Ron Townson

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The Independent Online

Ronald Townson, singer: born St Louis, Missouri 20 January 1933; married (one son, and one son deceased); died Las Vegas, Nevada 2 August 2001.

WITH HITS like "Up, Up and Away" and "Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In", the Fifth Dimension was one of the most successful black groups of the 1960s, but their records were not played on black radio stations in America nor featured on the black record charts.

The group combined rock, lounge and gospel music in "champagne soul" and, with their full-bodied harmonies, they can be seen as a black version of the Mamas and the Papas. Ron Townson told the Los Angeles Times in 1970, "I know that some people accuse us of singing 'white' but it makes me laugh. It is based on ignorance. People sing styles. They don't sing colours. In the Fifth Dimension, we sing like we feel."

At the time of Fifth Dimension's fame, Townson's year of birth was given as 1941, but he was born in St Louis in 1933. Townson's grandmother recognised his singing ability and encouraged his parents to arrange private tuition. He studied at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and toured with the Wings Over Jordan Gospel Singers for several years, becoming their musical director.

When Townson was married in 1957, he moved to Los Angeles and worked for the actress and entertainer Dorothy Dandridge. He toured with her stage show and, as a result, had a small role in the film of Porgy and Bess (1959) in which she starred. Townson also toured with Nat "King" Cole and he formed his own a capella group, the Celestial Choir.

A childhood friend, LaMonte McLemore, was in a vocal group with Marilyn McCoo called the Hi-Fis. The group split up with two of the members forming the very successful Friends of Distinction, while McLemore and McCoo built a new group. McLemore invited Townson to join them along with Florence LaRue and a gospel singer, Billy Davis Jnr. Marc Gordon, a former executive for Tamla-Motown Records, agreed to manage them and brought them to Johnny Rivers, a singer who was starting Soul City Records. Rivers thought their name, the Versatiles, was old-fashioned and Townson's wife, Bobette, suggested the Fifth Dimension, which can be seen as one of the first psychedelic group names.

Rivers produced their first singles, but the break came while he was following his own career. The songwriter Jimmy Webb told me,

I was their rehearsal pianist and arranger. Johnny Rivers had gone to the San Remo Song Festival for a few weeks. He left me in charge of the group and I surreptitiously introduced my own song, "Up, Up and Away", into their repertoire. When we returned, we did the songs that we had been charged to rehearse and the group said, "Why don't we do the new song?" and Johnny said, "What new song?" When he heard it, he said, "We are going to call the album Up, Up and Away."

"Up, Up and Away", which Webb had written after seeing hot air balloons, achieved some unjustified notoriety as a drugs song, but it sold extremely well. It made the US Top Ten in 1967 and won both the Record of the Year and the Song of the Year at the Grammys. However, the Johnny Mann Singers made the charts in the UK, with a choral version. Webb wrote 16 songs for the Fifth Dimensions' first albums including their hit singles, "Paper Cup" and "Carpet Man". The Fifth Dimension featured Townson performing Webb's song, "MacArthur Park", in their stage act.

Rivers was too busy to work on a daily basis with the group, so he assigned their record production to Dayton "Bones" Howes, who had shown with the Association and the Everly Brothers that he knew how to spot good material and record it well. Laura Nyro, a young singer and songwriter, had had a traumatic time at the Monterey Pop Festival, but Howes appreciated her songs. The Fifth Dimension took "Stoned Soul Picnic" to No 2 on the US charts and followed it with another of Nyro's songs, "Sweet Blindness".

In 1968 Billy Davis Jnr left his wallet in a taxi in New York. The next occupant was a producer on Broadway of the hippie musical, Hair. He returned the wallet and invited the Fifth Dimension to the show. They were taken by "Aquarius" and wanted to record it. Howe thought that it was only half a song, so he asked them to add the gospel section from "Let The Sunshine In". Their medley topped the US charts for six weeks and also gave them their first UK Top Twenty hit.

There was romance within the group when Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jnr were married in 1969, and LaRue married their manager, Gordon. As a joke, they recorded Nyro's song, "Wedding Bell Blues", which had the opening line, "Bill, I love you so, I always will." Again, the song topped the US charts and did well in the UK.

Other successes included the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs, "One Less Bell to Answer" and "Living Together, Growing Together". In 1972 the Fifth Dimension undertook their only UK tour, which included a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. A song by a British writer, Tony Macaulay, "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All", was another US hit.

The 1972 album, Individually and Collectively, indicated that the group members were going in different directions. Townson formed his own group, Wild Honey, and managed a new band, Creative Source. In 1976, McCoo and Davis, who developed a more soulful sound, topped the US charts with "You Don't Have to be a Star (to be in My Show)". The Fifth Dimension continued with two original members, LaRue and McLemore, but their original version of "Love Hangover" was superseded by Diana Ross's.

In 1980 Townson starred as Fats Waller in the musical Ain't Misbehavin', and his joking and mugging on "Your Feet's Too Big" was particularly well received. In 1991 he reunited with LaRue and McLemore in a new version of the Fifth Dimension. He appeared in the film The Mambo Kings (1992) and, had illness not intervened, he would have been in the remake of the Rat Pack film Ocean's Eleven.

Spencer Leigh