IT’S NO SECRET that time has a way of erasing details and leaving our memories with only the broadest contours of our shared experience. Most cultural recollections of the year 1967 begin and end with the Summer of Love, and it’s widely assumed that everyone on the planet (or at least in the country and under the age of 50) was freaking out under the spell of ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Light My Fire,’ prancing about in paisley and turning their stereos up to 11 to fully experience the guitar fury of Hendrix and Clapton.
But, that would be wrong. Plenty of lower-volume events occurred that year too. Pop music accommodated the Monkees, Aretha Franklin, a No. 1 single by Frank and Nancy Sinatra and two Top-5 albums by the Tijuana Brass. It also saw the debut of the 5th Dimension, a Los Angeles vocal quintet whose style — miles away from psychedelic rock — combined elements of jazz, R&B and what would later be termed “sunshine pop.”
Billy Davis, Jr., Marilyn McCoo, Ron Townson, Florence LaRue and Lamont McLemore had previously recorded as the aptly named Versatiles, releasing one single, the rather faux-Motown-sounding ‘I’ll Be Loving You Forever’ b/w ‘Train Keep On Movin”, produced by L.A. R&B vet Willie Hutch, on Johnny Rivers’ young Soul City imprint. Now they were ready for their close-up.
“If it had been left up to the group,” laughs McCoo, “we never would have recorded ‘Go Where You Wanna Go.” Rivers’ suggestion that the group cover the song from the Mamas & the Papas’ first LP proved smart, though, as the Dimension’s version rose to No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Its follow-up, a richly harmonic version of ‘Another Day, Another Heartache’ by P.F. Sloan (‘Eve of Destruction,’ ‘Secret Agent Man’), hit No. 45. Then everything exploded in a combustion of talent, timing and hot air.
“Once we hit with ‘Go Where You Wanna Go,’ Johnny Rivers said, ‘We’ve gotta go in and finish an album, and it’d be great to put the group with a fresh, unknown songwriter,” recalls McCoo. “Our manager, Marc Gordon, had been vice president of Motown’s West Coast office,” says Davis, “and Jimmy Webb used to be up there peddling his songs; in fact, I think he got ‘Didn’t We’ placed with Billy Eckstine. So when Johnny was looking for songs for us — this is after Marc had left Motown — he called Marc, and Marc said, ‘I have a young writer I know, and I think he’s someone we might want to consider.'”
The 5th Dimension’s recording of Webb’s easy, ecstatic “Up, Up and Away” burst upon the world smack in the middle of the Summer of Love, turbo-charging Webb’s career and effectively launching the 5th Dimension as one of pop music’s most successful (and versatile) acts. The Top-10 single, rightly considered a modern classic, lent its name to the group’s debut album, itself a Top-10 item, which stuck around Billboard’s chart for a whopping 83 weeks.
Of the one that really started it all, Davis says, “We thought ‘Up, Up and Away’ was too beautiful to be a hit record! When Jimmy played it for us, we said, ‘It’s great, but it’s too pretty to be a hit.’ “But we wanted to record it,” adds McCoo. “It was such a feel-good song. He played it for us one day when we were rehearsing, and he said, ‘I’m working on a Broadway show, and this is one of the songs I’m planning on putting on it.’ We all wanted to cut it, but amongst ourselves we thought, ‘Hmmm, no hit, but it would be great for the album.’ Luckily, we were wrong.”
The Up, Up and Away LP, most of which was cut between January and March of 1967, showcased the group working out on no less than five Webb compositions. ‘Pattern People’ laments a couple falling into a routine relationship, and ‘Which Way to Nowhere’ somewhat reverses the tale of Webb’s ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ (here the guy who casually left his gal openly questions his decision to leave). McCoo identifies ‘Never Be the Same’ as a personal favorite, while Davis admits a similar fondness for the melancholic ‘Rosecrans Blvd.’ “That’s such a ‘feel’ song,” he explains. “I love it because I knew the story; Jimmy would sit and tell me the stories behind the songs, what he was going through, and I’d try to blend my experience with that.” (Non-Angeleno pop geographers might be interested to know that the boulevard is the first San Diego Freeway exit north of Hawthorne Boulevard, home of the Beach Boys.)
Another highlight, one of the album’s most dynamic tracks, is ‘California My Way.’ The upbeat, swinging cut — particularly Florence and Marilyn’s breezy lines — perfectly captures the Golden State’s mid-’60s appeal (“They say till you’ve been there you haven’t been nowhere”). It was written, like “Learn How to Fly,” by Willie Hutch.
Rounding out the program are a moving rendition of Tim Hardin’s ballad ‘Misty Roses’ (the group holds its own against renditions by Bobby Darin, Astrud Gilberto and the Modern Jazz Quartet) and an adventurous take on Johnny Rivers’ ‘Poor Side of Town,’ which opens with a strong acappella chorus. “That’s the kind of song and arrangement,” says McCoo of the latter cut, “that we really loved to do. It’s jazz-oriented, and it fit us perfectly.”
Less than a year after the release of Up, Up and Away came The Magic Garden, an ambitious set that, while less hit-heavy than its predecessor, further proved what superlative interpreters the 5th Dimension was fast becoming. “Jimmy Webb created The Magic Garden as a whole project,” Davis observes. “All the songs [the LP’s closer, the Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride,’ is the only piece of non-Webb material] were about the theme of his relationship with his girlfriend, Susan, and, taken together, it took you on a beautiful trip.”
“We just loved all the songs,” echoes McCoo, “and we never even thought about having hits on there, though we would have if they had released ‘The Worst That Could Happen.'” (Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge would score a Top-5 hit with their version of the song in 1969.) ‘Requiem: 820 Latham’, with its protagonist’s touching regret over the loss of the love he knew at that address (Davis’ reading of the line “Why could I not die then/ Warm behind the curtain of your hair” is truly powerful), is “one of my favorite of all the recordings we did,” says McCoo. “Jimmy’s writing always evoked images, and I’ve often used to make that point about his work. “Jimmy was just so tight in his lyrics and writing,” Davis adds, “like on ‘Paper Cup’ on that album. You listen to the music, and it’s this happy-sound, ‘bah-bah-bah’ song, and then you hear what he’s saying and it’s very sad. It’s about an alcoholic drinking his life away.”
While somewhat reminiscent of ‘Up, Up and Away’ sound-wise, the content of ‘Orange Air’ is much less exuberant than its music suggests. Its theme, of a guy belittled by a girl who sees herself as considerably above him, is not dissimilar to The Magic Garden’s sole single hit, ‘Carpet Man’ (it reached No. 29). In that song the chivalrous fellow who lays down his coat so his girl can walk across a puddle is ridiculed outright (“She walks all over you, you know she can/ You’re a carpet man”). As on ‘Paper Cup,’ the dark story is told to rousing music (dig the joyous-sounding vocal chorus and those snapping handclaps).
The album’s title track falls into more sun-shine-y territory; at the start of the song, cycle, love was fun and life was good. ‘Summer’s Daughter’ (“She’s a flower child”), which sports Bacharach-like “la-la-la’s,” likewise exudes a more positive vibe, and the sitar-tinged ‘Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe’ effects a kind of dreamlike quality. ‘Ticket to Ride’ also opens with the then-popular sitar but segues into something funkier, courtesy of a vaguely Stax-ish arrangement.
While Jimmy Webb arranged and conducted the Up, Up and Away and Magic Garden LPs, the latter inaugurated the 5th Dimension’s fruitful association with producer Bones Howe. Howe, whose credit would appear on virtually all of the group’s recordings up through 1974’s Soul & Inspiration (also released by Collectors’ Choice Music), had previously produced or engineered countless hits by the Association, Jan & Dean, Tom Waits, the Turtles and others. The working relationship between the quintet, their producer and their team of vocal arrangers was a close one — and a democratic one.
“We had quite a bit of input into what material we’d record,” says Davis. “Usually, representatives of the writers would bring songs to Bones, and he’d pick through dozens of songs.” “Bones did the initial screening,” McCoo says, “so that he would get rid of anything he didn’t think wasn’t right for the group. Then we’d have listening sessions with all of us where we’d review everything and make the final decision.” They sure made some good decisions.
© Gene Sculatti, Collector’s Choice Records, 2006