Listening to The 5th Dimension, the popular R&B group from the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s impossible not to recognize the band’s beautiful sense of depth and the member’s lush harmonies. Together, the five-piece band, which was originally comprised of Lamonte McLemore, Marilyn McCoo, Florence LaRue, Ronald Townson, and Billy Davis, were like a Baroque painting in song.
One of the band’s biggest hits was the medley, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The track, which was released in 1969, spent six weeks atop the charts and was eventually certified platinum. More recently, Billboard listed it as the 66th greatest song of all time. The song, recorded by The 5th Dimension, was a medley of two songs written in 1967 by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot for the 1967 musical, Hair.
We caught up with LaRue, who has a new autobiographical book out, to ask her about the origin of the song (which has also been sampled by artists like Mos Def), and what she loves most about it today.
American Songwriter: When did you first hear the song?
Florence LaRue: One of the gentlemen in the 5th Dimension lost his wallet. We were in New York City at the Americana Hotel, performing and another gentleman found his wallet and brought it to the Americana and returned it. So, we invited him to the show and he invited us to his show. That gentleman was the producer of [the musical] Hair! So, when we went to see Hair and we heard the song, we said, “Wow, we’ve got to do that!”
And we suggested it to our producer. He said, “No, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. Because, first of all, the cast album’s out and it’s not really selling a lot.” But he came back to us and said, “Let’s record ‘Aquarius’ with ‘Let the Sunshine In’”—they’re actually two different songs—and that’s how it came about.
People ask us why we recorded it. We were not into astrology at all. We recorded it because it talked of hope and fun and harmony and it was just an uplifting song. That’s why we recorded it. As a matter of fact, now when we sing, “Let the Sunshine In,” I think of not only let the s-u-n shine but also let the S-o-n shine.
AS: How did the two separate songs—“Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”—get put together?
FL: We had an arranger arrange that.
AS: What did you think when you heard it the first time?
FL: Oh, we really liked it! We had no idea it would become an anthem of the time. We had no idea at all how big it would be. We just thought it was a wonderful, uplifting song.
AS: What was it like to feel that? I imagine you must have been riding down the street in a car and the song would come on the radio. All that must have been exhilarating?
FL: It was really a wonderful feeling. But I must tell you, one day I was riding down Sunset Boulevard and “Up, Up and Away, My Beautiful Balloon” came on the radio and I rolled it down, yelling, “That’s us! That’s us!” That was the first time I heard “Up, Up and Away.”
AS: Today, as you think back on it now, what do you love most about your hit, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”? What does it mean to you all these years later?
FL: You know, I’ve been singing that song for 50 years and I never tire of it because what I like about it is that it’s about harmony and understanding. Peace. I think of peace in the world among the races, among the nationalities. It just makes me feel good that there’s hope. There is hope.
Now, with COVID and all the things going on in the world, so many people are just so despondent and so unhappy and frightened. So, it feels good to sing something to lift their spirits and let them know that as long as God is here, there is hope.