Barry Saunders

Saunders: Musically transported to another dimension – and loving it

The 5th Dimension, featuring Florence Larue, center.
The 5th Dimension, featuring Florence Larue, center. The 5th Dimension

Ever had a dream come true?

I did: Friday night.

A few years ago when I was fevered with some ailment, my sawbones prescribed some psychotropic drug that he warned would have me dreaming weird dreams.

He was right – so right, in fact, that I could hardly wait to get to sleep each night to take that magic carpet ride. The only dream I remember – because it occurred twice – was the one in which I was performing onstage with the Fifth Dimension when one of its members didn’t show up.

Guess what?

Friday night at Louisburg College, I performed with the 5th Dimension. You should’ve been there. I brought down the house, Jack.

Sure, everyone else in the joint sang with them, too – it was during a singalong to “Let the Sunshine In” – but that’s a technicality. I sung with the 5th Dimension and that’s going on the old resume.

As part of its Allen De Hart Concert Series, the college has performers from a bygone era – “back when you could understand what they’re singing,” Margie Bumgarner of Zebulon explained during intermission – perform at the school.

The 5th Dimension is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Last month, Melissa Manchester, an adult contemporary mainstay for 40 years, was the featured performer in the concert series.

When your musical tastes run to the 20th century, you have to make allowances for performers’ physical infirmities.

Manchester, according to Robert Poole, concert series manager, performed on a walker because she’d broken both ankles.

Florence LaRue, 71, the only original member of the 5th Dimension, performed with a cane – a blinged-out cane, but a cane nonetheless – because, as she explained, she’d recently had hip surgery.

The cane seemed to distract from the quintet’s performance or to detract from the audience’s enjoyment not all. Judging by the hands that went up, hip surgery was in several audience members’ past or is in their future.

All during the 60-mile drive to Louisburg, I fretted that there’d be so few people at the show that it would be canceled. C’mon: the group’s last chart single was in 1973, and the rain was just this side of torrential. On the positive side, I figured, if there really was a sparse crowd, maybe the group would take requests and sing my second-favorite song by them: “Ashes to Ashes.”

Not to worry, old bean. The 1,200-seat Dickson Auditorium appeared filled to three-quarters capacity despite the sketchy weather.

People, I’ve discovered, will brave a night fit for man nor beast to hear the music that was the soundtrack to their lives in high school and college.

Debbie Beavers of Zebulon did. She was a student at Methodist College when she discovered the California soul, slightly psychedelic sound of the group on radios in her dormitory. The show, she said, was “wonderful.”

Her friend, Jane Mitchell, said she was a student at Peace College – “And I don’t mean William Peace University,” she added emphatically – when “Up, Up and Away” oozed out of transistor radios around the country. “I loved them,” she said.

Bumgarner, another of the trio of golden girls I talked to in the lobby during the intermission, was moderately disappointed that her favorite original members of the group were no longer performing with it. “I loved Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.,” she said, referring to two members who left in the 1970s and had a successful career as a duet.

Mitchell said, “When I told my granddaughter who we were coming to see, she asked ‘Five dementias?’

“It might be,” she laughed.

Speaking of drugs and dementia, the 5th Dimension was my gateway drug to a habit that has cost me thousands of dollars over the years: 1968’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” was the first record I ever bought. Anyone who’s around me when it comes on the radio may think I’m suffering a form of dementia; I can’t hear it without commenting, “That’s the first record I ever bought.”

As the lights flickered signaling the end of intermission, Ketki Handa of Raleigh started back into the auditorium.

“You’ll only see one Indian girl here tonight,” Handa told me, smiling and stating that she has listened to the group for decades, even before she came to the United States 26 years ago from India. “I love Motown and this group,” she said. “My daughter is 9. She’s here, and she’s dancing.”

So were lots of people who had her daughter beat by six decades. They may still be feeling the effects days later, but for one rainy night, it was 1968 and we and time were – as “Up, Up and Away” says – suspended under a twilight canopy.

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