"Everyone always talked about how people were afraid of [Frank Sinatra]. Let’s just say he and I had a very special relationship."
In Conversation With... Florence LaRue
Florence LaRue is an original member of the 5th Dimension, a band that has won six Grammy awards, including Record of the Year for Up, Up and Away in 1967, and again in 1969 with a cut of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, from the hit musical Hair. From touring with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., to performing in The White House, LaRue talks about her upbringing, the music of 5th Dimension, a new book, and the possibility of new music…
With a classical upbringing, what music did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to different types of music which I still do today, depending upon the mood I am in. I have a classical background, meaning that I really, really enjoy classical music. I played the violin in my school orchestra and I also studied ballet and toe-dancing. I have always really liked symphonies. One of my favourite types of performance was with the 5th Dimension, performing with a symphony orchestra. Of course, I like to dance, so, I like Motown music and those two were my favourites at the time. Since then, I have also listened to gospel and I like country music, too, because of the lyrics. The only type of music I am not very fond of, I must say, is rap. I feel that it isn’t music, it’s lyrics and rhythm, which is fine. Also, a lot of the lyrics are very negative. I also believe that the adults that complain about rap music are the ones who are responsible for it. I don’t know how it is in the UK, but here in the US, they have taken a lot of the arts out of the schools. So, young people are using what they are familiar with, which is storytelling, telling their stories with rhythm. Unfortunately, their stories include a lot of negativity because a lot of them haven’t got beyond where they live or their own experiences.
When I was in school, I was in choir, orchestra, all types of musical privileges that were afforded me, but unfortunately, a lot of young people do not have that. I don’t care for gospel rap, either. I love gospel very much, I sing spiritual music as I don’t have that gospel sound, but I really prefer melodies, rather than the rap.
You mentioned you grew up with an education in dance and violin, you even earned an associate’s degree in music. Did you find there was any prejudices against you, as a woman of colour?
Actually, I was very blessed with the many opportunities that I had as a black person, as at the time, when I started my career with the 5th Dimension, there was a lot of prejudices toward black people here in the US. I received many privileges that I would not have received had I not been a member of a famous group. For instance, I once went to a very exclusive store to purchase a gown, and I was neat but casually browsing, and I told the sales lady what I wanted and she started showing me gowns, and she kept looking at me. She would say things like What do you do?, as she knew she recognised me, but didn’t know who I was. Finally, through this fifteen/twenty minute of questioning I told her who I was, and she quickly went to the back of the store and started bringing me out these twenty-thousand-dollar gowns, which she didn’t do when she didn’t know who I was. I just told her, Look, I don’t wanna spend that much money.
There were other members of the group that experienced prejudices. A gentleman was driving an expensive car in Beverly Hills and he was stopped by the police… We were blessed because of the type of music we did. Our audiences were usually older, white audiences, very rarely black, mainly black because a lot of the blacks could not afford to come to those concerts, and they thought we were white. We didn’t sound like the way the general public expected black people to sound; they expected us to be like the Motown sound. We didn’t do that purposefully, it was just the voice God gave us. As a matter of fact, I was always embarrassed that I didn’t sound ‘black’. I wanted to sing like Aretha [Franklin] and sound ‘black’. One day, I put a song in our show, I’m Coming Home by The Spinners, and I tried to sound like The Spinners, and it was the most horrible thing you have ever heard. That’s when the Lord spoke to me and said, there’s only one Aretha, there is only one Florence LaRue. Don’t try and copy someone else, use what I have given you to the best that you can.
Of course, we all know you as an original member of 5th Dimension, but before we get to that, was you in any other bands before being approached?
Believe it or not, I never actually wanted to be a singer. As a matter of fact, I had two goals in life; one was to be a teacher because I enjoy teaching and still do, the other was to be in the movies. Well, I didn’t know how to go about being in the movies. When my family moved from a small town called Glenside in Pennsylvania, a suburb in Philadelphia, my family moved to California, and I didn’t know how to audition for the movies. Some of my friends entered me into beauty contests, hoping to be seen and discovered, and I was blessed to win quite a few of them. I was Miss This, Miss That, but it was the year that I was in Miss Bronze California Contest – which now would be Miss Black California Contest – I won the talent. A young man came to me and said I have a singing group and one of the girls left as nothing was happening with the group, I would like you to join. I said Oh no, no, I am not a singer, and I was working full time as an electronic assembler and in college full time, getting my bachelor’s degree in education, I don’t have time. Well, the rest is history, as he convinced me to join the group and that was Lamonte McLemore, and I’ve been with the group ever since. However, I still have a very high regard for teachers, they’re underpaid and not respected. I’ve done some acting; and the thing I enjoy most is musical theatre. I’ve starred in several plays, and there’s still time for me to do movies; there are actresses over fifty now! I do have a solo show, I am a one woman show, both storytelling with music and a solo cabaret show. So, I perform these when I am not with the group, but things have changed since theatres are closing.
Lamonte McLemore discovered you at a beauty contest, but did you ever have a formal audition?
I didn’t really have to audition after Lamonte pestered me and I finally said yes, but I must admit I do owe my career to Eartha Kitt. After performing with the 5th Dimension, a gentleman came up to me and said I know you don’t remember me, but I was one of the judges when you were in the Miss Bronze California Contest, and of course, all the young ladies came out in their gowns and presented their talents, but I came out in a white suit and a big white hat, and sang April in Paris – in French – and he said that when I did that, Eartha Kitt looked at the rest of the judges and said Now there’s your winner! I think it was because I was different because I am sure there are girls thinking How did she win that?, because there are girls who can sing circles around me, but I am more of a performer than a singer.
As a core member of 5th Dimension, the success that came with Up, Up and Away was astronomical. How did you cope with such a drastic change?
It actually happens quickly but smoothly. The five of us were working our jobs and we had a hit record, so we had to quit our jobs so we could go on tour. People will ask me how does it feel, but it’s like a secretary going to work, that’s her job, this is my job. Well, it’s the same with me, it’s what I did. It isn’t until now that I sit back and reflect that I realise how blessed I was and the many wonderful things that have happened; singing at the White House, singing at the Royal Albert Hall… I think of all the wonderful things that were awarded me, and it is such a blessing. Meeting and touring with Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, people like that. At the time, I was just busy doing it and studying. I still study voice, so I was busy preparing, and didn’t really have a lot of time to sit back and reflect.
With six Grammy awards out of nine nominations with 5th Dimension, it is clear you were a well accomplished and accepted band. What were the award ceremonies like?
I recently sold a large home and bought a large condo, but I have had to put some of my awards in the closet, as there’s not enough wall space for them. I’ve shared some of my gold records with family members! The one I remember most was the Grammy Awards for Up, Up and Away, ‘cause we were nominated for five, and we were hoping to win one, and we won four, including Record of the Year, Best Performance by a Vocal Group, Best Contemporary Single, and one other. That I will remember as it was such a shock. It was great.
The success does not end there, as Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In became arguably the biggest song of the 1969. How did you become involved with the musical Hair, and feel the need to cut the song?
Well, actually, one of the gentlemen in the group lost his wallet in New York. We were performing at the New York City Americana Hotel, and one of the gentlemen lost his wallet, and someone found it. He left it in a taxi, and as he knew where we were performing, returned the wallet. Of course, we thanked him and invited him to our show, and he in turn invited us to his show. Well, that gentleman was James Rado, who wrote Hair. When we were sitting there, and we heard Ronnie Dyson singing Let The Sunshine In, we just all looked at each other and said We’ve gotta record that song! So, we took it to Bones Howe, who was our producer and he said I don’t think it’s such a good idea, because the cast album is out and nothing is really happening. The he came back to us and said Let’s record Aquarius with Let the Sunshine In, that’s how that came about. One act of kindness.
Some amazing parts of your career include touring England with Frank Sinatra. What are some of your memories with Sinatra?
Well, I have a couple of personal ones that I won’t go into detail. Everyone always talked about how people were afraid of him. Let’s just say he and I had a very special relationship. As a matter of fact, he asked me out, and he was just a gentleman. Always very kind, always had a good show – just very nice. When we received a gold record, they wanted him to present it to us because we were opening for him at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and everyone was afraid to ask him! They asked me to ask him and he said Of course! I’ve got photos of him presenting the group with the album on stage at Caesar’s Palace. He was just a gentleman, and a very nice man.
You performed at The Harlem Cultural Festival, dubbed the ‘Black Woodstock’. Did you receive criticism for not being ‘black enough’?
It’s always a joy for us to perform for a black audience because we were perceived as not being ‘black’ enough, but we were just using the voices and talent that God gave us. We were blessed to have different voices in the group, and we only had one person that did have an R&B sounding voice, and that was Billy Davis, who is the finest male singer ever. Even with his age now, he still sounds fantastic. The rest of us just didn’t sound ‘black’; we had pop sounding voices. Today you have white singers that sing R&B and sound the way we expect black artists to sound, and black vocalists singing opera. You cannot colour a sound.
You also became a household band for many Americans, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show numerous times, with an episode dedicated to you. What do you think the significance of you being on those shows had for many Americans?
We showed that colour does not matter, it’s the talent. We inspired many young black people to go Oh, I can do that, and I have had them tell me it has inspired them to do that. I am very proud to say we were not only a group that sounded good, but looked good. Part of the thing that upsets me today with some of the groups is the manner in which they dress, especially some of the young ladies. I don’t think it is necessary to dress the way some of them do.
How do you feel about the way women are currently depicted in the current music industry?
It seems to be the less they wear, the better they think, instead of just being ladies. There’s a fine line between being sensuous and sexy. They don’t need to do that. It also comes down to what the public has come to expect, and I think the times have changed a lot. I remember when I was a young girl going to church, I had to wear a hat and gloves and a dress. Now, people dress however they want, and that’s good as God says Come as you are. I’m not saying there should be a certain way you should dress, but we have to be respectful, and know that people judge you by the way you look, unfortunately.
Aside from the music, you have also starred in many musicals, most prominently, Ain’t Misbehavin’. What interested you in taking the role in a musical?
Ain’t Misbehavin’, that’s my favourite! What is different with musical theatre is the fact you have the chance to act, so it combines my desire to be in movies and to sing. Also, it’s hard to explain, as people will say You love musical theatre, but you do concerts. There’s a big difference. There’s something about musical theatre: it’s the discipline, the costumes. I don’t know, I just love it. I remember once when I had finished a performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’, I went to the ladies’ room, as I always go in there to go and stop and listen to hear what people really think. This one little lady said They were fabulous but that one little girl couldn’t sing, but what she didn’t realise is that I was playing a character that couldn’t sing, but I was also the character that sang the other songs that she liked. So, it really pleased me to know because I was a bit afraid of playing that character because it was comedy, and I wasn’t real confident in doing comedy, as I’d never done it before. That was great validation. The [5th Dimension] did the show. Our management presented that, and it was a really great idea. I also starred in another performance called Mo’ Magic in Canada, and the way I got that was by singing the national anthem at a football game, and the producer of the show was there, and he says Ah, that’s the one that I want for this part. So, you never know.
Around the mid-seventies there was some changes to the band and you continued with a new line-up. Your cover of Love Hangover stalled due to Motown’s release of Diana ross’ version. Was there a sense of frustration of missing a potential hit?
It was on its way to being a big hit, and I think in a way that it’s a blessing that it wasn’t, because I think it would have changed 5th Dimension’s direction into doing more R&B, rather than continuing what we really are. Actually, 5th Dimension are very well-rounded, and our shows are very well-rounded; we do everything from R&B to jazz, to pop, but our recordings had been more pop.
Do you find the songs that you performed all those years ago still hold a sense of pertinence, or have they evolved to take on a higher meaning for you?
Yes, they have a higher meaning, because our audience now – the baby boomers – after the shows they say Please don’t stop, because we bring back their memories and we sing the songs the way they were recorded. We don’t try and do any updated versions. So, people come and they have their memories intact, just as they remember them.
In 2016, you performed in The Villages, Florida, days after the Orlando Nightclub shooting. I have to admire you for your courage, and spirit. Were you concerned for your own safety?
I’ve never been the concerned for our safety because God has directed us and we have always been so blessed. We’re just here to bring happiness and hope to people, and the world. We know what’s going on in the world, we don’t hide our heads, but we don’t focus on it. We want people to know there are a lot of good things in the world, and there is hope.
As an avid humanitarian, serving the homeless, an advocate for education and so much more, are there any concerns you wish to highlight?
I’ve been wondering what to do, as I was working for the homeless, but we cannot do that at the moment. Now, as a senior citizen, I am concerned for the senior citizens because I visit many homes in the US, especially around the holidays and I’ll sing Christmas Carols for them. I see so many of them just left, no visitors, no family. Even the ones that aren’t in homes live alone or on assisted living, and it is like they have given up on life. I want to encourage them. I have a book, that I have just finished, called ‘Grace in Your Second Act’. It’s about continuing to live a fulfilled life. Not just exist. There are still people acting over fifty, over sixty. There are many seniors still living and doing wonderful things. So, I don’t want the seniors to give up on life and go Oh, I’m fifty, or, I’m sixty, now I will just sit and wait to die. So, my book is about taking care of yourself; mentally, physically, and spiritually. A lot of them say I can’t walk, but you can talk to people on the phone and encourage them. There’s a lot you can still do at home, as we are learning now with the virus. I just don’t want our seniors to give up on life. It’s very sad, and I don’t understand how a lot of children cannot care for their seniors.
With no signs of stopping, what’s next for yourself?
Well, right now I am looking for a publisher for my book, and once that is out, I am looking to speak via the internet or in person when I can, as I’d like to do more speaking. Also, with the 5th Dimension, we are planning on perhaps recording something, again, via Zoom. We are trying to be proactive with all the things that are going on in the world. And, we hopefully may have a new song out soon…
As highlighted during this interview, a lot of people are struggling. If you wish to help, you can always look online to find local charities and support networks to find a way of assisting those in need.