Vinyl examination: The champagne soul of The 5th Dimension

When you study the annals of the black vocal group, it’s clear that The 5th Dimension often get a raw deal.

Though they weren’t soulful in the sense of, say, The Soul Children and other mixed-gender R&B vocal combos of yesteryear, Billy Davis Jr., Marilyn McCoo, Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore and the late Ron Townson had a knack for expression and dazzling precision that was just as keen as the competition. Critics have called their lush, meticulously crafted musical brand “champagne soul,” a description that really couldn’t be more appropriate. Few black groups – or groups period for that matter – navigated material with such sophistication and harmonious splendor.

By the time they issued their sixth album, 1971’s “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes,” the group was pop-soul royalty. Hit singles like “Up, Up and Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” turned them into a crossover sensation, netting followers from all walks of life. Not only did they earn six Grammys during the course of their career, but much like The Supremes, they were one of the first black groups to become a regular fixture on lily-white ‘60s network television. At the time “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” hit shelves, the group was so popular they were given a network television special (their second) to promote it. Featuring special guests Dionne Warwick, Meryl Haggard and The Carpenters, “The 5th Dimension Travelling Sunshine Show,” which is available on DVD, is great fun and puts the group’s talent and versatility on full display. Like the special, the album is a lesson in the lighter, restrained side of soul.

Produced by Bones Howe and sporting an ultra-funky gatefold cover with a detachable number 5 for the wall, the album is classic 5th Dimension, an effortless potpourri of orchestral pop flourishes, soulful harmonies and outstanding solos. The beauty of this quintet is the fact that all five members sang beautifully. Davis was the soul center of the group’s blends, with his leads on “Light Sings” and the vibrant “Guess Who” evoking Sunday morning testimonies. A rendition of Junior Walker’s Motown classic “What Does it Take (To Win Your Love)” pairs Davis with wife McCoo and boasts a Tom Scott sax solo for what turned out to be a surprisingly effective performance. Elsewhere, LaRue stepped to the mic in fine style for the free-wheeling, jazzy Laura Nyro creation “He’s a Runner,” a song that could have easily appeared on Nyro’s “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.” And much like they did for several other numbers in the group’s repertoire, LaRue and McCoo offer up their crisp unison approach for “Time and Love,” the only other Nyro composition on the album.

People often sleep on McCoo, but that sister had a lot soul. Howe teased one hell of a performance out her for the album’s title track, the song that remains my favorite 5th Dimension gem. Augmented by then-contemporary production values, she hits some major emotional highs and lows that highlight the sheer power and clarity she could bring forth with her instrument. Just as she did with “One Less Bell to Answer” from the previous year’s “Portrait,” McCoo turns in a watershed moment for the group. What’s amazing to me is that when people reel off a listing of their hits, “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” is rarely included among them. Even if it didn’t have the impact of earlier hits, there’s no question it merits more praise than it receives.

A gold-selling Top 10 R&B/Top 20 pop album, “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” was one of the group’s last long-players to make significant noise. They would score a few more hits but things cooled considerably by the mid-‘70s, and Davis and McCoo left to pursue a career as a duo. They would have a Grammy-winning chart-topper with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” in 1976, but it would prove their biggest hit. The 5th Dimension regrouped, replacing the duo with various vocalists over the next several years (singer Eloise Laws even had a brief tour of duty) but never recapturing their earlier success. The later configuration of the group is best known for recording the original version of the disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though their version climbed all the way to No. 2 on the disco singles chart, Motown’s delivery of Diana Ross’ take on the number put the flicker out before it could become a flame. The group soldiered on and they continue to perform today, with the original members making the occasional public appearance. Sadly, Townson died in 2001 after kidney failure.

No matter how you like your soul, it’s hard to deny The 5th Dimension’s contributions to black music and the role they played in altering the way America viewed black people. Such class can be hard to come by these days and is indeed something to respect and emulate. Like champagne, their sound and style were smooth and bubbly, a positive force in a time riddled with turmoil and strife.

And the taste of “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” is as sweet as it ever was.

Check out Marilyn McCoo singing “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” on the “The 5th Dimension Travelling Sunshine Show” below.

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One response to “Vinyl examination: The champagne soul of The 5th Dimension

  1. This show is on DVD? I may have to snap this up this coming weekend, you know I adore The 5th Dimension, they all had a great skill, but McCoo is slept on. Perfect example of the type of singers I enjoy, they can read songs. Beautiful piece Steve.-QH

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