From ramshackle horse and buggy wagons to today’s sleek Uber rides, ever since taxis became a mode of transportation, passengers have been leaving things behind in them. But only once did such a forgetfulness result in a chart-topping No. 1 hit record.
A grateful Davis invited the man, Ed Gifford, to see the Fifth Dimension’s show. Gifford happened to be of the producers of the then white-hot Broadway musical Hair, in turn invited the group to his show. All five members were transfixed by the musical’s opening number, “Aquarius.”
“When we heard the song, we felt we should do it because it speaks of harmony and understanding and peace. And we really liked it,” the 81-year-old LaRue says today.
When the group returned to California to record the tune, producer Bones Howe called it “half a song” and said it needed something else. He felt the singalong quality show’s last number “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” would make a good add-on.
“He originally wasn’t very excited about it. The Hair album had already been out,” LaRue says. “But he came back to us and said let’s put ‘Let the Sunshine In’ with it. And that was the record.”
Originally seven minutes long, Howe cut it down to just under five for the album. But an even shorter version now titled “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” hit No. 1 on the Billboard singles charts in April 1969, becoming the signature tune for the Fifth Dimension.
LaRue—the only original member still in the lineup—and the current version of the Fifth Dimension will play two shows locally: May 24 with the Happenings (“See You in September,” “I Got Rhythm”) as part of “Stars of the Sixties” at the Stafford Centre in Stafford, and May 23 at Main Street Crossing in Tomball.
The five original members first performed together in 1965 as the Versatiles. Signed to Johnny Rivers’ Soul City label, Rivers felt the name was out of date. Townson and his wife came up with The Fifth Dimension, and the group was on its way.
They’d reach No. 1 again with “Wedding Bell Blues” and also had hits with “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Up, Up and Away,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing,” “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” and “California Soul.” And they often went to the well of songwriters Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro.
During their commercial peak, the Fifth Dimension were very frequent guests on variety shows. Both regular series hosted by the likes of Ed Sullivan and Tom Jones and one-offs including 1968’s Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing. That’s where the Chairman of the Board jokingly tried to be the Sixth Dimension in some very un-Frank like threads.
LaRue says she misses those variety shows where there was a little bit of everything. “I guess the talent competition shows have replaced them, and that’s too bad because the most talented person doesn’t always win. In those old variety shows, you had something for the whole family,” she says.
“The Frank Sinatra show was one of my favorites. And we had already toured with him. But that outfit!” LaRue laughs. “And the next would be Ed Sullivan. He was so great to perform for. Most people thought of him as very stoic, but he had a keen sense of humor. And he was very kind.”
McCoo and Davis Jr. would leave the group to tour and record as a duo act and continue to this day. They hit No.1 with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be In My Show).” LaRue, Townson, and McLemore kept the Fifth Dimension flag flying, with the quintet briefly reuniting in the early ‘90s. Townson died in 2001 and McLemore has since left the business.
Asked if she feels any pressure being the sole original member left in the current lineup that includes Patrice Morris, Leonard Tucker, Floyd Smith, and Sidney Jacobs, LaRue says she wouldn’t call it “pressure.”
“I feel responsible to carry on the tradition, as well as perform the hits as they were written with the same arrangements. People don’t want to hear updated versions of the songs, and they always come up to us afterwards and say ‘Oh, that reminded me of my graduation,’ or this or that.” she says.
More recently, the original Fifth Dimension can be seen performing during a 1969 show at the Harlem Cultural Festival, the subject of the 2021 documentary Summer of Soul.
Directed by Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul won both the Oscar for Best Documentary and Grammy for Best Music Film. It also captured prime performances by Steve Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, and more.
The 40 hours of concert and crowd filming was used to produced two one-hour TV specials, then the tapes sat in a basement for 50 years before being rediscovered. “I was very surprised when they found that. It brought back some wonderful memories. I wish I had a copy of it!” LaRue says.
McCoo took the lead female vocals on the lion’s share of Fifth Dimension songs, LaRue did put down some on her own. Just don’t ask her to pick the one that she likes the best.
“No one’s ever asked me that question before!” she laughs. “But I do favor the group songs. And I like [Tim Hardin’s] ‘Misty Roses,’ which was never released as a single.”
The music of the Fifth Dimension has alternately been called “sunshine pop” and “psychedelic soul” with a decidedly good-time feeling. And while other Black acts of the time were sometimes pressured to address topics like racism and social injustice in their material, LaRue says that was never the case with them.
“We were all about encouraging people to enjoy life and live through challenges. We were not political as a group, even though individually we had our ideas. Even sometimes ones we didn’t always agree on,” she offers.
According to the liner notes in the 2CD The Essential Fifth Dimension, the group “boldly performed the controversial song before a White House-sponsored Governors dinner, where at its conclusion, there was an uncomfortably silent pause. The awkward moment ended when President Nixon himself began to clap. Naturally, his endorsement prompted the gathering to applaud.”
Relations must have been good, because three years later the U.S. State Department sent the Fifth Dimension to perform behind the Iron Curtain as a goodwill gesture, making them the first Black band to do so.
In addition to dates with the Fifth Dimension, LaRue currently has a one-woman Storytellers-like solo show called Just as I Am. And in 2021 she released the book Grace in Your Second Act: A Guide to Aging Gracefully with co-author Jenny Paschall. She also plans on ramping up her activities as a public speaker, which often emphasizes her devout Christian faith.
“A lot of our seniors are just discarded and not respected. During the holidays, I and some friends go to both Jewish and Christian homes and saw these people almost abandoned,” she says of some of her inspiration for the book.
“Or people my age who if they’d taken better care of themselves wouldn’t have been there. I want to let people know it’s never too late to start being healthy. Eating well and doing the right thing. I don’t know how old you are, Bob, but you can start now!”
When told that I perhaps like my red wine too much, LaRue laughs. “Well, Jesus changed water into wine. So, there’s nothing wrong with that!”
The Fifth Dimension perform 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 24, at the Stafford Centre in Stafford, 10505 Cash. For information, call 281-208-6900 or visit StaffordCentre.com. The Happenings open. $47-$97.
They also perform 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 23 at Main Street Crossing, 111 W. Main in Tomball. For information, call 281-290-0431 or visit MainStreetCrossing.com. $70-$175.
For more on the Fifth Dimension and Florence LaRue, visit 5thDimensionLive.com or FlorenceLaRue.com