Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
The Many Faces of Love
by Mark Mussari
For Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., the music never ends.
The charismatic duo, whose instantly recognizable voices helped to make the 5th Dimension one of the pop era’s most revered vocal groups, has been married for almost 40 years.
In 1968, with McCoo singing lead, the 5th had a number-one hit with Laura Nyro’s plaintive “Wedding Bell Blues.” The lyrics – “Bill, I love you so / I always will” – proved to be prophetic. The couple was married shortly thereafter, and they’re still going strong, both personally and professionally.
McCoo and Davis recently released their first album in years. On The Many Faces of Love, the duo traverses the emotional landscape of romantic love. “Billy and I were looking for songs that tell the story of a relationship,” explains McCoo about the interactive CD’s eclectic song choice. “Not just, I love you and you love me,” she adds, “but songs that tell the story of what happens in the midst of a relationship.”
That thoughtful quality surfaces in numbers like their heartfelt cover of James Ingram’s “Just Once.” “That song tells the story of a relationship that could have gone either way,” says McCoo.
One of the most moving numbers opens the CD: a full version of Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” including the rarely sung second verse. “We do that in our live show,” notes Davis, “and the reception is very nice.”
The duo shines on an impassioned cover of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Your Precious Love.” And, they do a lovely, wistful take on “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” with their trademark warm harmonic blend.
The Many Faces of Love also offers up some hot solos, including Davis’s riveting cover of the R & B classic “Try A Little Tenderness.” “That song tells such a great story,” comments Davis. “It tells how we, as men, should say tender things to our ladies – really be there for them.”
The song’s arrangement unfolds slowly and then builds. “It opens up like a flower,” says Davis, “and gets bigger and bigger, with the strings and horns coming in.”
McCoo updates her own cover of the Association’s “Never My Love,” with a striking new arrangement, and also breathes new life into Herb Alpert’s pensive “This Girl’s in Love with You.”
Overall, the album delivers a soulful, 70s-funk vibe, yet it never sounds retro or nostalgic. The two seasoned voices maintain their former muscle: McCoo still exhibits her wide range and rich, buoyant tones, and Davis’s voice is full of the vigor that made him one of the greatest soul singers of the rock era.
As the predominant lead singers for the 5th Dimension, McCoo and Davis – along with Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore – left the world some of the finest music laid down in the last 40 years. “When we came together,” muses McCoo, “we weren’t being put together by someone – we came together as friends who loved to sing.”
The group’s joyous sound was relentlessly eclectic. McCoo and McLemore had sung some jazz together, Davis came from more of a gospel background, and classically trained Townson had even sung some opera. McCoo adds that LaRue had a “wonderful alto – a very full, rich sound.” The girls used to soar together, particularly when singing in unison.
The challenge, McCoo explains, came in blending all those sounds: “That is what we think made the 5th Dimension’s sound so unusual.” And she nods to Jimmy Webb and to their vocal arranger – Bob Alcivar – for being “instrumental in shaping the sound of the group.”
Despite six Grammys, number one hits like “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” and an inimitable sound, critics tend to neglect the 5th’s enormous musical contribution. “I think the critics sometimes overlook us because we didn’t fit any mold,” observes McCoo. “When the 5th Dimension started, they used to call us ‘the black group with the white sound.’”
Davis adds that, because of that assessment, the group gave themselves the name “champagne soul.” Still, McCoo feels that today’s music scene has come “way beyond” that pigeonholing: “We have all kinds of artists now, and their color doesn’t matter. It depends, instead, upon the sound that they make, and whether or not people like it.”
On that front the 5th were undeniable trailblazers, breaking many of those myopic cultural barriers.
“It was loads and loads of fun to make records with them,” says Bones Howe, who produced most of the 5th’s albums. “Generally, you find an individual who steps out as lead singer,” he points out, “but with Marilyn and Billy, we had two who were radically different in style.”
Throughout their successful run, the original group was blessed with material from some of the best writers emerging in the 1960s, among them Webb, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach. The 5th was also fortunate enough to record when many of these writers were at the peak of their game. “We think about that all the time,” admits Davis. “It was just a beautiful time for us.”
McCoo and Davis hold a special place in their hearts for Webb who – in addition to their first major hit, “Up, Up and Away” – gave the 5th what many consider a classic piece of contemporary music, the inventive concept album The Magic Garden. Far ahead of its time, the album’s sometimes surreal songs trace the anatomy of a blossoming and then unraveling relationship, with Webb arranging for full orchestra set to rock rhythms.
“He’s such a great lyricist,” observes Davis, “especially in the way he’s able to tell a story in three minutes. His lyrics were so deep that I would have to talk to him about the story – about what he was experiencing – just to interpret each song.”
That blend of Davis’s dramatic voice and Webb’s deep lyrics was a match made in musical heaven. “Billy’s voice and Jimmy’s soul – they just combined so beautifully,” observes McCoo.
The duo sees an intersection between the “natural cry” in both Davis’s voice and Webb’s lyrics that contributed to the undeniable power of the group’s renderings of the composer’s intricate musical palette. McCoo calls it a “perfect marriage.” As a prime example, she points to Davis’s impassioned lead on the haunting ballad “Requiem: 820 Latham” from The Magic Garden.
In Laura Nyro, the group found another musical soul mate, her colorful music a rare hybrid of pop, soul, gospel and vaudeville. The 5th soared, both artistically and commercially, with “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Blowin’ Away” and “Save the Country.” Those melodies have become cultural milestones.
On the extended canvas of their albums, the 5th explored Nyro’s more involved numbers – like the imagery-laden and polyphonic “Black Patch.” With its movement from layered choral singing to shared leads, “Black Patch” represents the height of the group’s vocal artistry.
“That song never got the attention that we thought it should,” admits McCoo, whose own emotive leads also gave the world two of the rock era’s most memorable ballads, “One Less Bell to Answer” and “If I Could Reach You.” One of the most underrated singers in the business, McCoo is a sublime interpreter of popular music.
As time progressed so did the group, moving at times into a jazzier mode with songs like “Sky and Sea” and Nilsson’s seductive “Open Your Window.” “At that time Playboy used to have a poll for the best jazz musicians,” recalls McCoo. “For four years in a row we were picked as the top vocal group—and that was by other musicians. That meant so much to us.”
In 1975, the 5th returned to Webb for the final outing by the original five members, Earthbound. But the magic was gone among the group’s five members. McCoo and Davis saw the writing on the wall and, at the end of 1975, left to pursue a career as a duo.
Their first single out of the gate was a winner: “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” topped the charts and earned the two a Grammy for Best R & B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. That led to three successful duet albums. In 1977, they had their own prime-time summer television series, and in the 1980s McCoo spent five years as the host of Solid Gold.
Davis also recorded Let Me Have a Dream, a religious album with gospel great James Cleveland, and McCoo released her own Grammy-nominated Christian album, The Me Nobody Knows. Both singers have performed in a number of stage musicals, including Dreamgirls and Showboat.
The original 5th Dimension reunited briefly in the early 1990s, and in 1991 they were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2003 McCoo and Davis reunited with Webb for a show at Feinstein’s in New York. The following year they released the book Up, Up and Away . . . How We Found Love, Faith and Lasting Marriage in the Entertainment World, chronicling the highs and lows of their marriage and career.
So, how have McCoo and Davis stayed together all these years? “We always say friendship,” responds McCoo. “When people get into a relationship, they fall in love before they fall in like.”
“And then they find out they don’t really like each other,” adds Davis.
“Unfortunately, I think that’s why a lot of relationships break up,” continues McCoo, “because when the first blush is off the rose, you start getting to know each other.”
“Eventually, the real you has to come out,” continues Davis, “that other side.”
“Check the person out a little before you fall in love,” suggests McCoo. “Spend a little time with them.”
And so it goes between the two singers – back and forth – finishing each other’s sentences and embellishing each other’s thoughts in a natural flow. That’s how two people make beautiful music together for four decades.
And still counting.
|#1 © 2008. Courtesy of The Brokaw Company. All rights reserved.|
|#2 © 2008. Courtesy of The Brokaw Company. All rights reserved.|
|#3 © 1968. Courtesy of Arista Records. All rights reserved.|
|#4 © 1972. Courtesy of Arista Records. All rights reserved|
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 22, 2008.