Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
Not So Silly Love Songs – Taking ‘Blackbird’ to New Heights
By Mark Mussari
Fifty years ago, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. did something they’d never done before.
As the de facto lead singers of the legendary 5th Dimension, the couple covered Paul McCartney’s “Every Night” on the group’s Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes album – and sang the lead as a duet. That proved auspicious, as the by-then married singers would eventually leave the 5th and strike out as a successful, Grammy-winning duo.
Now, half a century later, the duo has released an entire album of songs by the Beatles: Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons. McCoo is 77 and Davis is 82 – but the two singers seem to be gifted with bionic voices that belie their ages.
“We’ve been blessed to be able to hold onto our voices this long,” says Davis.
The singers chalk that up to a decision early in their career to take care of their instruments. “When we came together – when the group first formed – and we started talking about our passions for our lives,” muses McCoo, “we started realizing if this is really what you want to do, you’ve got to take care of it.”
During their time with the group, McCoo and Davis recorded an R&B cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” for the Magic Garden album, and they used to sing “All You Need Is Love” as part of a warm-up medley. They resurrect “Ticket to Ride” in a bluesy new arrangement on Blackbird.
“We were still doing Beatles songs in our live show,” explains Davis, “and people were really loving it.” A discussion of McCartney’s “Blackbird” with their producer Nic Mendoza led to the decision to record an entire album of Beatles’ songs (including “And I Love Her,” “Yesterday,” and “The Long and Winding Road”).
“Blackbird” reaches new heights in McCoo’s soaring reading, with a gospel arrangement by Darrell Alston and Jason Fabus. Hearing her vocal is a reminder that the singer has a three-octave range. “I was thrilled and blown away by what we came up with,” admits McCoo.
McCartney had written the song as a tribute to those struggling with the civil rights movement in the US. “In many ways it was a civil rights anthem,” adds McCoo. “It speaks the problem.”
McCoo’s plaintive vocal, infused with yearning, and the anthemic arrangement return the song to McCartney’s original intent. The album’s cover – featuring the names of victims of racial brutality – provides its own plea for societal change.
“With everything that’s been going on in the past few years, ‘Blackbird’ just seemed to lend itself to the vision that’s trying to happen in our society,” comments Davis, alluding to the Black Lives Matter movement. He observes that they chose the song “to make a statement. Those things happened to us too when we were younger.”
Ironically, as members of the 5th Dimension, the couple were contemporaries of the Beatles, both groups climbing up the charts in the late 1960s. That carried into the 1970s, when McCartney and Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” actually replaced McCoo and Davis’s “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” at the top of the charts in 1976.
In their cover of “Silly Love Songs,” which Davis takes lead on, the rhythm is brought forward as Davis offers up a muscular cover of McCartney’s defensive response to those critics – including former bandmate John Lennon – who felt he was writing light, inconsequential love songs. “Paul knew that they were needed,” says Davis. “For Marilyn and me, most of the songs we sing are love songs.”
Despite the 5th Dimension’s image as clean-cut, “mod” singers with enlightened pop sensibilities, McCoo and Davis have faced their own share of racism and unrest.
“People think that when you’re famous, you are removed from those situations,” notes McCoo. “Unfortunately, it is not so. We all have our stories to tell.”
While singing in Chicago during the tumultuous Democratic National Convention of 1968, the group had to leave the auditorium where they were performing because of a stink bomb. “We had been invited to perform, and it was a wonderful honor,” says McCoo.
“When we went outside,” adds Davis, “all hell had broken loose. There was a riot going on. People were being beaten with clubs. We wanted to get out of there fast, because we didn’t know what else could happen.”
“Here we are all these years later,” laments McCoo, “and these things are still happening.”
Even at their own homes, the duo encountered some of the ugliest forms of racism. At their house in Encino, someone burned a cross on their lawn. Later one evening, returning to a different home in Beverly Hills, the couple were carrying some belongings into the house when the police showed up.
“They actually pulled a gun on us,” Davis recalls. “They thought we were robbing the place.”
“People don’t want to believe that these things still happen in our country,” says McCoo. “They want to think better of people – but in thinking better of people in one respect, then you have to be thinking lesser of people in another.”
Another recent project has brought the duo back into the spotlight. The world is familiar with the Summer of Love in 1967 and the Woodstock festival in 1969 – but it’s about to discover the Summer of Soul (held three months before Woodstock in 1969).
The Summer of Soul was a multi-act concert, spread across several weekends, and held in Harlem. The 5th Dimension performed, along with such heavyweights as Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, and the Staples Singers.
Musician and director Questlove (Ahmir Kahlib Thompson) unearthed concert footage of the event, hidden in the can for five decades, and created an award-winning documentary: Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). It captured both the US Documentary’s Competition Grand Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“We remember that concert so well,” says McCoo. “We were excited about finally getting a chance to do some of our music for an audience that we knew didn’t often get a chance to see what we did – because a lot of people couldn’t afford the tickets. We were going to perform for a predominantly African-American audience, which we didn’t often didn’t do. The audiences were enthralled.”
The duo was shocked to see the huge number of people who showed up. “Thousands and thousands of people came out,” remembers Davis. In fact, some 300,000 people attended the concerts.
“We were thrilled to see Questlove had collected those incredible performance moments of so many major stars. And we were so honored when he asked to interview us,” explains McCoo. “It was an exciting time for us, and we were getting a chance to perform in Harlem.”
Today, despite the unrest that has gripped the nation, the two singers maintain some semblance of hope. “We would really love to see us, as a country, getting along and coming together and wanting to work together,” says McCoo. “Here we are fifty-three years later—we have to get it together. As the Bible says, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”
“You can’t stop what’s going on,” Davis contends. “I still believe the best is yet to come, because we’ve got so much to learn from one another.”
Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons drops April 30 of this year. Both “Silly Love Songs” and “Blackbird” are available now for download.
Mark Mussari is a freelance writer and translator living in Tucson, Arizona.
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 1, 2021.
Photos #1 & 2 ©2021 Darren Stone. Courtesy of Jon Carrasco. All rights reserved.
Photo #3 ©2021. Courtesy of Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. All rights reserved.
Photo #4 ©2021. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.