The World’s A Nicer Place In My Beautiful Balloon (The 5th Dimension)

OK, it’s January 1969 & the Fifth Dimension, one of America’s most popular vocal groups are being driven in a vintage Renault down La Croisette in Cannes while singing “Sweet Blindness”, the second of the 5 Laura Nyro songs that they took into the charts. Could anything be more groovy ?

 

 

Related imageIn 1966 the Mamas & the Papas were the cat’s pyjamas in American Pop, a permanent fixture on the charts. The 5th Dimension were signed to Soul City Records by Johnny Rivers, a big star in the US but almost unknown in the UK where we were busy with our Big Beat Boom. Rivers’ own records displayed a shrewd eye for the current changes in music & he nicked a hit for his new group with an almost note-for-note cover of the M&P’s “Go Where You Wanna Go”, the one before “California Dreamin'”, the one that almost got away. His first signing to his publishing company was a prolific teenage tunesmith called Jimmy Webb. There were 5 of Webb’s songs on the 5th Dimension’s debut LP (including the exquisite “Rosecrans Boulevard”), one of them was a world-wide smash which won 6 Grammys including Record & Song of the Year. The 5th Dimension were “Up, Up & Away” (ouch!).

 

Image result for 5th dimension magic gardenFor their second LP the group were handed over to Jimmy Webb who wrote 11 of the 12 tracks & shared production duties with Bones Howe, a master engineer & a man who knew about Sunshine Pop (The Turtles, Association). The actor Richard Harris, who also made an LP with Webb at this time, once said (& I paraphrase here) that the young songwriter fell in love, wrote beautiful songs about it, had his heart broken & wrote more great ones about that. “The Magic Garden” (1967) is a concept album based on that relationship & it is one of the lesser celebrated delights of the Summer of Love. It didn’t repeat the debut’s success though the title track sure sounds like a hit to me & an inferior version of “The Worst That Could Happen” made the US Top 3. I loved the upbeat “Carpet Man” but we’ll go for “Paper Cup”, a single that missed the Top 30, because the group went to the trouble of dressing up in their Mod finery for this TV appearance.

 

 

 

5th Dimension were not just about the perfect harmonies, when Billy Davis Jr took the lead his dramatic husky vocals were the very thing. I guess it’s time to mention here that Marilyn & Florence were very striking, the group not only sounded great they looked good too. Spearheaded by the innovative writing talents of Webb & Bacharach & David Pop was moving away from Moon & June rhyming & the adolescent emotions of early 1960’s ballads. There were no rough edges to 5th Dimension”s music & “Easy Listening” was not yet a pejorative term.

 

For the 3rd LP Bones Howe took over sole production, there was only the one Webb track. The selection of 2 songs from “Eli & Thirteenth Confession”, the second LP by New York prodigy Laura Nyro, turned out to be a very good idea. Her soulful, confessional lyrics were often matched to quite offbeat, angular tunes. On “Stoned Soul Picnic” (1968), when they were given the 5th Dimension treatment, the title track & “Sweet Blindness” proved to be very popular. They helped the group become established as a big attraction & there was always at least one Laura Nyro song on their following 4 LPs.

 

 

Image result for 5th dimension concert posterI was not the biggest fan of the Hippie musical “Hair”. The brief nude scene ensured that it gained notoriety & plenty of media attention but as a budding member of the counterculture I couldn’t see how a Broadway/West End stage show could progress the cause of replacing a system dominated by greed for power & money by one based on Love (I was SO much older then!). 5th Dimension combined 2 of the show’s soundtrack, “Aquarius” & “Let the Sunshine In” as a medley & crushed it. A US #1 for 6 weeks, another Record of the Year Grammy. At the time it was ubiquitous & I found the “mystic crystal revelation” of “Aquarius” a bit much. Now, when Joe Osborn of the Wrecking Crew kicks in the bass line of the gospelly “…Sunshine”, all I want to do is boogaloo with Marilyn McCoo (that’s a dance!).

 

 

Related image1969 was the year for 5th Dimension. Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” put them back at #1 in the charts. It was the first song to be released as a single to feature a solo group member (Marilyn) previously they had overlooked perfectly good hit records in favour of songs that featured group harmonies. There was a move to Bell Records where they continued to record with Bones Howe, continued to have hits & were regulars on American TV. I do feel that their TV appearances seemed more formal, more show business, the material more “adult oriented”. They could sing the telephone directory & sound good.  In 1975 Billy & Marilyn, now & still married left to make their own records. The later appearances on “Soul Train”, Bill Withers’ “Harlem”, Nyro’s “Black Patch”, were considered for inclusion here but I’m an absolute sucker for bright Sixties Sunshine Pop so it’s back to one of those great first 4 LPs they made. “California Soul” was written by Motown’s new hot couple Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, the third hit single from the “Aquarius” LP. Oh yeah, 1969, the sun is shining, 5th Dimension on the radio & everything is groovy

 

 

 

 

That Girl Could Sing (USA 1967)

I was checking for solo female singers of the 1960s. Over here in the UK we still love the topnotch ternion, Dusty (the greatest), Cilla (uncool now, impeccable Beatle cred then) & Sandie (hooray !). There are other contenders, Lulu, Pet, Marianne. Francoise Hardy was as cool as & still is. In the New World it is the soul sisters who carry the swing, Aretha, Dionne, Diana & plenty more. Beat groups & pretty boy teen idols were the current thing, women pop stars were scarce. Brenda Lee was of the generation before the Sixties swung, at the end of the decade poor Janis was just getting going & then she was gone. In between there was Nancy Sinatra, Cher & … ? I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect & you knew that. Here are 3 talented women who were making the scene in 1967.

Jackie DeShannon, as you can see, was blimmin’ gorgeous. A real swinging chick. Jackie has quite a story to tell. She was very young when she entered the business of show & her path crossed many interesting & talented people.Before her support gig on the first Beatles tour of the US in 1964 she had already been recording for 8 years under various tags with little success. In that British Invasion year another Liverpool link put her name in the frame when the Searchers hit big with a cover of her single “Needles & Pins”, a song written by Sonny Bono & Jack Nitzsche. The same combo turned Jackie’s own song, the pop-folk “When You Walk In The Room” into a folk rock prototype. In 1965 she picked up a Bacharach & David written hit with “What The World Needs Now Is Love”. By this time Jackie was only in Swinging London, only writing songs (& having a thing) with only Jimmy Page.

Here in 1967 Jackie is cool & classy, lip-synching to 2 often covered R&B classics, James Ray’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” & Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game”. Songs that she has co-written have been recorded by so many varied artists. She wrote many tunes with the talented Sharon Sheeley, the girlfriend of Eddie Cochran. “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” put her back in the Top 10. There’s one with Van Morrison & there is “Bette Davis’ Eyes”. If there was a Songwriters’ Hall of Fame then Jackie DeShannon would be in it. Oh, there is & she is !

In 1967 Bobbie Gentry’s debut LP knocked “Sgt Pepper’s…” from the top of the US LP charts. 23 year old Bobbie wrote 9 of the record’s 10 tracks & the distinctive “Ode To Billie Joe”  became a world wide hit. “Ode…” is a finely detailed song, a dark tale of suicide & mysterious things thrown from bridges combined with a loping, swampy Mississippi rhythm. It’s sophisticated for a pop song & while Ms Gentry was no Flannery O’Connor, her Southern Gothic-lite narrative made her quite the big deal. Here she is performing “Niki Hoeky”, a song by the great country-soul maverick Jim Ford, on prime time TV. The choreography is a little Hmmm but Bobbie looks comfortable with it & midrifftastic.

Y’know, a barefoot Mississippi minstrel, T-shirt & jeans, an acoustic guitar, that young woman on the 1st LP cover, could have been just what the music world needed in 1967. In a couple of years Joni Mitchell & Carole King were superstar singer-songwriters…a new thing. By then Bobbie’s music had got a little more country, her hair a little higher. She moved to the middle of the road with an LP of duets with Glen Campbell. In 1970 she had a #1 hit in the UK with that sure-fire winner for a woman singer, a Bacharach & David original, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Bobbie was an international star, she had her own show in Las Vegas but less commercial success. In 1972 the Tallahatchie Bridge, off of the song, collapsed, Gentry had released 4 LPs in the previous year but there would be no more after these. She was now picking her gigs & eventually walked away from the business. In popular culture everything comes round again, gets a rewind & a revival, Bobbie Gentry’s work could certainly stand it but she was not that bothered…that’s cool.

Over on the West Coast, if you were going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. For 3 days in June the Monterey Pop Festival showcased the new Californian musical aristocracy while introducing Otis Redding & Jimi Hendrix to the “love crowd”. New female stars like Grace Slick with Jefferson Airplane & Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company were front of stage taking the spotlight from their fellow male band members. The festival marked only the second major performance by a 19 year old singer-songwriter who was strictly East Coast. Laura Nyro’s melting pot roots reflected those of her New York birthplace. Her musical influences were of a similarly wide range. She regarded her Monterey appearance to be a disaster. Whether any booing was real or imagined Laura was affected by the occasion. There is certainly a callow fragility about  this rather amazing rendition of  “Poverty Train” but there is a whole lot of other shaking going on. Jazz, blues, gospel, soul, folk were all there, it sounded like music for the future.

It became a thing to take Laura’s songs, smooth off the spiky edges & make hit records out of them. There were 4 hits, 3 in the Top 10, from the debut record, “More Than A New Discovery”. The following record provided 3 more. Laura Nyro was a songwriting prodigy, a new Jimmy Webb. The 5th Dimension, a classy harmony group, loved to make these songs a little more radio-friendly. “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, you know those…lovely. There was a record a year until 1971, 4 LPs of personal, passionate, adventurous compositions. “Eli & the 13th Confession” & “New York Tendaberry” need to be heard. It’s the sound made by a young intelligent woman who spent a long time listening to the best music of the 20th century then, with the fine sense of the free-spirited 1960s, was able to synthesize her own  individual style.I found her music to be much more interesting than the folk singers who were coming up after Joni. Laura Nyro seemed to me like a young Nina Simone. That is high praise, here’s more from Todd Rundgren’s wonderful “Runt” LP.

After such an abundant spell her next record was a tribute to the girl-group sounds that she had grown up with in New York. “Gonna Take A Miracle” was made with Labelle. It’s more traditional than her other LPs but the songs are covered with love & respect & it really is a lovely thing. There was though still no major commercial breakthrough. Laura Nyro got married & took 5 years away from recording. The years when she had been so innovative & prolific were over. She unfortunately suffered an untimely death in 1997 when, at just 49, she contracted ovarian cancer.

These 3 very capable women provide just a snapshot into the American music scene in 1967. Jackie DeShannon, already established, had a long & successful songwriting career. The other 2, beginning their passage & experiencing initial acceptance, were both unable to find a position in the business where they felt comfortable. They both walked away at a time when there was still potential for creative development. Now I’m not the guy to expound a theory about sexual objectification, discrimination & stereotyping in a male dominated music industry. I am the guy who would have liked to have heard Bobbie Gentry go back to her Delta roots & to hear Laura Nyro’s music mature as she did…and I can be particular about what I listen to.