Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
The 5th Dimension Belong
In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
By Mark Mussari
One day in the middle of Woodstock – the three-day musical extravaganza that defined a generation in the summer of 1969 – the massive crowd broke spontaneously into a rousing rendition of “Aquarius,” the seminal number from the rock musical Hair.
Except the version the crowd sang wasn’t exactly the one from the groundbreaking musical. Instead, it was the mashup of “Aquarius” and the chorus of “Let the Sunshine In” made famous by the 5th Dimension that same year.
That number one record – featuring the group’s soaring vocals, Billy Davis Jr’s gospel-powered ad-libs, and the Wrecking Crew’s driving rhythm section – became the anthem for the Pepsi generation and served, in many ways, as a coda on the turbulent 1960s.
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” won two Grammy Awards (including Record of the Year) and spent six weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1969. It was the ninth of 30 charting records by the 5th Dimension and the first of two number ones in a career spanning almost a decade. The Wrecking Crew served as the backing band for the group on all their recordings well into the 1970s.
The original quintet – with Davis, Marilyn McCoo, Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and LaMonte McLemore – were together from 1965 to 1975. McCoo and Davis left the group to perform as a duo that year, and LaRue has gone on with various members ever since.
The original 5th Dimension received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991 and were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002. Yet, the group has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite their overwhelming success and influence.
Why have they never been inducted?
“That’s a question that’s hard to answer,” says Billy Davis, Jr.
“We think about those groups who were similar to us – and they’re in there and we aren’t,” adds Marilyn McCoo. “We’ve decided that there’s no way to ever explain it or understand it.”
The group’s singular sound, a blending of five wildly diverse voices, baffled critics early on. Their first major release was a cover of John Phillips’s “Go Where You Wanna Go.” The 5th’s take on the Mamas and Papas’ folk-based song was a departure from the standard “soul” or “r & b” group of the mid-60s – and it bore no resemblance to the Motown sound emanating from Detroit.
“They had problems categorizing us,” observes Davis. “They didn’t know what to do with us. Here’s this black group singing these pop songs. The black radio stations had problems playing our music because it was too ‘white’ for them, and the pop stations had problems because we were black and they thought we should have been singing r & b.”
“We think that problem persists even today, fifty years later,” continues McCoo. “Nobody’s ever been able to pigeonhole us. Yet we’ve had hit pop songs, hit r & b songs, and the 5th Dimension always had jazz songs on our albums.”
The eclectic nature of the group’s repertoire was apparent to anyone listening to their music, especially their albums, which culled from a diverse group of writers. Their range was immense – along the way they covered songs by Cream, Burt Bacharach, Ashford & Simpson, Dave Mason, Willie Hutch, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones.
The group’s name is also indelibly connected to two of the rock era’s finest composers: Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro. Both songwriters employed elements of pop, rock, soul, gospel, cabaret – and even vaudeville – in their sound.
“We loved singing that variety of music,” explains McCoo. “There were so many wonderful harmonic opportunities – different sounds we could create. That’s what turned us on.”
Webb gave the group their first big hit and Grammy winner, “Up, Up and Away,” along with one of rock’s first concept albums, The Magic Garden (1968). Nyro provided a string of hits, including “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Blowing Away” and “Wedding Bell Blues.”
“I loved our version of Laura’s ‘Black Patch,’” says McCoo of the multi-layered, imagist cut from Individually & Collectively (1971). “Laura ended up in the Hall of Fame – and rightfully so.”
The view of the group as MOR (the pejorative acronym for “Middle of the Road”) doesn’t hold water when one considers their accomplishments. The band became political more than once in their career. In 1970, with the Vietnam War still raging in Southeast Asia, the 5th released a muscular cover of Nyro’s antiwar anthem “Save the Country.”
In 1971, their arranger Bones Howe put together three seemingly diverse tunes into a ten-minute medley serving up a musical plea for racial equality: a musical reading of the Declaration of Independence, Sam Cooke’s plaintive “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and the Rascal’s “People Got to Be Free.”
“We knew it was political,” asserts McCoo, “but we felt like the time was right. Things were happening in music with different artists making political statements. We felt really good about it because people always thought of us as only making happy music. This was an opportunity for us to make a statement about how we felt about what was going on in our country at that time. We were all of one accord with that project.”
“We wanted to make a stand, also,” adds Davis. “We wanted people to know who we were. We weren’t just some group singing happy songs. We were also people – and we had opinions about what was happening.”
“Over the years we’ve met a lot of guys who were in Vietnam,” says McCoo, “and they say how much that recording meant to them when it came out. And we’ve heard from a lot of teachers and how they used our version to teach the Declaration to their students.”
Another person took notice when the group sang the Declaration medley for, of all people, Richard Nixon at the White House in 1970. At first the performance was met with silence – with everyone wondering if they had offended the president – until Nixon stood up and applauded.
McCoo and Davis’s final album with the group, Earthbound in 1975, was – like The Magic Garden in 1968 – produced, arranged, and mostly written by Webb. “That album is full of harmonics,” comments Davis. “When we finally reached back and listened to it, it blew our minds.”
Earthbound wasn’t released on CD until 2014 – almost forty years after its initial release on vinyl. The 5th hit a vocal peak in their take on the Rolling Stone’s “Moonlight Mile,” which Webb arranged with dreamy sitars, a languid arrangement, and the group’s almost ethereal polyphonics. “’Moonlight Mile’ is just one of our best,” notes McCoo.
Other highlights on the album include Davis’s gospel-driven reading of Webb’s “Lean on Me Always” and McCoo’s haunting ballad “When Did I Lose Your Love,” featuring intricate guitar work by Larry Coryell.
“I love that song,” admits McCoo. “There was a quality I wanted to achieve. I always felt as if I really ‘got’ that wistful, lost feeling.”
Yet the writing was on the wall for the group. “There were emotional problems that happened during the time we were recording Earthbound,” McCoo explains. “That led to the decision by Billy and me to strike out on our own. We hadn’t listened to it in a number of years, and the first time we sat down and listened to it, we were in tears.”
McCoo waxes philosophic about why the group has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“After a while you make your peace with that,” she muses. “We think of the wonderful fans that we’ve had throughout the years who have hung in there with us. We think about the beautiful music that we’ve been blessed to be able to make and the songwriters whose music we’ve performed. About Bones Howe producing us and Bob Alcivar writing those wonderful charts. We feel so blessed to have had the career that we’ve enjoyed.”
“That will always be our legacy,” concludes Davis.
Indeed. But the 5th Dimension belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mark Mussari is a freelance writer, translator, and scholar living in Tucson, Arizona.
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 17, 2020.
Photos 1 & 2 Courtesy of Sterling Winters. All rights reserved.
Photos 3 & 4 Courtesy of Sony Legacy. All rights reserved.