B charts than the Pop charts where it landed in the third spot in July of 1968. 


The group was introduced to Nyro’s music via David Geffen, who managed both Nyro and 5th Dimension producer Bones Howe.  After hearing a version of “Stoned Soul Picnic” sung by Nyro, which was included on her not-yet-released second album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, the group decided to cut a version of the song along with Nyro’s “Sweet Blindness”, with Howe’s proclamation,  “I’ve got a No. 1 R&B record for you guys.”  As the late Michele Kort writes in Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, “By the time Rolling Stone finally reviewed [Eli and the Thirteenth Confession] Nyro’s music had already made the Billboard charts – but not in her own voice. It was the 5th Dimension – who made the songs palatable to the record buying masses.” As Kort describes it “The 5th Dimension had smoothed out Nyro’s intensity, while highlighting the song’s lilting quality” in what would become, perhaps, the defining quality of the group’s interpretation of the Great American Songbook of that late 1960s and early 1970s. 


The success of both “Up, Up, and Away” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” ultimately paled to that of " Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)", a medley of songs poached from the breakout musical Hair, which opened Off-Broadway in 1967 as the inaugural production of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, and On-Broadway in April of 1968. In the Broadway production, Ronnie Dyson – another Black artist whose vocal qualities and choice of material often confused listeners – opens  the show with “Aquarius”; “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” featuring a young Melba Moore, closes out the musical at the end of the second act. 


As McCoo recalls, “Bones Howe put the idea together of doing 'Aquarius' and 'Let the Sunshine In' because the group wanted to record the song so badly. And we just really believed like we were gonna have a big hit with it.”  The medley was the 5th Dimension’s first number one Pop single, but not without some last-minute seasoning at the behest of their producer Howe: “okay, Billy, now go on in there and, and take it home, put in the gospel influence” McCoo recollects to HistoryMakers.  Davis, “took it to church” and created one of the most transcendent moments in 1960s pop music.


"Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)" was the lead single from The 5th Dimensions album Age of Aquarius (1969) and after the follow-up “Working on a Groovy Thing” stalled on the pop charts, the group returned to the Laura Nyro songbook recording “Wedding Bell Blues”, which originally appeared on Nyro’s debut More Than a Discovery (1966). Famously the song’s lyrics would mirror the personal lives of McCoo and Davis; the duo was married in 1969, with LaRue also marrying the group’s manager Marc Gordon the same year. 


By February of 1970 the 5th Dimension were featured on an episode of the Robert Wagner crime drama It Takes a Thief, where they debuted their single “One Less Bell to Answer”, which peaked at #2 on the Pop charts, and #4 of the Soul/R&B Charts.  The song appeared  on one of the group’s most cohesive albums, which included the single “Save the Country” (another Nyro cover) and a ten-minute medley that included the lyrics to the “Declaration of Independence”,  a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and the Rascals’ “People Gotta Be Free.”  The medley was as political as the group ever was, and the performance felt like a coda on the political and musical upheavals of the previous decade, and the innocence that their music represented in contrast.


Indeed, the group’s 1971 outing Live, Lines, Angles and Rhymes made little impact during a calendar year that featured the releases of a series of iconic albums from Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone, George Harrison, Isaac Hayes, the late Janis Joplin, to name just a few – albums that would have lasting impact on the sound of American pop music for years to come. To their credit, the 5th Dimension never wavered from their sound, even as so-called “Sunshine Pop” became Soft Rock in the 1970s.


The oddly titled, yet telling following album, Individually & Collectively featured lead vocals from all of the group members, including Davis covering Elton John’s “The Border Song”, and Nyro’s “Black Patch” where all five members took a turn at lead.  The single "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All," which featured McCoo on lead vocals was the group’s last top-five Pop single.  The group’s finest album, Living Together, Growing Together (1973), and in particular the single “Ashes to Ashes,” with its lyrics of longing for a passing era, finds the group symbolically staving off what was going to be the inevitable break-up of the original lineup. 


Indeed, McCoo and Davis departure in the Fall of 1975 seemed a fait accompli when none of the group’s singles from 1973 to 1975 reached the top-40, and the two singles released from the original lineup’s final album Earthbound, a one-off on ABC Records, failed to make  Pop or R&B charts. ABC did release two singles from the 5th Dimension in 1976 including “Love Hangover” with new members Danny Beard  and Marjorie Barnes, and featuring LaRue on lead vocals. The group’s last appearance on the charts was short-circuited by Diana Ross’s version of the song that was released around the same time and became the Motown’s diva’s third number-one hit as a solo artist. Coming full circle, the group’s final studio albums, Slow Dancing and High on Sunshine (both from 1978), were released on the Motown label, Berry Gordy perhaps paying penance for undermining their last chance at a hit two years earlier.


Since those last studio albums, the 5th Dimension have continued to tour, including a few reunion dates with McCoo and Davis. With Townsend’s passing in 2001 and McLemore’s retirement, LaRue remains the only original member still in the group. More than 50 years after they first topped the Pop Charts, the 5th Dimension have largely receded from public memory, save oldies radio stations and satellite channels. The 5th Dimension might have remained forgotten if not for the footage of their performance from the film Summer of Soul


The 5th Dimension were not culturally legible to many of the young Black folk who witnessed their performance during the Harlem Cultural Festival.  Indeed, it was the first time the group had performed in Harlem, a rather incredulous fact, given the cultural significance of Harlem and its iconic venue, The Apollo Theater. Then as now, the group offered a contrast to some of the other acts featured in the film, including Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Max Roach, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers and Stevie Wonder,  whose iconic statuses within Black America are owed, in part, to  the relative familiarity of their music and perceptions of their political and cultural resonance to an era largely remembered for the Black Freedom Struggle. 


With their many musical influences, the 5th Dimension's music defies simple categorization as Soul music or is not easily recognizable as even “Black” music. Certainly the 5th Dimension were not alone. On the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum, acts like The Chambers Brothers, Baby Huey & the Babysitters, Jimi Hendrix, and to a lesser extent, Sly & the Family Stone, were pushing at the boundaries of mainstream Soul and Rhythm & Blues.  Yet none of those acts, save Sly & the Family Stone, achieved any of the commercial success or industry honors that the 5th Dimension did.  And while Hendrix has been lionized after his death and Sly & the Family Stone are remembered as icons of the counter-cultural movement, the 5th Dimension have been seemingly lost to history.


While the 5th Dimension don’t have a “Say It Loud”, “Young Gifted and Black” or “What’s Going On” to hang their collective hats, it didn’t mean that the group didn’t have a lasting impact on how Black artists could sound and where their music could be heard. As Usher Raymond has recently ended a residency in Las Vegas and New Edition prepares for one in the coming year,  McLemore’s recent comments to his hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, hold true: “It was two groups, the Supremes and the 5th Dimension who opened doors for other Black singing groups to headline in Vegas in our heyday era. And everyone knew our first and last names…just like the Beatles.”




Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books including the forthcoming Black Ephemera: The Challenge and Crisis of the Black Archive (NYU Press). Follow him on Twitter: @NewBlackMan

“How Do You Color a Sound?”: The ‘Wonder Bread’ Soul of the 5th Dimension

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