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The 5th Dimension
Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In
“When Al Bennett, the head of Liberty Records, first heard 'Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In', he said, ‘No way that's a hit. No way.’ He prided himself on his judgement because he picked a few hits in his time. When the record went to number one, the guys in the promotion department gave him a plaque with a tin ear on it." (1)
Bones Howe, producer for The 5th Dimension.
Billy Davis, Jr., Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore grew up together in St. Louis during the early to mid-40s. Billy sang in several gospel groups before migrating to Los Angeles hoping to find his path to stardom with a recording contract. Ron sang opera at an early age and moved to Los Angeles after graduation from Lincoln University. Lamonte was a baseball prospect and aspiring photographer before a stint in the US Navy set him on his path as a singer.
Lamonte met beauty contest winner, Marilyn McCoo while photographing her during the Miss Bronze Talent contest in 1963. Impressed with her singing talent, McLemore invited McCoo to join him and Harry Elster and Floyd Butler in a vocal group called the Hi-Fi’s. Among their early work was opening for Ray Charles. Elston and Butler saw better opportunities and left the group to eventually form another group called the Friends Of Distinction.
By 1965, McLemore found two more members for the group, boyhood friend Ron Townson and Florence LaRue, the talent winner in the 1962 Miss Bronze California pageant whom he also photographed. When Davis joined the group in 1966, their name was changed to the Versatiles.
The group auditioned for Motown’s Berry Gordy, Jr., who liked the group but passed over them, as they didn’t present the “Motown sound.” Marc Gordon, a West Coast manager at Motown was impressed enough to offer his talents as the group’s manager. With Gordon hired, the Versatiles had someone in their corner who could open doors. Among his first stops was recording star, Johnny Rivers.
Rivers, who knew the big money in the music business lay with the labels and the publishers, started his own label, Soul City Records, a subsidiary of Liberty Records. With his newly formed publishing company in tow, Rivers was eager to branch out. The next step was procuring talent.
Marc Gordon made the contact with Rivers. Upon hearing the Versatiles demo, he knew the vocal blend had hit potential. There was nothing out there like them. Rivers signed them to a deal with Soul City. Two things were needed to get the group on their way—a new name and a good first song.
“You mean the Versatiles?” Billy asked Rivers. “What is it you don’t like about it?” Rivers told Billy, “It has an old sound to it. It’s not hip enough.” So, the group set out to find a new name and a new identity.
Marilyn suggested “Mark V.” Billy responded, “It doesn’t sound like a music group. It sounds like a Lincoln.” Townson told his wife, Bobette, about River’s comment. So they tossed around some ideas. “How about the Third Dimension? 3-D is another dimension that refers to depth,” Ronald explained. Expanding the idea, Bobette recalled the fourth dimension referred to time and the fifth dimension—“is about sound!” Ronald exclaimed. “That’s it. We’ll call ourselves the Fifth Dimension!” (2)
At a meeting the next day, the “5th Dimension” was the clear winner with a numeral instead of spelling. Marc and Johnny were on board with the name change and set out to find their first record.
Rivers decided a song called I’ll Be Lovin’ You Forever by Willie Hutch would be a good fit. The effort received good airplay in LA but never gained traction nationally. Undeterred, Rivers suggested a John Phillips-penned album track of the Mamas & The Papas, Go Where You Wanna Go as their next single. Rivers and the group hit pay dirt.
Hitting the Billboard Hot 100 chart on January 14, 1967, the song topped at #16 on February 25th where it sat for two weeks. The 5th Dimension was now on the music radar. (3)
L-R: Florence LaRue, Ron Townson, Marilyn McCoo, Lamonte McClemore and Billy Davis, Jr.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
In an effort to kick his publishing business into gear, Rivers was eager to sign a songwriting prodigy. The same Marc Gordon provided the tape of a new discovery. Gordon told Rivers, “You’ve got to listen to this guy, he’s a great songwriter, he’s really unusual,” Rivers recalled. “So, I had this tape and I was listening to it, but the songs were not my kind of thing. They weren’t real bluesy or funky rock, they were more pop and Broadway sounding. It’s really funny—you need to listen to all the songs on a tape because you never know. I started to get up and turn it off a couple of times but I went, ‘Eh, I’m going to keep listening,’ and the last song on that tape was By The Time I Get To Phoenix. So when I heard that, I went, ‘Whoa, what a great song!’ It just jumped out because it was such a great classic song. I called Gordon and said, ‘Hey, I want to meet this guy.’ He gave me Jimmy’s number and I called him and said, ‘Hey, let’s get together, I want to hear some more of your stuff. I really loved your tape and like your style of writing, especially this song, By The Time I Get To Phoenix. I want to cut it.”’ (5)
Webb, who was working at a local Hollywood studio, met with Rivers and was offered a job as a songwriter for Rivers new publishing unit. After a quick buyout with his previous employer, Rivers now owned the publishing rights to Webb’s cache of songs. It turned out to be a brilliant move by both parties. It was time for the rubber to meet the road.
Webb joined Wrecking Crew regulars—Hal Blaine (drums), Joe Osborn (bass), Tommy Tedesco (guitar) and Larry Knechtel at a session in July of 1966 to record Phoenix for Rivers’ Changes album. The Crew regulars were impressed with the 19-year-old’s studio chops. More Important, he gained their respect.
Webb met the 5th Dimension during the fall of 1966 in the studio as the group was putting together songs for their first album. Webb had just spent the weekend in San Bernardino at a balloon festival and had an idea for a song. The working title was Up, Up And Away. The 5th Dimension wanted relevance, to catch the ear of a changing pop marketplace. A song about a balloon wasn’t exactly what they had in mind.
“Sounds more like an album cut than a single to me,” observed Billy Davis, diplomatically, as Webb demoed the song on piano. Davis, the group’s lead male singer, always leaned more toward R&B anyway.” (6) Webb, working now with the confidence of a veteran, brought together the same members of the Wrecking Crew he worked with on Phoenix, added a full string section and by the time the tracks were mixed, Webb and members of the Wrecking Crew, knew a hit when they heard it. “It’s got ‘hit’ written all over it,” Blaine said. “A real winner.” (7)
Rivers and Gordon had other plans for the next single. They chose Another Day, Another Heartache, a song from their first album, Up, Up And Away as the follow-up to Go Where You Wanna Go. Johnny Mann of the Johnny Mann Singers liked the title tune and as a courtesy, asked Rivers if he had any plans to release it as a single. Rivers, with no plans to release the song as a single and sensing publishing income, invited Mann to cover it.
Mann and his singers released Up, Up And Away in May of 1967. The song was well received and started making some noise on the Billboard chart. This prompted a meeting with Gordon and the group, after which Rivers opted to release the 5th Dimension’s version of the song as a single.
Up, Up And Away debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on June 3, 1967 at #83 and began its climb to the Top Ten. On July 15, it landed on the #7 spot where it stayed for two weeks. (3) (4) Although the song never reached #1, it won five Grammys—Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Contemporary Single, Best Performance by a Vocal Group and Best Contemporary Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. Eventually, the song and the namesake album were designated gold records. “Up, Up And Away established the 5th Dimension,” stated Marilyn McCoo. “It won us national acclaim and kickstarted our career. We wouldn’t be where we are without Up, Up And Away.” (8)
Webb had written six songs on the album, which peaked at #8 on the Billboard album chart. (9) The 5th Dimension were set to record their next album, The Magic Garden, but a disagreement on publishing between Rivers and Webb put the LP in limbo. Finally, the Rivers/Webb camps arrived at a compromise for this one album. Webb wrote and arranged eleven of the twelve songs on the album, which produced the singles, Paper Cup and Carpet Man. “We expected Magic Garden to have a major impact on the market, but it didn’t happen,” McCoo recalled. (10)
With publishing, producing and recording, Rivers was spreading his talents a bit too thin for the taste of Al Bennett, head of Liberty Records, the parent company to both Imperial Records (Rivers recording label) and Soul City, his business label. “I produced the 5th Dimension's first album and Jimmy Webb worked on it with me. I was so far behind on my own commitment with my own albums that Al Bennett said, ‘You have to make a decision. Do you want to be an artist or a record executive?’ I said, ‘I’m an artist, first.’ Bennett told him, ‘Then you’ve got to get someone else to produce this group.’ So, I turned The 5th Dimension over to Bones Howe who did an excellent job producing hit after hit.” (5)
L-R: Marilyn McCoo, Lamonte McClemore, Billy Davis, Jr., Ron Townson and Florence LaRue.
Photo courtesy of Gilles Petard/Getty Images.
Howe, who engineered the first two albums for the 5th Dimension, was a busy man in the studios those days. "I was playing drums on the Grass Roots records, engineering the Mamas and the Papas and Johnny Rivers for (producer) Lou Adler, doing the same for Snuff Garrett with Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and producing the Turtles.” (1)
Still, there was enough time on his calendar to produce the 5th Dimension. Howe came across a song by Laura Nyro titled Stone Soul Picnic. "We were looking for a piece of material that would reflect what the group was. I came across the song on a demo tape that David Geffen had taken to RCA. I told David that I wanted to cut it with the group, but he said we couldn't because Nyro was going to cut it on her album. But if they didn't release it as a single, he said it's fair game,” Howe remembered. Nyro’s album was released and the label chose Eli's Coming as the single.
Howe pounced on the opportunity. He told the 5th Dimension, ‘“This is gonna be your first million-selling single.’ They loved the song and did the record in three days. And of course, it was their first million-selling single." (11)
It was in May 1968 when the single, Stoned Soul Picnic was released. It entered the Top 10, peaking at #3 on July 27th on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained in the Top 40 for twelve weeks. (3)
Two more singles, Sweet Blindness and Ashford and Simpson’s, California Soul, culled from the Stoned Soul Picnic LP, peaked at #’s 13 and 25 respectively in the fall and winter of 1968 as the album landed at #21. (3) (9) The group has regained some lost momentum before an unfortunate event set the stage for the biggest hit of their career.
In the fall of 1968, the 5th Dimension was booked for a series of shows at the Royal Box, a venue at the Americana Hotel in New York City. While running errands on an October afternoon, Billy Davis, Jr. noticed his wallet was no longer in his suit pocket. “What am I gonna do?” Davis asked McCoo. The wallet contained cash, business cards and his AFTRA card. “Well, you can kiss that wallet goodbye.”
A short time later, the phone in their hotel suite rang. “Is this Billy Davis, Jr.?” the voice asked. “Yes, it is,” answered a surprised Davis. “I’ve got your wallet. Why don’t you come and get it,” the voice offered. “No problem,” was Davis’ short answer. “Who am I speaking to?” The voice identified himself as Ed Gifford.
Davis hopped a cab to Gifford’s address, met the man who explained that he used the AFTRA card to find Davis and where he was staying. With wallet intact and in hand, Davis invited Gifford and wife to the next night’s show. The Giffords happily accepted.
Backstage after the show, Gifford raved about their performance. “You guys were great. Now you have to come see my show.” Davis asked, “Your show?” Gifford replied, “Yeah, my show. I’m one of the producers of Hair, the musical playing on Broadway.” (12) Who could say no to that offer?
During intermission of the matinee the group attended, the talk was about the opening song, Age of Aquarius performed by Ronnie Dyson. “We got to record this song. It’s a hit!” Davis exclaimed. The other members agreed.
The next day, Davis called Howe in Los Angeles and told him about their discovery. Howe paused before he told Davis, “That song’s been recorded three times and nobody’s scored a hit on it.” But Davis insisted, “I don’t care. We can make it a hit!” Howe chose his words carefully. “Let me think about it. Maybe there’s something we can do to freshen it up a bit.” (12)
Howe’s story differs slightly. “Look, I've gotta come to New York so we can record the vocals for the rest of the songs on the Stoned Soul Picnic album. When I'm there, why don't I see the show? Then we can talk about Aquarius.” (1)
Howe did his homework, listened to the cast album and determined that Aquarius presented a problem. “This isn't a complete song. It's an introduction,” Howe thought before departing to the Big Apple. “But at the end of the play, there was another song with three repeating bars, Let the sunshine in, sung over and over.”
When Howe and his wife, Melodie saw the play and witnessed the positive audience reaction to the repeating sequence, he found his muse and said, “That's it! That's the other song! We can put the two of them together!"
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Still, there was work to be done. As a professional courtesy, Howe phoned the publishers and explained to their rep, ”Look, I know there have been a couple of recordings of Aquarius and they haven't been successful, but I've got this idea — I want to make a medley out of Aquarius and the last three bars of The Flesh Failures.”
Howe discovered his idea hadn’t fully taken root. "He said, 'Well, several people have also recorded The Flesh Failures...' and I said, 'No, I don't want the song. I just want the chorus at the end: "Let the sunshine in, let the sunshine in..."' So, he said, 'Well, let me ask them (the producers) and I'll call you back.' I said, 'Fine,' and the next day I went into the studio with the 5th Dimension to cut some vocals and I got a call back from the publisher. He said, 'I've spoken to all three of them and it's fine with them. If this makes you want to cut this song, you can pretty much do it any way you want to.” (1)
With publisher approval in hand, Howe took steps to seamlessly integrate songs in different keys together. He encountered resistance with the group’s vocal arranger, Bob Alcivar. “If I arrange Aquarius in the key that's right for the girls, then I've got to take it down a whole fifth in order for it to work with everybody singing together on let the sunshine in," explained Bob. Howe’s solution appeared simple. “Look, do this: find a key that fits both parts of the song, that shows off their voices the very best we can, and then find a way to invert it up and don't worry about how the keys relate to each other. If it comes to that, I'll jam them together like two trains." (1)
In plain speak, Howe instructed Wrecking Crew drummer, Hal Blaine to play a series of fills at the end of the Aquarius part which would serve as a segue to the Let The Sunshine In chorus. Howe blended the two sections perfectly without anyone noticing the key change.
Using Wrecking Crew members Joe Osborn on bass and Larry Knetchel on piano and guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Dennis Budimir to round out the rhythm section, Howe completed six of eight tracks on tape before heading to Las Vegas to capture the vocals.
It was late 1967 or early 1968 when the 5th Dimension opened at Caesars Palace for Frank Sinatra. With the group’s full touring schedule, Bones worked the situation the best he could. Using two microphones, he placed the group in a semi-circle with one mike covering the girls and the other mike covering the guys. Howe recalls the sessions. "United Recording of Nevada was that horrid studio where you had to stop recording when the train went by, but that's where we did the vocals. The group members were working late every night, so I got four hours with them each afternoon. That meant I lived in Vegas for a month, which was like living in Vegas for a year — there was nothing to do.” (1)
“Aquarius featured the girls singing together, and a lot of those parts were drop-ins, but when I did solo parts I would always run the track, give them a separate track to work with and then use the parts that I thought were really the best. This didn't interrupt the flow — I mean, I wasn't cutting word by word. I would use phrases, and bits and pieces, and give them their best shot." (1) Marilyn recalled the sessions. “Florence and I took several takes, and I know this sounds hard to believe, but we had to stop singing (what would become) our biggest hit every time the trains passed by. Bob Alcivar, who was in the control room, thought our voices blended beautifully.” (13)
The group eventually finished the Aquarius vocals. While rehearsing the Let The Sunshine In part, suddenly Billy, who apparently really got into the song, started improvising. Howe knew a solution. “I shut the tape off and I said, 'Billy, just sing your part, I'm going to give you a track all by yourself, you can do as much of this as you want, and we'll put it in where it really works.'"
"So, he sang his part, I gave him a track all by himself, and he did all that stuff that he does at the end of the song, ad-libbing while I rolled tape and played him back the other vocals. He was hearing the whole record and singing over the rhythm section and background voices, which were finished at that point, and right in the middle of him doing that in walked Jimmy Webb, of all people. He stood there next to me in the booth and he said, 'My God, that's a number one record.'” (1)
Billy recalled one of the last lines of his improvisation, “I want you all to sing along with the 5th Dimension.” “People have told me for over thirty years that’s the lyric that resonated with them. That’s the most fun I ever had ad-libbing a song. I did it in three of four takes and Bones engineered it just right.” (13)
Completing the vocals for Aquarius/Let The Sunshine meant it was time to complete the vocals for the rest of what would become The Age Of Aquarius album. After one four-hour time block one afternoon, all Howe wanted to do was get a glass of wine and something to eat. With Sinatra performing at the hotel, the sound system played cuts from all of his records everywhere around the hotel. “I stepped into the elevator and as it began to move I heard these swirling strings. Sinatra started to sing 'And we're lost out here in the stars, Little stars, big stars...' and I went 'Oh shit, that's the intro. That's the intro!'” (1)
The song was Lost In The Stars from Sinatra’s Concert Sinatra album. He wasn’t looking for an intro at that point for Aquarius but when inspiration taps on your shoulder, it’s best if one heeds the call. “We still had to overdub the strings and horns, so I thought I'd figure that out when I sat down with Bill Holman to work on the arrangement. However, the minute I got out of that elevator I ran to my room and called Bill on the phone. I asked him if he'd heard Sinatra's Lost In The Stars and he said, 'No,' so I told him to go out and get the Concert Sinatra album. I said, 'Listen to the song's intro. That's exactly the right idea for the intro on Aquarius.'” (1)
When Howe returned to LA, he put the orchestra together—eight pieces of brass, three or four woodwinds and a whole string section. The song began with the strings and the flutes with the previously recorded rhythm section slowly added under the first few bars. Howe explained the details. “When the guys laid the strings down, they heard the rhythm part from the count-off," Howe said. "They heard 'gung gung-gung' but when I mixed it, I didn't bring the rhythm in until after the strings had already completed the first four or five bars. Then I began sneaking that in. So, it starts with the flutes going 'doo doo dee doo' and the strings going 'na na na na', and then underneath you begin to hear 'gung gung-gung, gung gung-gung' and it gets louder and louder, again reaching its peak when the girls come in, singing 'When the moon...' It was like editing a movie production." (1)
With the recording mixed and considered complete, there was still one more hurdle—the song clocked at 4:49—too long to suit the Top 40 programmers. As producer, Howe worried about everything connected with the song. His worries were alleviated when he spoke with Bill Drake, programming director for LA’s mainstay Top 40 AM station, KHJ. Drake told Howe, “I heard your record. It's amazing.' I said, 'Well, I know it's long...' and he said, 'You don't have to cut this record down. It will get played and it'll be a big hit, but I'll tell you something: if you can make a three-minute version, it will get played all the time.'” (1)
Howe heeded Drake’s advice. He edited the song to three different versions—short, medium and long. A promo single was mastered with the original time (4:49) and an edit clocking in at 2:59. “Drake was absolutely right. The song went to number one and it was the short version that got played, although disc jockeys also played the other side," said Howe. (1)
Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In was released in March of 1969 entering the Billboard Hot 100 chart on March 8th. The medley shot up the chart reaching #1 on April 12th where it stayed for the next six weeks. Billboard ranked the song #2 for 1969, trailing only The Archies, Sugar, Sugar for top spot. (3) (4) The song also won the Grammy for the Record of the Year and the Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group.
The 5th Dimension placed a total of thirty songs on the pop charts during their ten years together. In 1976, Marilyn and Billy left the group to begin a new chapter in their careers as a duet. They hit the #1 spot with You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show) in early 1977. They still perform together today.
The 5th Dimension still tour as a group with Florence being the only original member of the group.
The 5th Dimension sing live to a prerecorded track on This Is Tom Jones, broadcast on February 28, 1969.
From The Wrecking Crew video released in 2015.
1) Sound On Sound, Buskin, Richard, Classic Tracks: Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In, February 2006, Link.
2) Yorkey, Mike, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Jr., Up, Up, and Away: How We Found Love, Faith, and Lasting Marriage in the Entertainment World, October 1, 2004, Pages 50-51.
3) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 242.
4) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
5) Ragogna, Mike, From Whisky A Go Go to the Royal Studios: Conversations with Johnny Rivers, December 31, 2013, Link.
6) Hartman, Kent, The Wrecking Crew, Page 329.
7) ibid. Page 330.
8) Yorkey, Mike, Page 58.
9) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Albums 1955-2002, Page 289.
10) Yorkey, Mike, Page 84.
11) James, Gary, classicbands.com The Fifth Dimension, Link.
12) Yorkey, Mike, Pages 93-94.
13) Yorkey, Mike, Pages 96-97.
Photo courtesy of GAB Archive/Getty Images.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss