At first, Florence LaRue didn’t want to be in the famous R&B group from the ‘60s and ’70s, The 5th Dimension—a band that was also recently reintroduced to audiences thanks to the recent documentary, Summer of Soul, from The Roots’ famed drummer Questlove. She’d just won a beauty pageant—the Miss Bronze California contest—and one of the group’s founders, Lamonte McLemore, had approached her but she declined, thinking McLemore would have asked anyone who’d won the contest. So, she sloughed him off.
At the time, LaRue was in school, in the final year of getting her bachelor’s degree. She was also working full-time. So, she told McLemore that she wouldn’t even be able to make many rehearsals. But he persisted and eventually, LaRue acquiesced. The rest is music history. But none of this would have happened, LaRue says, if it hadn’t have been for the actress (and former Catwoman) Eartha Kitt.
“I owe my career to Eartha Kitt,” LaRue says. “I met a gentleman years after 5th Dimension began performing and he said, ‘You don’t know me, but I was a judge when you won the Miss Bronze California contest. And all the young ladies came out in their gowns and sang. But when you came out in a white suit with a white hat, holding the hatbox, Eartha Kitt looked at the rest of us and said, ‘There’s your winner!’”
LaRue may indeed be tied to Kitt in more ways than one; the singer’s family has remarked later that the two may be distantly related, as their roots stretch back to the same small town of Saluda, South Carolina. People have even told her she bears resemblance to Kitt. But all that aside, LaRue has enjoyed a fruitful, long-lasting career on her own two feet since those early moments on stage. The 5th Dimension, which stayed together with its original lineup for about 10 years. From 1967 to 1973, the band boasted 20 Top 40 hits.
“The moment I got into the group,” LaRue says, “I believed there was hope and promise. I didn’t want to be a part of anything that was just a hobby or there for fun.”
As the band quickly rose to popularity, its members enjoyed success. But there wasn’t exactly a ton of time to bask in it, LaRue explains.
“It was very exciting,” she says. “But I didn’t really have time to realize the extent of our popularity until after when I was sitting back and reflecting. Like, ‘Wow, we went to the White House, we toured with Frank Sinatra!’ When you’re in the process of doing something, I don’t think you realize the impact while you’re doing it. It’s just what you do. When you look back, it’s like, ‘oh wow, I did that. I’m very proud of that.’”
Growing up, music was always around for LaRue. Though she was academically studious, she also made time for choirs and orchestra. She played violin and later studied music in college. She’d always had an affinity for classical music. She would go to see the Philadelphia Orchestra while growing up nearby in New Jersey, before later moving to Southern California. Often, orchestral music is ornate, thick with lovely instrumentation. It’s funny to think about LaRue’s appreciation of that style given the rather gilded music she sang with The 5th Dimension.
“Ours was more lush than the average music at the time,” she says.
In the years since the height of The 5th Dimension, LaRue has acted in several stage performances and, she says, hopes to get more involved in film or television projects. She’s also written a new book, called Grace in Your Second Act, which details tips and tricks of aging gracefully from the artist’s perspective. In addition, she’s toured with other members of The 5th Dimension, singing the band’s songs and bringing joy to the people who have followed them for decades. Now, those fans’ children are showing up.
“It’s been an exciting year,” she says of the past 12 months. “I’ve been working on my book for over six years. I’ll be 80 in February, by the way!”
LaRue says her managers pushed her to complete the book, which she’d started five years prior, while she and her music career had downtime during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. She says she is glad she did. Now she’s sharing it with the young and old, men and women. People tend to poo-poo getting older. But given that it’s better than the alternative available, it’s good to get to know the secrets of the process from those who have been there.
“I started doing half-marathons in my 60s,” LaRue says. “When you’re young, it’s a good time to prepare. And for seniors, it’s never too late to start!”
For someone with so much energy, music has been a mainstay. LaRue has floated on its power for many years and it’s kept her motivated and smiling for much of that time. For LaRue, music is about how it makes you feel, first and foremost. About how it makes her feel. In that way, it’s representative of good medicine or a chance to mark each moment with a peaceful, hopeful tune.
“If I’m in the mood to dance,” LaRue says, “I want to hear some Motown. Or if I want to relax and meditate, I like classical music. There’s a time when I like to listen to jazz. I even like country music! There’s music to suit all emotions.”