How “The Declaration (of Independence)” became a controversial pop song by this iconic group in 1970

(July 4, 2021).  Not too many pop groups – or any act for that matter – would consider setting the entire preamble to the “Declaration of Independence” to music and releasing that as their first single for a new record label to which they’d just been signed.

That especially goes for a group of Black singers out of California (by way of St. Louis) who had otherwise been known for their lighthearted, trippier fare with songs like “Up, Up and Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Paper Cup,” and “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.”

But such was the case for The 5th Dimension, the popular quintet consisting of Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Jr., LaMonte McLemore, Florence LaRue, and the late Ron Townson.

The 5th Dimension (l to r): Billy Davis, Jr., Florence LaRue, LaMonte McLemore, Marilyn McCoo, and Ron Townson

In 1969, hot off the heels of one of the greatest years any non-Motown Black group had ever had in popular music up to that point, the 5th Dimension – who’d just had two No. 1 million-selling singles in “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” and “Wedding Bell Blues” within months of each other – elected to take the words of the Preamble to the “Declaration of Independence” and sing them verbatim on a song for their new album Portrait.

The song “The Declaration,” whose music was composed by Julius Johnsen and Rene DeKnight, was a huge career risk for many reasons, not the least of which was the dubious connection that the “Declaration of Independence” had always had with the Black community.  Written in 1776 by several slave owners – including principal author and future president Thomas Jefferson who owned hundreds – the “unalienable rights” of which it spoke weren’t applicable to Black people. It certainly wasn’t “self-evident” that ALL men had been created equal.

The 5th Dimension perform “The Declaration” on Glen Campbell’s variety show in 1970.

The risk for the 5th Dimension was particularly high given their own precarious Black fan base.  Often referred to back then as the “black version of the Mamas and the Papas,” most of 5D’s songs fared better on the pop charts than they did soul.  None of their songs topped the soul chart and only two singles, “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Working On A Groovy Thing,” did better on the soul chart than pop. 

Making matters worse was a decision the group made to appear at the White House with then-president Richard Nixon, himself viewed unfavorably by many Blacks for his policies, both domestic and foreign.

Under Nixon, America continued to wage war with Vietnam, and Blacks continued to fight and die on the front lines at a disproportionately higher rate than their white counterparts, only to return – if they were fortunate enough – to a country where they were appreciated even less than they had been before they left. 

The fact that 5th Dimension accepted an invite to perform for Nixon at a National Governors Conference in December 1969 would threaten to alienate them from the relatively smaller Black fan base they’d already accumulated.

But within that risk was an irony that was probably lost on many people.  The 5th Dimension had recorded “The Declaration” as a protest song, largely against Nixon’s policies.

Sure the song’s production (by 5D regular Bones Howe) might seem like lightweight pop music. And, taken alone, it might have been interpreted as a patriotic nod to the historic document co-authored by Jefferson and a “Committee of Five,” which officially declared the American colonies’ independence from British rule on July 4, 1776.

But 5D recorded “The Declaration” as part of a three-song medley with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free.”  Together, the three-song suite represented the complex notion of independence in this country and the freedoms that have been enjoyed by some but not all Americans – not just in 1776, but in the nearly two-and-a-half centuries since the inspiring document’s adoption.

Lost on many people was the fact that 5D had adapted Sam Cooke’s somber Civil Rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” to immediately follow “The Declaration” as a reflection of the continuing struggle by Blacks in America to be freed from the institutional racism that’s existed here for centuries.  They capped it with the more jubilant “People Got To Be Free” as an uplifting symbol of hope not inconsistent with the hippie vibe of the late-1960s when the song was first recorded.

Musically speaking, “The Declaration” was not as much of a leap for the 5th Dimension as one might think.   The “Medley” was, at least thematically, an extension of “Let The Sunshine In” with their common messages of love, acceptance and hope…even if the path to getting there was different. 

The timing of “The Declaration” and “Medley” was not accidental.  Juxtaposed against the 5th Dimension’s pop success was a world where many Blacks had suffered setbacks and frustration, exacerbated in recent years by enormous loss and the slow rate of socioeconomic progress.  The year 1969 had been a powder keg of Black pride and activism after the assassinations of so many leaders earlier in the decade, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.  

But during 1969, the members of 5th Dimension were clearly getting more in touch with their Black fans after having just performed at the Harlem Soul Music Festival earlier that summer.   That free festival, now immortalized in the Questlove documentary Summer of Soul (which captures 5D’s performance), was itself a move to unify African-Americans in our revolutionary Black Power struggle while providing uplifting entertainment by some of soul music’s A-list recording acts.

The 5th Dimension’s “Black Woodstock” Harlem Soul Music Festival performance is captured in this Questlove documentary released July 2, 2021.

There was no bigger pop group on that festival’s stage (at the time) than 5D, whose struggle to capture Black fans was acknowledged by Davis and McCoo in the documentary.  “How do you color a sound?” wondered McCoo in a retrospective interview while she and Davis noted that most people thought the group was white until they’d seen their album covers.  This was particularly ironic considering that Davis’ soulful vocals were clearly honed in the Black church.

“The Declaration” was included on 5D’s fifth album Portrait in 1970.  The single preceded the album’s release by two months and was split between “The Declaration” on one side of the vinyl 45 and the “Medley: A Change Is Gonna Come/People Got To Be Free” on the other.  

As the album’s first single, and the group’s first new music after the phenomenal year they’d just had in 1969, “The Declaration” fell flat. The single debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 21, 1970 – first as its own entry and then joined by the flip side the following week.  The double-sided entry climbed to No. 64 three weeks later with “The Declaration” as the A-side, then to No. 60 the following week with the “Medley” listed first.  

Two weeks later, the double-sided single had disappeared from the chart altogether.  It never even made the Billboard Soul chart.

The 5th Dimension’s Summer of Soul performance (July 1969) (photo courtesy Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’ documentary)

Despite the failure of “The Declaration” or its B-side “Medley” to catch America’s attention, the 5th Dimension continued to have success, although none as great as they’d had in 1969.  The next two singles from Portrait – “Puppet Man” and “Save The Country” – both reached the pop top 30 in 1970 but failed to reach the top 40 of the Soul chart.

A couple of songs (“Blowing Away” and “The Girls’ Song”) from older albums released by the group’s previous record label – ironically known as Soul City Records – did moderately well on the pop list in 1970 but failed to even make the soul chart.

It wasn’t until the Bell label took a then-unusual chance by releasing a fourth single from the Portrait album – the Marilyn McCoo showpiece “One Less Bell To Answer” – that the group returned to prominence.  That torchy ballad reached No. 2 on the pop chart in December 1970, becoming the group’s third-biggest hit.  

Perhaps more importantly, it climbed to No. 4 on Billboard’s soul chart, proving that 5D could still reach the Black audience with a great song. 

As for 5th Dimension’s decision to record “The Declaration” – a song whose then-hypocritical but aspirational words were written nearly 200 years earlier – and then perform it in a sort-of veiled protest at a pro-war president’s White House dinner for the 50 states’ governors?  Well, it clearly wasn’t a fatal blow to their careers.  The group continued to have hits until Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis left in 1976, whereupon the duo – who’ve been married since 1969 – had their first No. 1 soul single (“You Don’t Have To Be. A Star”).

Regarding Nixon’s reactions to it all, it’s been rumored that the late former president was not pleased with the group’s White House performance (some theories suggest that he allegedly wanted copies of the Portrait album collected and destroyed as a result).

Not sure if that’s true or not, but I’m willing to bet that the framers of The Declaration of Independence, which included a couple of future presidents in Jefferson and John Adams, never envisioned that a group of five Black singers from California – free ones at that – would be performing its preamble as a pop song nearly 200 years later.  

For that matter, they likely never envisioned California, pop songs, or the phonograph record either. 

The country’s forefathers may have imagined the end of slavery since the institution’s existence was being debated as the Declaration was being written.  But their decision to omit references to the savage treatment of fellow Black citizens from the document couldn’t have foretold the fact that the country now officially celebrates two freedom holidays (within weeks of each other) as a result of slavery’s abolishment. 

As far as this blogger knows, “The Declaration” by The 5th Dimension is the only time that anyone has set that historic document to music (and its still a great way to learn the preamble if you’re ever so inclined).

Happy Independence Day everyone!

DJRob

DJRob holding a copy of the 1970 single he (or, more accurately, his Mom) purchased in a cut-out singles discount section of a post exchange that year.

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

You can also register for free to receive notifications of future articles by visiting the home page (see top for menu).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.