It was a pleasure and a thrill to interview the legendary Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. These two icons of song and stage have been living, loving and performing together for over 52 years. Their marriage is the stuff dreams are made of and it all began as a friendship that grew and blossomed into more.
As part of The Fifth Dimension they created immortal hits including “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Up, Up and Away” and a host of tunes that are still popular today. Young and old can remember and recite the words of each illustrious tune.
These dynamic and much beloved R&B vocalists have returned to the studio and their album, Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons, recorded in 2021, is their first in over three decades. It’s a brilliant recording of everlasting John Lennon and Paul McCartney songs. These two incredibly talented people have made a remarkable comeback. It’s an honor know them and to welcome Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. to Travelgirl.
TRAVELGIRL: I am so happy to welcome you aboard. You’ve had this incredible renaissance in the past year…a celebrated album, appearing in Questlove’s Oscar winning film Summer of Soul and a second honor on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. So let’s start from the beginning. Please talk about founding The Fifth Dimension. Where did the name originate? You began as the Versatiles but changed your name early on and became quite a phenomenon. You were instantly beloved and your hits are still sung today. You created iconic music together.
MARILYN MCCOO and BILLY DAVIS JR.: (Billy) I traveled to Los Angeles from St. Louis because I wanted to develop a recording career. I wanted to work with Motown and back then Motown was the only agency pushing black music to the top. I didn’t want to travel to Detroit because I knew there would be long, long lines of people with the same dreams so I went to California to try and succeed. I had grown up with LaMonte McLemore, who was out in LA, and I called LaMonte and asked if he knew of anyone at the Motown Office on the West Coast. I was fortunate; he did and he got me an appointment and an audition. I was put on a waitlist. In the meantime LaMonte and I were living together and we talked about starting a recording group as a hobby and that’s exactly what we did.
Marilyn: I knew LaMonte and had become part of the recording group. At that time Marc Gordon was running the Los Angeles Motown office and he was also a record producer. LaMonte approached Marc about our group. Marc agreed to hear us perform. He took us into his studio to record because he wanted the Motown people in Detroit to hear us. After Marc left Motown he reached out and said he would like to manage us because he believed in our talent. That’s how we started out and at the time we called ourselves the Versatiles.
TG: You were performing as the Versatiles. How did you become the Fifth Dimension?
Marilyn: Do you remember Johnny Rivers? Johnny’s success led him to found his own record company. He wanted to record some R & B because he loved R & B music. He contacted Marc Gordon, who was our manager at the time, and Marc introduced our group to Johnny. We ended up recording a song called “Go Where You Want to Go” and the decision was made to release our song as a single. Our name, at that time, was the Versatiles but Johnny Rivers thought our name was rather old-fashioned. He suggested we find something new. Everyone went home and started working on new names for our group. Ron Townson, the other male member of our group, along with his wife, came up with the name The Fifth Dimension; we thought the name was so cool. Johnny Rivers loved the name and, as they say, the rest is history.
TG: Your group, The Fifth Dimension, sold millions of albums, won six Grammys and had dozens of top ten hits. You were in constant demand to perform on a wealth of television shows. How did this fame change your lives?
Billy: We began to be recognized wherever we went.
Marilyn: When The Fifth Dimension was touring, we were traveling through airports and all of a sudden people knew who were were. They would stop us and ask for our autographs. We traveled constantly and barely had time to know which airport we were connecting through; we were so busy in those days. We starting signing autographs and realized people really knew who we were.
Billy: When we were heard our music on the radio it was a real thrill for us.
Marilyn: It was a great thrill accomplishing what we had dreamed of when we were growing up.
Billy: People we knew from our childhood, from high school and college, wanted to come and see us and we loved that. We were just thankful. Fame never changed us but it made us feel like we were accomplishing our dreams.
Marilyn: We were on the Ed Sullivan Show a number of times. Ed Sullivan was one of the people who introduced The Fifth Dimension to the world. He had us on his well-known show a number of times. We worked with so many talented and famous people including Sinatra who we worked with in Las Vegas. About that time CBS gave us our own television series. We were a summer replacement and we decided to make some of the story on our show about hanging out on the road. Jay Leno ended up playing the part of our road manager. Of course this was before Jay became “Jay Leno”!
Billy: Once we left the group we had the chance to work with stars like Sonny and Cher, Dolly Parton, Janet Jackson and Johnny Carson. After we left the group in 1975 the group continued to prosper and The Fifth Dimension is still prospering and working today.
TG: The hits just kept coming. “Let the Sunshine In”, “Stoned Soul Picnic, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Up Up and Away”, and, while continuing these great hits, you married in 1969. The Fifth Dimension slowed down and you went out on your own. You found unbelievable success. “You Don’t Have to be a Star” is an iconic song. You became the first African American couple to ever host a network variety TV show and you both became known as America’s First Couple of Pop & Soul. Please talk about heading out on your own.
Marilyn: We often talked about our lives and our group. We had enjoyed amazing success when we were with The Fifth Dimension but in the back of our hearts we were wondering what would happen if we went out on our own as the solo artists that we had hoped to be. Things started slowing down with the group. We started disagreeing on which direction we wanted the group to go in. It was then that Billy and I decided to go and see what would happen with our careers if we tried something new.
Billy: We decided that since we had struck out on our own we would try to make our songs totally different. When we were putting our show together we decided not to perform any Fifth Dimension music in our performances at all. We decided to have new shows. We were getting standing ovations but we learned early on that our fans wanted us to perform our Fifth Dimension music. We quickly learned that what we thought was a bright idea was really a terrible idea so we put the songs we were known for back in our show.
TG: You recently recorded the album Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons. It’s your first new album in three decades and it’s absolutely fabulous. It is a paean to Civil Rights as Human Rights. The album placed you back on the Billboard charts and the Number 1 position on several music charts including the R&B iTunes chart.
Billy: We had been including some Beatles melodies in our show for quite some time. We were already singing Blackbird. Our producer asked us about Blackbird, about that melody. We knew Paul McCartney had written this about civil and human rights and this was very important to us. Our producer Nic Mendoza, came up with the suggestion of doing the album. We realized young people want to know how we feel about what’s going on in our world today.
Marilyn: The young people today see what’s happening in our world and in our country and they are concerned. We were talking to Nic about this; about how we are also concerned with what’s happening with civil rights in our country right now. We talked more and more about this and we decided that this was the direction we could go in. We could sing about something that was important to us and something that also connected to the young people’s concerns today.
Billy: Without getting on a soap box preaching, it should be justice for all.
TG: What decision led you to record this incredible album? You had been away from the recording studio for so long and it’s amazing that you decided to record it during the pandemic. How was that experience?
Marilyn: It was interesting. We hadn’t been in the studio recording for quite some time so when we went back into the studio to do Blackbird we realized things had changed a bit.
Billy: The technical part of recording has changed dramatically. The way recordings are put together now is quite different from when we first began recording. Going back into the studio was just like riding a bike for us. It all came back instantly and we were very comfortable. It was just like old times.
Marilyn: It was amazing to us to see how knowledgeable the young people were and we immediately realized how much Nic knew. We were thrilled with the people Nic brought in to work with him in producing our music.
TG: Supermodel and super mogul Kathy Ireland is executive producer on this album, and also manages your career.
Marilyn: Kathy has been an amazing friend and wonderful addition to our career at this period in our lives. We are so thankful to have her by our side. It was Kathy’s belief in who we were and what we represent and in the fact that we still have something to offer to the music business that lit the spark. It was Kathy’s faith in what we stood for that really opened up the door and allowed us to go into the studio and make this project happen.
Billy: She’s a wonderful friend and a beautiful support for us. The team she put together has been amazing. These young people truly know what they are doing.
TG: What projects are you working on now and what is coming up next for you?
Billy: We have a couple of new recording projects upcoming with the label EE1. Our next album will be produced by Nic Mendoza who worked with us on the Blackbird project and we are excited about this. We have some covers on the way as well.
Marilyn: We’ve been elated with the response we’ve had on the Blackbird project. In the interviews we’ve done we’ve been amazed and impressed with the positive comments we’ve had. It’s wonderful to be back recording and the reviews amaze us.
TG: Your marriage is the stuff dreams are made of. You’ve been together married for over 52 years. The fact that you also have a career performing together all these years is incredibly impressive. Can you give our Travelgirl readers some advice on how to maintain a successful marriage?
Marilyn: Friendship; that’s how our union started out.
Billy: When we started out we constantly confided in one another even when we were going to rehearsals and when we went to parties. We would sit together and talk when everyone else was up dancing. We were getting into each other’s minds and hearts. Our friendship was so important to us.
Marilyn: We didn’t realize at that time, when we were going back and forth to rehearsals and sitting and talking to each other at parties, that this relationship was coming together. We just thought of each other as buddies. It was the strengthening of our friendship and the respect we had for each other that was coming together. If you want to have a strong marriage you need to have a strong friendship.
Billy: Once our hearts started changing. We did get a bit scared; we didn’t want to lose our friendship. We wondered, was this a good idea? Thank goodness it was meant to be.
Marilyn: The Lord was truly with us.
TG: Travelgirl readers would love to know if you have a favorite travel destination. Is there some place you love to visit and do you have a destination you haven’t traveled to yet that’s on your bucket list?
Billy: One of the great places that we traveled to recently was South Africa. It’s amazing, even as a kid I always wanted to walk on the land where the animals walk free and we got a chance to see that. It’s was just remarkable to be able to give the animals the respect they deserve.
Marilyn: South Africa was such an amazing the trip; the land, the people, the culture; each day was exciting. Getting to see that amazing statue of Mandela in Pretoria was incredible. Billy and I are trying to figure out where we want to go next. We haven’t been to South America yet.
TG: Is there one item you never leave home without when you are packing for a trip?
Billy: Yes, we make sure we have our Bibles with us.
Marilyn: We are strong Christians; our faith is very important to us. The Lord has blessed us and our careers in so many ways.
TG: Can you share some sage advice for those budding young hopefuls who hope to one day follow in your famous footsteps?
Marilyn: Absolutely. You have to believe in yourself. If there is something that’s really important to you and to your life then you have to go for it. We share this with the young people we work with all the time.
TG: You are very involved with the Los Angeles Team Mentoring, which guides middle school children to successful lives. LATM honored you with their Dream Big award for their civil rights and human rights advocacy. Can you please talk about this most worthwhile charity and how you became involved?
Billy: We have always been interested in helping children. From the United Negro College Fund to now; we always want to help children.
Marilyn: Young people have to be taught to believe in themselves. The Los Angeles Team Mentoring does this. We love the fact that they work with middle school age children. We feel like the middle school years are a very important time to be planting positive seeds in a child’s life. These mentors teach children to work hard and not give up and that’s so important in life.
Billy: The Los Angeles Team Mentoring includes three mentors, a teacher, a college student and someone from the business community. We love that these accomplished people really guide these kids and instill hope in them.