With an impressive two-year string of hits under his belt, Johnny Rivers was bursting with creative ambition. In 1966, Imperial Records, under parent company Liberty, accommodated by giving him his own record label to play with. He called it Soul City, which he envisioned as a platform for rhythm and blues acts of the modern, or perhaps I should say mod, variety. Not that any existed yet. The label's hottest act during its four year history was a quintet made up of three men from St. Louis, Missouri and two photogenic women from further east: The 5th Dimension.

In the early 1960s, Lamont McLemore and Jersey City girl Marilyn McCoo put together The Hi-Fi's in Los Angeles with a couple of Lamont's friends, Harry Elston and Floyd Butler. The quartet worked the club circuit for awhile, which led to a stretch backing up Ray Charles on live dates in 1964. Ray's influence put them into a jazz frame of mind, but Lamont and Marilyn weren't comfortable with it and left; Harry and Floyd hired three other singers and as The Vocals released "Lonesome Mood" on Charles' Tangerine label.

Philadelphia-born Florence Larue, like Marilyn before her, had been a beauty pageant contestant, competing for the title of Miss Bronze California during the still-segregated '60s; each displayed some vocal agility and captured first place in the pageant's talent competiton in separate years. A friend of Lamont's, operatically-trained Ron Townson, had been working steadily as a gospel singer. Lamont's cousin, Billy Davis, Jr., also had a gospel background. Put them all together and you've got a winning formula, though in 1965 they didn't yet realize it. The three-man, two-woman group's lineup was set for the next decade.

With their differing backgrounds and variety of musical influences, The Versatiles seemed like an appropriate name for the quintet (apart from the fact that it had already been used by several acts). They auditioned for Motown Records, but didn't connect with chief Berry Gordy, Jr.; on the other hand, the label's Marc Gordon (who'd produced Brenda Holloway and other acts) was duly impressed and offered to work with them. "You're Good Enough For Me," produced and cowritten by Gordon for the Bronco label, was the first and only release using the Versatiles name.

Gordon became the group's manager, breaking away from what had become routine at Motown, to devote his efforts to getting the quintet established. His luck with timing brought them to the attention of Johnny Rivers just as Soul City was getting off the ground. Rivers liked what he saw but offered a few suggestions that may have seemed odd but turned out to be career-defining. First off, the outdated Versatiles name had to go; he gave them a contemporary, late-'60s (no "s" at the end) name, The 5th Dimension. The quintet's entire look underwent a makeover, with colorful suits for the guys, mini-skirts and go-go boots for the girls. The music was to be a more sophisticated brand of soul while the image fit in with current fashion trends. First single "I"ll Be Loving You Forever" landed with a thud in late '66. Were they out of sync with the music scene...or ahead of their time?

A year earlier, folk-rock quartet The Mamas and the Papas had experienced the same bumpy start; first single "Go Where You Wanna Go" didn't even get off the ground, superstardom immediately followed. Rivers, feeling the John Phillips song should have been big, gave it a whirl with the 5th Dimension and it clicked, a top 20 hit in February '67, the breakthrough for both the group and Johnny's Soul City label. "Another Day, Another Heartache," from hot L.A. songwriters P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, went mid-chart three months later.

Then the group rode into the stratosphere...figuratively and literally. "Up - Up and Away," which dealt with the uncommon subject of floating among the stars in a hot air balloon, went top ten in July; written by Jimmy Webb, it established him as one of the big names among late-'60s songwriters. Rivers and Gordon, producers of the early singles, passed the producing baton to Dayton "Bones" Howe, who had engineered recordings for both Rivers and the Mamas and the Papas under producer Lou Adler. Two more lyrically inventive Webb compositions, "Paper Cup" and "Carpet Man," hit the top 40 in late '67 and early '68.

Grammy time rolled around and to the amazement of the 5th Dimension, "Up - Up and Away" received multiple nominations. At the February 29, 1968 awards banquet, McCoo and company were truly flabbergasted, returning to the podium for one acceptance speech after another. The song swept the night, winning four awards for the 5D, including Record of the Year and three categories that could well have been pared to one: Best Performance by a Vocal Group, Best Contemporary Group Performance (Vocal or Instrumental) and Best Contemporary Single. Webb also won in the Song of the Year category (he picked up another Grammy the following year for his arrangement of "Mac Arthur Park" by Richard Harris) and to further illustrate the song's reach, The Johnny Mann Singers won in the category of Best Performance by a Chorus with their "easy listening" cover of the song.

The hits kept coming in '68 as the group switched gears and aligned with another talented songwriter, Bronx native Laura Nyro. "Stoned Soul Picnic" returned them to the top ten in July. Certified for sales of a million copies, they were presented with a gold record for the achievement by Frank Sinatra during an engagement at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Sammy Davis Jr. was a fan of the group, proclaiming, "The 5th Dimension really sock it to you!" Next came another Nyro tune, "Sweet Blindness," which playfully celebrated the joys of drunkenness, unusual subject matter for a song receiving widespread radio airplay. In early '69 the quintet hit again with the Nick Ashford-Valerie Simpson song "California Soul," an ode to their west coast home base.

1969 was the biggest year yet for the 5th Dimension. Several songs from the Broadway musical Hair dominated the airwaves in a variety of cover versions of the show's musical numbers by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot. 5D had the biggest of them all, a medley of "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In," which had hastily been recorded in a Las Vegas studio during their time there as headliners. The record dominated the charts, spending six weeks at the top in April and May of 1969. NARAS caught the "Aquarius" bug and once again bestowed the group with top honors at the Grammy Awards the following March, where they won Record of the Year for the second time, in addition to Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Group (the economical replacement for what had earlier been three separate categories). They were the darlings of Grammy voters in those days, rivaled only, perhaps, by Simon and Garfunkel (Record of the Year winners in the even years of '68 and '70 to the Dimension's odd years, '67 and '69).

Right around this time a hot new group hit the charts with a vocal remake of Hugh Masekela's instrumental smash "Grazing in the Grass." Hi-Fi's guys Harry Elston and Floyd Butler had gone off and started another group with female singers Jessica Cleaves and Barbara Jean Love, after parting ways with McLemore and McCoo some five years earlier. The Friends of Distinction signed with RCA Records, hitting with the energized Masekela track and two other high-charting singles in '69 and '70: "Going in Circles" and "Love or Let Me Be Lonely." Stylistically, and not surprisingly, the Friends came closer than anyone else to the sound and image of the 5th Dimension.

Ron Townson, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Florence Larue, Lamont McLemore

"Workin' on a Groovy Thing," a Neil Sedaka-Roger Atkins song and minor hit for Patti Drew the previous year, was a top 20 follow-up to "Aquarius" in the summer of '69. McCoo and Davis had been dating for some time, and as the story goes he had been putting off popping the question. Laura Nyro had scored a sizeable hit in Los Angeles in late 1966 with "Wedding Bell Blues" (which unfathomably failed to catch on nationally); the lyrics of the original had a coincidental parallel to Marilyn's situation: 'Bill!!! I love you so, I always will...but am I ever gonna see my wedding day?' The group recorded the song on a whim, somewhat as a joke...possibly as a pressure tactic? Soul City released it as a single...and surprise! It hit number one in November. Whether or not intentional, Marilyn captured a measure of desperation in her vocal performance and it worked in her favor, but it didn't take a hit single to do the trick. She and Billy had already tied the knot in July. Love was in the air in 1969: Florence LaRue and manager Marc Gordon also married that year, doing the ceremony in true 5th Dimension style...high above earth in a beautiful balloon!

In May 1970, two months after their second Grammy triumph, the group starred in their own TV special on CBS, The 5th Dimension: An Odyssey in the Cosmic Universe of Peter Max, prominently featuring pop art master Max's colorfully pschychedelic sets. The following year another variety special, The 5th Dimension Traveling Sunshine Show, appeared. By that time Johnny Rivers had sold Soul City Records, passing all of its artists and masters to Bell Records (though he retained rights to the label's name). Marc Gordon moved on and formed his own record company, Carousel, scoring a hit in 1972 with "Precious and Few" by Climax; changing the label's name to Rocky Road, he signed former Soul City artist Al Wilson, resulting in a number one smash for the singer, "Show and Tell," in January 1974.

Suddenly a Bell Records act, the 5D's hit streak continued through the first few years of the new decade as they widened their net to include songwriters established and new. Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "One Less Bell to Answer," the Tony Macaulay tune "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All" and Randy McNeill's "If I Could Reach You" were all top ten hits in '71 and '72. Bacharach and David's "Living Together, Growing Together" was the group's final top 40 hit in early 1973.

McCoo and Davis left the group in 1975, signing a deal with ABC Records as a duo. "You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)" was released in the fall of 1976 and topped the charts in January '77, followed by "Your Love," a top 20 hit. They hosted a short-lived variety series, The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. Show, for CBS later that year. Marilyn enjoyed a longer run hosting Solid Gold (with cohost Andy Gibb in the 1981-'82 season, Rex Smith in '82-'83, then as solo host in '83-'84).

Florence LaRue, Lamont McLemore and Ron Townson also moved to the ABC label, where the Florence-led recording of "Love Hangover" was eclipsed by Diana Ross's simultaneously-released version, which hit number one in the spring of 1976. The three original members kept The 5th Dimension going for many years, LaRue being the one constant; Eloise Laws, '60s "Skate Now" soulster Lou Courtney and longtime 5D singer Phyllis Battle are among the more than two dozen vocalists who have spent time performing with the group.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Go Where You Wanna Go Another Day, Another Heartache Sweet Blindness Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In