With a remarkable new album dedicated to the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the 5th Dimension power couple share new meanings in the music
By some standards, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.’s new album, Blackbird: Lennon and McCartney Icons, could be considered a comeback.
And given the fact that it consists of covers by its namesakes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it might also be viewed as a tribute effort, one with a potential for wide appear. Indeed, it’s been more than 40 years since the pair, who originally came to fame with the hit-making quintet the 5th Dimension, found themselves in a recording studio and singing songs made famous by others. Never mind the fact that from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s, the group scored an enviable string of hit records — “Up, Up and Away,” “One Less Bell To Answer,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” and “Go Where You Wanna Go,”chief among them — winning a spate of Grammys and introducing the world to such soon-to-be marveled songwriters as Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell and Laura Nyro in the process.
McCoo and Davis, who had married during their tenure with the group, left the 5th Dimension in 1975 and quickly found themselves with a pair of hits in the aftermath — “Your Love” and the songs that topped the Billboard, Record World and Cashbox pop charts at number one, “You Don’t Have to Be a Star.” Their summer replacement series, The Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. Show marked a first all on its own, a national network program hosted by a married African American couple.
VIDEO: The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Show
The pair have been absent from the charts of late, but they’ve hardly been dallying. Prior to the pandemic, they were still performing consistently in L.A., Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Florida, places where they maintain a fervent following. The show, titled “Up, Up, and Away. A Musical Fable,” recalls many of the songs they make famous as well as other venerable covers, including some of the Beatles music revisited on the new album.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but yes, we’ve definitely been out there to perform, and, doing our thing,” McCoo mentions. “It’s, it’s good to get out. We are performers, so we like getting out and jumping up and down on stage..and making people jump up and down and making them happy. There’s a lot of love that transfers between us. When people walk away and go home, they leave that show feeling so good, and we feel good when we do it. So it goes both ways, you know?”
The pair said it was that their idea about sharing feelings and emotions that prompted the making of the new album. They allowed their interpretations of these iconic songs to provide a connection to current circumstance, making the material especially meaningful when it came to emphasizing the abject emotions.
“Billy did such an incredible version on the song ‘Help,’” McCoo continues. “Every time every time I hear it, I cry, because it’s just such a cry out for pleading with someone to help you, and help you in your life and help you in the areas where you need help. We’re all going through all of the this with what we’ve been going through with the pandemic. So many people are crying out for help and sharing how they need to be carried through this extremely difficult period that we’ve been experiencing for the past year. And when you hear Billy sing ‘Help,’ it’s just so moving and so touching.”
“We’ve been dealing with things we’ve never dealt with before, so this album was really about taking people’s minds somewhere else,” Davis adds. “We’re social creatures, and we like being together and hanging out and hugging. And that’s what we want to do as humans. So when you get something like a pandemic, where you have to quarantine yourself, you don’t want to be inside. You want to go out. A lot of people are dealing with anxiety, and so this is a crazy time. It’s terrible what’s happened, but we’ll get through this.”
AUDIO: The Beatles “Blackbird”
“Blackbird,” a song McCartney wrote that was said to be at least partially inspired by the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls, naturally resonates as well. It’s a song that McCoo continues to sing in concert and she says the song shares a special meaning for her every time she performs it.
‘Blackbird’ has a really powerful message about what’s going on in our country right now, what’s going on in the world right now,” she suggests. “We really need to know how to come together and support one another, and connect and relate to one another, and realize that we are all human beings experiencing pain, experiencing struggles. I love ‘Blackbird’ because it was such an anthem, back in the 60s.”
“It is amazing that we haven’t gotten past this, and it doesn’t look like we have,” David notes. “It’s something else that we’ll get through. It’s an ongoing struggle that we’ve had in our country, and we just have to face it, and deal with it.”
Ironically, that discord and disruption was something the pair experienced first hand when the 5th Dimension were invited to perform at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, an event which became a police inspired riot when the authorities reacted violently to the youthful protestors that had gathered outside.
“We were supposed to perform for that night in one of the auditoriums in the hall where the convention was held,” McCoo recalls. “But someone threw a stink bomb earlier the middle of the day, so the authorities cleared out the whole place. When we got outside, we saw how massive the protest had become, and that was a major riot going on. Kids were getting beaten. We had never seen anything like it, and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We just tried to catch up with our car so we could get out of there.”
“A lot of the young people that were being beaten were our age,” Davis remembers. “These were our people. And so a very heavy experience to witness.”
Needless to say, the performance was cancelled.
Just as remarkably, McCoo and Davis have survived another challenge that’s more commonplace these days — the ability to remain together both personally and professionally. They deserve ample credit for the fact that their marriage is now in its 52nd year.
McCoo explains that the bond began with their mutual commitment to the music and got it start early on when the 5th Dimension first formed.
“Before he joined the 5th Dimension, Billy had worked with people who had been only half serious about making the music, not serious,” she tells Rock & Roll Globe. “And when when Billy and Lamonte McLemore, who had originally sung together in a group called the Versailles, started talking about putting together another group, they came and talked to me about it, but I said, I don’t think I want to do that anymore. I’d been there and had done that. I was in a group with Lamont and a couple of other people, and we toured out on the road with Ray Charles. It was a three month tour, and it was so exciting working with Ray and witnessing his genius. It was amazing, But the other members of the group weren’t as committed as we were.
“So I said, I don’t think I want to do that anymore. Because music was really important to me. And so I said, ‘I don’t want to waste my time anymore with people who aren’t really committed to this. So then, when they started talking about forming this new group, I told Billy that I didn’t think I wanted to go that route again. But Billy said, ‘Well, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve been through that before myself. And and I’m not really ready to waste my time either.’ So we started connecting just as friends. And then we ended up with Florence La Rue who I had performed with in our group the Hi-Fi’s. And then Lamont brought Ronald Townson in. So we started rehearsing in the evenings and it became clear that we never had a problem with coming together to rehearse. We saw that we all had a commitment to this thing. And the more we shared things about our lives, the more we found that we had a lot in common. Billy and I went from becoming buddies to falling in love. I can’t tell you how that happened. But I do know one thing, I really loved Billy’s heart. And that touched me a lot. Billy and I got married in 1969.”
VIDEO: 5th Dimension “Wedding Bell Blues”
In a way, the duo’s new album follows a tack they’ve been able to take ever since the beginning when the 5th Dimension shone the spotlight on Jimmy Webb, Laura Nyro and Glen Campbell. And while it may seem auspicious to tackle songs that are so well known, they clearly put their own mark on the material and give it new life.
“We’re not major songwriters,” Davis admits. “Everybody knows that. But we are known as great interpreters. So we really have to search for songs. They’ve got a lot of good meaning, so we can dig our teeth into it and really do something special with it.”
“I think that’s been a major blessing in our lives,” McCoo concludes. “It’s been because all of the elements that were brought together to help make our careers happen. We always thank God for the blessings that He’s brought to us in our lives. We can’t take credit for it ourselves.”