Fifth dimension: remembering the stars of the 60s seen in “Summer of Soul”
There are many reasons to rejoice Summer of the soul, the famous musical doc premiered on Hulu this weekend. For six days in 1969, tens of thousands of people flocked to a Harlem park to watch performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, BB King, Sly and the Family Stone, and many more. Respectfully compiled by first-time director Ahmir âQuestloveâ Thompson, the forgotten footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival has been condensed into a two-hour film that is more than just a concert film. From Sly’s “Everyday People” anthem to past and present interviews with members of the public, and even an Afrocentric TV commercial from the festival’s coffee maker sponsor, the film is a time capsule of changing trends. black music, fashion and politics. America in the late 1960s.
And another reason to applaud him? He finally gives another of his interpreters, the 5th Dimension, an expected spotlight.
As co-singer Billy Davis Jr. acknowledges in the film, the 5th dimension has been blessed and cursed. Coming from universes as varied as pop and gospel, the quintet was in a way a black version of Mamas and the Papas. Their harmonies were just as sunny and enveloping, and one of their first hits was actually a cover of “Go Where You Wanna Go” by John Phillips.
But it was 1967’s “Up, Up and Away”, Jimmy Webb’s cottony ode to balloons (literally or metaphorically), that propelled the 5th Dimension into the Top 40 world of radio, nightclubs and from television. From then until the early ’70s, they were a ubiquitous presence – on tour, on variety shows and on the radio, especially when singles like the sublime classic “One Less Bell to Answer “or the bubbling” Wedding Bell Blues “were connected.
Like their segment in Summer of the soul Demonstrates it, the 5th Dimension was a proud throwback to a time when R&B and soul evolved, becoming more socially aware and rejecting musical conventions. On stage in Harlem, they wear matching orange outfits (“creamsicle” in color, as one interviewee puzzled), with all three male members wearing matching red ties. Their music video is dominated by “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)”, their mix of songs from the hippie musical Hair it was impossible to avoid on pop radio in 1969. With their synchronized dance moves, heavenly harmonies, and eager-to-please aura, you can see why they were genre regulars. The Ed Sullivan Show, but Davis’ raucous ad-libs during the second half of the song bring the performance back to church, where he started singing. (And check out studio bassist Joe Osborne’s demented bassline during the âLet the Sunshine Inâ portion of the studio recording.)
But in a scenario almost impossible to imagine for a modern act, the 5th Dimension has also fallen victim to its own success. In an expanse Summer of the soul segment, Davis and Marilyn McCoo, the most prominent female member of the group, review the images with as much pride as pain. âWe were constantly under attack because we weren’t ‘black enough’,â McCoo says. âSometimes we were called the black band with the white sound, and we didn’t like that. â¦ Our voices ring as they ring. How to color a sound? As Davis adds, âEveryone thought we were a white act until they saw pictures. These poignant moments are reminiscent of similar denigrations Whitney Houston endured two decades later, after she began to draw black and white audiences with her first two albums.
It is doubtful that even members of the 5th Dimension would have called themselves radicals. In Summer of the soul, the juxtaposition of their Vegas-friendly performance alongside the simmering fury of Nina Simone or the interracial funk of Sly and the Family Stone leads to this point.
But in their discreet way, the 5th Dimension has moved the needle. They helped introduce a generation of children to the songs of Webb and the late Laura Nyro. Their second album, the All-Webb The magic garden, married their voices to the songwriter’s ambitious pop concoctions, resulting in the airport lounge version of Sgt. Pepper. (“Man of the Carpets” also channel Brill Building chug.) In an effort to become politically relevant, they sang the entire Declaration of Independence on their 1970 album Portrait, a fiery movement that ate up to 10 minutes on the record. You would like to think that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of any effort to remind Americans, almost 100 years after the fact, of what was in these pages. The mere fact that the 5th Dimension was regulars on prime-time TV stations, as well as Motown acts, was a statement in itself. Their music – from the effervescent melodies of hits like “California Soul” to the way their voices came together after one of them took a solo – did not convey outrage but common joy.
Each of the many 5th Dimension anthologies still available is full of treasures, some buried. The McCoo showcase “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” is one of the most beautifully melancholy pop songs of all time. Their version of Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” isn’t as earthy as his, but it slips through the air, and their jubilant covers of his “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Save the Country” and “Sweet Blindness” make you wish they had also recorded an album made up entirely of Nyro songs. Hear McCoo and Davis (who would marry in 1969) flirt with each other in “Together, Let’s Find Love”, one of their late and sometimes forgotten hits.
McCoo and Davis left the band in the mid-1970s (and continue to work together, recently releasing a new Beatles cover album). The other original members – Florence La Rue, Lamonte McLemore and Ronald Townson – continued, along with various bandmates and record labels, but never regained their former status. At that point, the rise of disco and funk finally made the group anachronistic.
But given the heartache they have at times received – along with, admittedly, large paychecks – it’s reassuring to see the positive response the group is receiving in The summer of the soul. Few in the crowd seem to care about crossing over; to use a hackneyed phrase, it was the music that counted. The summer of the soul ‘the subtitle can be (â¦ Or, when the revolution couldn’t be televised). But the 5th Dimensional Silent Revolution was widely publicized – and, at one point, to many.