Doing unexpected songs took 5th Dimension ‘Up, Up and Away’

By John J. Moser, Of The Morning Call
8:10 p.m. EDT, October 12, 2012

morning call

Motown Records was a hit factory for black musicians in the early 1960s, churning out smash after smash R&B song.So hoping to follow that same path to success, the fledgling vocal group that singer Florence LaRue joined in 1965 naturally rehearsed Motown tunes.That is, until the group stumbled upon a decidedly un-Motown sunshine pop song that had failed to become a hit for its writers, and steered the new group on a different path.That song, “Go Where You Wanna Go,” a failure for The Mamas & the Papas, became the first hit for The 5th Dimension. It started a run of more than 15 years on the charts that produced 17 Top 30 songs and won the group 14 gold records and six Grammy awards.Those song – including “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and the group’s signature “Up, Up and Away” – are ingrained in the public consciousness.LaRue, in a recent telephone call from her California home, says that when The 5th Dimensionstops for two shows on Sunday, Oct. 14, at Sellersville Theater 1894, it has no option but to perform all its hits.

“We do our hits in their entirety, and in the same arrangements as their recordings. I’ll tell you, if we don’t do the hits, people would be very disappointed,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. We had so many hits, we don’t have a lot of time to do other things.”

LaRue, 67, who grew up in Glenside, Montgomery County, attributes the group’s success to the strength of those songs, which she said are “good, clean, positive music, and music that people can reflect back on.”

“We have people who say, Oh, ‘Aquarius’ was the theme for my high school prom. And it’s just really good music, it’s harmonious and … music that people of all ages can enjoy.”

It also helped that the group was getting its hits from songwriters who would become some of music’s greatest.

In addition to The Mamas & The Papas’ John Phillips, they included Jimmy Webb, who also wrote big hits for Glen Campbell and others; the late Laura Nyro, who also wrote for Barbra Streisand and in April was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and famed singers Neil Sedaka and Ashford & Simpson.

“Half of anyone’s success as a singer is the song,” LaRue says. “If you’ve got a good song, then that’s half of the battle right there. And of course, we had a very personal relationship with Jimmy Webb, and he wrote a lot of our songs.”

She notes even Burt Bacharach, with partner Hal David, wrote one of The 5th Dimension’s hits: “One Less Bell to Answer.” “They didn’t write it for us, but we were blessed to record it first,” she says.

LaRue credited producer Bones Howe with introducing the band to many of those songs.

“I really have to give Bones a lot of credit, because he brought songs to us that we never would have chosen, because at that time, you know, most black groups were singing R&B,” she says. “Bones brought us music that was quite different from music that we were expected to sing.”

Howe can especially be credited for the Grammy-winning “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” On his website, Howe says he resisted the group’s wish to release “Aquarius,” the opening to the Broadway musical “Hair,” because he felt it wasn’t a complete song.

He wedded it with another song from the play, “Let the Sunshine In,” even though they were in different keys, and created a No. 1 single.

Motown could have had The 5th Dimension, but passed on the group, LaRue says.

“They weren’t really interested because we weren’t an R&B group,” she says. “We were about to sign with Motown, but the gentleman we were working with passed away, and then they decided, no, we weren’t quite their type of group.”

Motown accidentally gave the group a boost in the 1970s. Four years after The 5th Dimension’s final Top 10 hit, it recorded the song “Love Hangover.” Diana Ross had recorded it for her 1975 self-titled Motown album, but passed it over to release “I Thought It Took A Little Time” as the first single.

LaRue says her producer/husband thought it would be a good song for The 5th Dimension.

“So we recorded it, we went on [the TV show] ‘Soul Train,’ it was starting to become a hit for us,” LaRue says. “And evidently Diana Ross was in Germany. When she heard about it, she told Motown to put hers out. So they put hers out and it squashed ours.”

The song reinvented Ross as a disco diva and helped revive her career. It went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, Hot Soul singles and Hot Dance Club Play charts simultaneously in 1976.

It was The 5th Dimension’s last charting single. Lead singer Marilyn McCoo and member Billy Davis Jr. had left the group for a career as a duo. The group re-formed briefly in 1990 and ’91, but member Ron Townsend died in 2001 and Lamonte McLemore retired in 2006.

LaRue is the last original member in the group, and says she doesn’t foresee another reunion with McCoo and Davis under The 5th Dimension name.

“It couldn’t be an original lineup,” she says. “Someday I may do something with Marilyn and Billy, but not called a reunion of the group. And also, why should we when we already have the group going? … The group is performing, and very well, getting great reviews. I have five wonderful singers.”

LaRue says the group is putting together a new album, which would be its first in eight years and only its third in 35 years. Member Patrice Morris has a new gospel CD, and LaRue says she’s also working on an inspirational CD.

LaRue also has a one-woman show, “Just As I am,” a solo performing show, and is finishing a book, “Let Your Light Shine,” on which she’s worked for eight years. “It’s about mental, physical and spiritual beauty,” she says. “There’s so many beauty books out there, and Hollywood is so youth and beauty oriented, but beauty is more than just the physical beauty. It also is spiritual and mental.

“So I’m writing a book for the average person. You know, we all have beauty, but we focus on the things we don’t like about ourselves. For instance, women who are overweight tend to focus on that. Well, make yourself look the best you can – if you want to lose weight, go ahead. But in the meantime, enjoy who you are.”

As for LaRue, she says she’s still the person who was raised in Glenside and attended North Hills Elementary School, Glenside Weldon Junior High and Abington Senior High, and is looking forward to performing in the area. She says a few extended family members still live in the area.

“Some of my best friends are there,” she says. “My friend Judy in Ambler and Maryann, I think she’s in Willow Grove now. And also, my manager, Konrad Leh, his parents live in Allentown. So shouts out to them.

“Of course, a lot of the people I grew up with have either left Glenside or are not living anymore. But it still will be just fun to come home and perform.”

Copyright © 2012, The Morning Call

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *