In the late ’60s and early ’70s, as mainstream culture was becoming more racially and generationally diverse than it had ever been before, the 5th Dimension was the rare pop group that had true multi-demographic appeal. The co-ed quintet blended the lines between soul and traditional pop, youth culture and old-school showmanship, selling millions of records and becoming fixtures on the pop, R&B, and easy listening charts in the process.
Originally known as the Versatiles, the group — beauty queens Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue, would-be Motown star Billy Davis Jr., photographer Lamonte McLemore, and gospel/opera singer Ronald Townson — was “discovered” by Johnny Rivers, who signed them to his Soul City label on the condition that they change their name to something hipper.
Rivers would produce many of the early recordings by the newly-christened 5th Dimension, including “Go Where You Wanna Go” and “Up, Up, and Away,” before ceding control to Bones Howe, who specialized in the distinctive orchestral, richly layered sound that would define the quintet.
All of the A- and B-sides from the 5th Dimension’s original lineup are collected on The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles 1966-1975, now available as a three-CD compilation from Real Gone Music. The set opens with four tracks recorded under the name the Versatiles, which demonstrate just how pervasive Motown’s influence had become in the mid-’60s. “You’re Good Enough for Me” could pass as a Smokey Robinson composition, while the galloping “I’ll Be Lovin’ You Forever” blatantly knocks off of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”
With a change in name, however, came a change in sound, into the lavish, highly-polished style that would come to be called “Champagne soul.” John Phillips’ “Go Where You Wanna Go,” released in 1966 as the first single under the 5th Dimension name, earned the quintet its breakthrough hit, as well as the nickname “the black Mamas and the Papas.”
While the two groups shared a pure, intricate sound built on male/female vocal harmonies, the 5th Dimension’s soul background and showbiz-ready sheen gave them a distinct identity apart from their folky counterparts.
Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan rewrote “Go Where You Wanna Go” for the follow-up “Another Day, Another Heartache,” but the results are less astonishing and memorable. However, its B-side, the exquisite, twisting ballad “Rosecrans Blvd.,” pointed the way forward. It marked the introduction of 20-year-old songwriter Jimmy Webb, who would also write the group’s next single, 1967’s “Up, Up and Away.” “Go Where You Wanna Go” may have put the 5th Dimension on the map, but the impeccable “Up, Up and Away” made them stars.
For the next few years, Webb kept the 5th Dimension well-stocked with lush sunshine-pop gems, boasting an astonishing amount of complexity that the capable group handled seemingly effortlessly. It was a terrific marriage of songwriter and performer: Webb’s melodically and lyrically sophisticated compositions helped the quintet show off their talent, while the 5th Dimension’s high-sheen polish and touch of soul grounded Webb’s ambitious ideas into something recognizably pop.
Webb’s next two singles for the group, the bouncy “Paper Cup” and the Neil Diamond-ish “Carpet Man,” both made the Top 40, but they didn’t ascend the rarefied heights of “Up, Up and Away.” The 5th Dimension got their boost back up the charts courtesy of Laura Nyro, their other great songwriting collaborator. “Stoned Soul Picnic” gave the 5th Dimension its biggest hit yet, climbing to #3 on the pop charts in 1968 and inaugurating the first of five Nyro-penned Top 40 singles for the group. Much like their collaboration with Webb, the 5th Dimension played elegantly and effortlessly off Nyro’s complex song structures and shifting tempos.
“Stoned Soul Picnic” was followed by another Nyro hit, “Sweet Blindness,” as well as the immortal Ashford & Simpson composition “California Soul.” However, the group’s biggest hit ever and first #1 was somewhat of a departure, written not by Nyro or Webb, but pulled from the world of musical theater.
A medley of the opening and closing numbers from the then-current Broadway hit Hair, 1969’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)” fits the 5th Dimension’s template of uplifting, melodically complex pop. The countercultural touchstone gave the group a hint of street cred, while the lead vocal in the coda by Billy Davis Jr. called back to their soulful roots.
“Aquarius” introduced a slightly more socially conscious version of the 5th Dimension, reflecting current trends in soul and pop music as a whole. After leaving Soul City for Bell Records in 1970, the quintet’s first single on its new label was “The Declaration,” a sung version of the Declaration of Independence drawn from the musical Bread, Beans & Things.
“The Declaration” was a bold move, but also their lowest-charting single yet, stalling at #64. Its B-side, a medley of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and the Rascals’ “People Gotta Be Free,” made a similar political point but with catchier melodies, ultimately becoming more familiar than its A-side.
It wasn’t long, however, before the 5th Dimension restored themselves to the Top 40, thanks to the surprisingly funky “Puppet Man” (co-written by Neil Sedaka, as was their earlier hit “Working on a Groovy Thing”) and a gospel-influenced run through Nyro’s “Save the Country.”
Despite these overtures toward diving into a deeper soul sound, however, the 5th Dimension ultimately embraced their easy listening side. The definitive switch occurred with Burt Bacharach & Hal David’s “One Less Bell to Answer” in 1970. The decidedly mature ballad soared up to #2 on the pop charts, their highest-charting single (and only Top 20 entry) since Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” hit #1 the previous year.
Not only did “One Less Bell to Answer” firmly position the group as an easy listening act, it also transformed the egalitarian quintet into a lineup fronted primarily by Marilyn McCoo.
While the 5th Dimension’s earlier hits relied on the restlessly elaborate compositions of Webb and Nyro, 1971 to 1975 found them treading a narrow sonic path of samey torch songs, deemphasizing their trademark elaborate harmonies and sunny dispositions. Despite sharing little with their classic sound, however, 1972’s delicately yearning “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” stands out as the 5th Dimension’s last great single.
After one more dip into the Top 10 (“If I Could Reach You”), the once-mighty quintet began its inevitable decline down the charts. The last few tracks of The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles find the 5th Dimension once again returning to a contemporary soul sound, albeit very different in the decade since their days as the Versatiles. The energetic tempos of 1973’s “Flashback” and 1974’s “Harlem” weren’t quite enough to rejuvenate their careers, however: the former was their lowest-charting single ever, and the latter missed the Hot 100 completely.
In 1975, married couple Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. left to launch a career as a duo, earning a #1 hit of their own with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” two years later.
The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles ends with the original quintet’s last single — aptly enough, the divorce song “No Love in the Room.” The 5th Dimension carried on, but apart from a rival version of “Love Hangover” (a battle which Diana Ross won), recorded little of note after McCoo and Davis’s departure.
The 1975 end date for The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles ensures that it contains all the 5th Dimension most pop fans could want or need — perhaps more than enough, depending on one’s tolerance for the featherweight ballads that make up the bulk of Disc 3.
While the 5th Dimension have long derided as a symbol of kitsch culture, this compilation makes a convincing case for the quintet as far more interesting, varied, and versatile (so to speak) than their cheery, immaculate exterior might suggest. Even in an era of pop music marked by restless innovation, the 5th Dimension stands out for their ambitious arrangements and unusual song structures. Instead of drawing attention to this risk-tasking, however, the quintet’s talent was their ability to make it sound as breezy and light as a hot-air balloon.
Get your copy of The 5th Dimension’s The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles 1966-1975 at Real Gone Music’s online shop.