An unforgettable kaleidoscope of sight and sound known as the Fifth Dimension came to prominence in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. This popular quintet made a virtual sweep of the 1967 Grammy Awards following the release of its first album, Up, Up, and Away. In doing so, the Fifth Dimension brought a new sophistication and respectability to the youth-oriented pop culture of that era. Jazzy, hip, harmonic, and soulful at times, this group created a melodic, uplifting sound in a variety of styles, appealing to a wide audience. With a light but ample rhythm and tempered harmonies, these popular singers continued to exert their undeniable appeal into the late 1990s.
Fifth Dimension founder Lamonte McLemore is himself a man of many dimensions who took a roundabout route to fame and fortune as a recording star. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, he enlisted in the Navy after graduating from that city’s Sumner High School. Initially intent on becoming a photographer for the military, he suffered a rude awakening at the limited opportunities that were available to him as an African American in the United States armed services of the 1950s. After his discharge he took up residence in Southern California, where he pitched for a Los Angeles
Members include Phyllis Battle (group member, c. 1983); Billy Davis, Jr. (born on June 26, 1940, in St. Louis, MO; married Marilyn McCoo, 1969); Florence LaRue (born on February 4, 1944, in Glenside, PA; married Marc Gordon Jr., 1969. Education: Graduated from California State University, Los Angeles, CA); Marilyn McCoo (born on September 30, 1943, in Jersey City, NJ; married Billy Davis, Jr., 1969. Education: Graduated from University of California, Los Angeles); Lamonte McLemore (born Herman McLemore on September 17, 1939, in St. Louis, MO). Ron Townson (born on January 20, 1933, in St. Louis, MO; died on August 2, 2001, in Las Vegas, NV. married Bobette, 1957; children: two sons (one deceased); retired, 1997. Education: Graduated from Lincoln University, Jefferson City, MO); Greg Walker (group member, c. 1990-2000); Willie Williams (group member, 1998-2000).
Group formed as the Versatiles, 1965; signed with Soul City Records and renamed the Fifth Dimension; signed with Bell Records, 1970; signed with ABC Records, 1974; signed with Motown Records, 1975; Davis and McCoo departed, replaced with new group members, 1975; reunion tour of original quintet, 1991; Townson retired, 1997; LaRue, McLemore, and alternate group members continued to perform, 1998-2000.
Awards: Grammy Awards, Best Performance by a Vocal Group, Best Contemporary Group Performance, Best Contemporary Single, and Record of the Year for Up, Up, and Away, 1967; Grammy Awards, Record of the Year, Best Contemporary Vocal Group Performance for “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” 1969; star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1991.
Addresses: Management —The Sterling/Winters Company (for Davis and McCoo), 1900 Avenue of the Stars, 16th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067, phone: (310) 557-2700, e-mail: [email protected] Office —Lamonte McLemore, c/o Jet Magazine, 820 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, phone: (312) 322-9200.
Dodgers farm team. When a broken arm ended hisbaseball career, McLemore’s interest in photography was renewed. He took his camera to the streets of Los Angeles, where he captured images of city life, emulating the photographs that he admired in Jet magazine. By 1959 McLemore had begun submitting his own work to Jet and had established a niche for himself as a freelance photographer. Ironically, this future Grammy Award winner had little interest in singing during his younger years.
An affinity for the opposite sex, however, ranked high among McLemore’s interests, and it motivated him in many of his endeavors. Inevitably, he focused his camera lens on the beautiful women of Los Angeles, a town with no dearth of starlets. In 1962 he was hired to photograph the contestants in the Miss Bronze California contest. He struck up a friendship with the winner, a New Jersey-born starlet named Marilyn McCoo, the daughter of two doctors who grew up in Los Angeles. A University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) graduate, she was intelligent, beautiful, and on the threshold of a show business career.
Soon after they met, McCoo and McLemore joined a quartet called the Hi-Fis with pop singers Floyd Butler and Harry Elston. The group disbanded in 1965, but not before touring with Ray Charles and releasing a single called “Lonesome Mood.” With that experience to his credit, McLemore learned that a hometown friend, Billy Davis, Jr., was in negotiations for a contract with Motown Records—one of the premiere labels of that era—and that more singers were needed for the venture. Davis, whose experience was in gospel music, had been singing professionally since age eleven with a group called the Emeralds that eventually toured the United States as the Saint Gospel Singers.
As the ensemble that would become the Fifth Dimension began to take form, McLemore contacted a former schoolmate from Sumner, Ron Townson, who, like Davis, had been singing since childhood. Townson was well-versed in opera and was an experienced choir director. After marrying his hometown sweetheart, Townson had moved to Los Angeles in 1957. The final member of the group was a young teacher named Florence LaRue. An aspiring actress, she was a graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) and in 1963 had succeeded McCoo as Miss Bronze California.
Calling themselves the Versatiles, the five singers began performing in clubs. They submitted a demo tape to Motown Records but failed to secure a recording contract with any company until a West Coast-based recording executive, Marc Gordon, Jr., took the group in hand. Under Gordon’s management, the Versatiles—renamed as the Fifth Dimension—signed with Johnny Rivers’s Soul City label in 1965.
In the mid-1960s the popular music market had been saturated by the Beatles and Motown R&B sounds, and the atmosphere was ripe for the unprecedented combination of energy and sophistication embodied by the Fifth Dimension. The group’s debut recording, “I’ll Be Lovin’ You Forever,” appeared in 1966 with admittedly little fanfare, but a follow-up single, “Go Where You Wanna Go,” rose quickly number 16 on the Billboard Top 20 pop chart. In February of the following year the Fifth Dimension released “Up, Up, and Away,” by Jimmy Webb. This song, which was also the title track of the group’s first album, spent 12 weeks on the charts. The song worked its way to number seven on the pop chart and remained a top 40 hit for ten weeks. This 1967 debut album went gold and won four Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. The group’s next single, “Eli’s Coming,” sold one million copies; a Fifth Dimension version of Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” followed in May of 1968.
A parade of top 40 hits ensued as the Fifth Dimension went gold once again with yet another Grammywinning hit—“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” a medley from the Broadway musical Hair. “Aquarius” crowned the Billboard chart at number one for six weeks straight and served as the title track of another gold album. The group hit the charts in September of 1969 with another Laura Nyro composition, “Wedding Bell Blues,” featuring McCoo as a soloist. Their “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing,” rose to number 20, and “Blowin’ Away” charted at number 21.
After switching to the Bell Records label in 1970, the Fifth Dimension had three albums simultaneously in the Billboard Top 50. Among these, Portrait include. three top 40 hits, most notably “One Less Bell t. Answer” by Bert Bacharach, which was released as a single in response to popular demand; the track peaked at number two and sold over two million copies.
The Fifth Dimension’s ear-catching arrangements were augmented by the group’s original and eyepopping stage attire designed by Boyd Clopton. Often they were clad in large geometric prints, at other times their clothes were the epitome of formal sophistication. Publicity photographs for the quintet were used to maximize the effects of both the striking costumes and the singers’ physical attributes. Clever photographers juxtaposed McLemore, an unusually tall and lanky man, with the stockier, more rotund Townson (a “portly… centerpiece,” according to Variety), thus creating images with unique appeal. Along with the two stunning female singers and the charismatic Davis, the group was an engaging subject for photographers such as Ed Caraeff. These colorful portraits adorned the group’s album covers, and media recognition for the Fifth Dimension soared.
By the late 1970s Davis and Mcoo had left the Fifth Dimension and were recording as a duo for ABC Records. The remaining group members, with LaRue singing lead, signed with Motown Records. With the departure of Davis and McCoo, Townson also branched out and embarked on a solo career of his own, although he continued his association with the Fifth Dimension until his retirement in 1997. It fell largely to LaRue and McLemore to maintain the group. Early in the 1980s they hooked up with an aspiring jazz singer, Phyllis Battle, luring her from her day job at a Los Angeles law firm. Battle remained with the group for many years.
In 1990, with the encouragement of financier Donald Trump, the original five singers staged a reunion concert in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on New Year’s Eve. Davis, LaRue, McCoo, McLemore, and Townson—billed as the Original Fifth Dimension—toured the United States in a series of nostalgic concerts that brought as much joy to the performers as to the audiences. With the tour’s completion, Davis and McCoo resumed their separate careers. Santana singer Greg Walker stepped into the group in the early 1990s, and Willie Williams joined the Fifth Dimension in 1998. The Fifth Dimension released In the House in 1995 on Dick Clark’s Click Records label, which featured remakes of “Puppet Man” and “Stoned Soul Picnic.”
Davis and McCoo were married in 1969 in a hot air balloon reminiscent of their first hit album Up, Up, and Away. LaRue and Gordon also took wedding vows that year as well. Townson, like McLemore, was engaged in a variety of pursuits during his lifetime, including a limited career as a television and film actor; he appeared in The Mambo Kings in 1992. Among his other interests, he managed musical groups and ran a catering business. The father of two sons, he retired from performing in 1997. He died of renal failure in Las Vegas, Nevada, on August 2, 2001, and was survived by his wife, Bobette, and one son. McLemore continues to publish his photography with Jet magazine.
Up, Up, and Away, Soul City, 1967.
Age of Aquarius, Soul City, 1969.
Portrait, Bell, 1970.
Live! (Las Vegas), Bell, 1971.
Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes, Bell, 1971.
Individually & Collectively, Bell, 1972.
Living Together, Growing Together, Bell, 1973.
Soul & Inspiration, Bell, 1974.
Earthbound, ABC, 1975.
Star Dancing, Motown, 1978.
In the House, Click, 1995.
Jet, September 6, 1999.
New York Times, August 4, 2001.
Variety, August 6, 2001.
“The 5th Dimension,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 15, 2002).
“The Fifth Dimension,” ClassicBands.com, http://www.classicbands.com/Fifth.html (January 4, 2002).
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