Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. celebrate 47 years of marriage in song
By Evan Henerson
He was an R&B singer from St. Louis with a background in gospel. She was an L.A. pop songstress.
When they first joined voices, Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo sang the blues. “Bobbie’s Blues” may have been destined for a B-side single, but the McCoo-Davis union would prove to be strictly A-list.
“The first time we started singing a duet together, we started blending and that feeling of oneness just happened,” recalls Davis. “When you sing with another person, you can tell whether you’re feeling it, and that’s what happened. We knew then — at least I did — that here’s somebody who can hear like I hear. We can blend and we can invent something that can be very special.”
The blending has endured for nearly half a century for Davis and McCoo, both as lead singers of the R&B supergroup the 5th Dimension and as life partners. The husband and wife of nearly 47 years perform their new work “Up, Up and Away: A Musical Fable” on Saturday in Burton Chace Park.
Conceived as a theatrical evening by producer Nick Mendoza and featuring a narrative and back-up musicians, “Up, Up and Away!” touches on biographical elements of McCoo and Davis’s lives both as members of the 5th Dimension and beyond.
5th Dimension devotees will hear plenty of hits, but the performers insist that their musical fable is not a band expose in the vein of “Jersey Boys.”
“It’s our love story, and it’s told through the music of our lives as well,” McCoo says. “Nick has been a fan of ours for many years, and he thought that the younger generation would have an interest in our music and our story. Billy and I wrote a book about our lives — ‘Up, Up and Away: How We Found Love, Faith and Lasting Marriage in the Entertainment World’ — and we started to look at all those elements together. That’s how it started really taking shape.”
“We talk about the other members of the group a little bit, but we don’t elaborate,” adds Davis. “Only as it pertains to the music.”
Their song catalog alone could fill an evening. Starting in the late 1960s, the lineup of McCoo, Davis, LaMonte McLemore, Florence LaRue and Ron Townson occupied a steady position on the Billboard charts with songs like “One Less Bell to Answer” “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes,” “Never My Love,” “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” and “Wedding Bell Blues.” The group’s cover of The Mamas & the Papas’ “Go Where You Wanna Go” and its medley of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the musical “Hair” scored big, and their 1967 hit “Up, Up and Away” took five Grammys.
McCoo and Davis married in 1969 and left the band in 1975. As a duo, they continued their run of hits with songs like “Your Love” and “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (to Be in My Show).” Davis recorded a gospel album, and McCoo scaled back her singing for five years while hosting the ‘80s TV music show “Solid Gold.” Both have crossed over into acting — Davis in regional productions of “Dreamgirls” and “Blues in the Night,” McCoo in a Broadway revival of “Showboat.”
In crafting the new performance, McCoo and Davis made sure to include all of the 5th Dimension hits that their fans would want to hear, but also some unexpected material. They incorporate a medley of songs from the Beatles, a tribute to a band which the 5th Dimension often encountered on the Billboard charts.
“We were coming up the charts at the same time that they were,” McCoo says. “Of course they had a few more hits than we did,” she adds with a laugh.
Both singers say they have worked out new arrangements for some of their hits to give them a more contemporary sound. “Up, Up and Away” also looks to provide a social context, touching on issues of their era such as the Vietnam War and civil unrest. They have performed “Up, Up and Away” sporadically over the past six months and say the piece is still a work in progress. They hope to eventually take it “up, up” to new heights.
“It is more of a theatrical piece, and of course a very special thing would be for it to end up on Broadway one day,” McCoo says. “That would be great.”
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. perform “Up, Up and Away” at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16, as part of the Marina del Rey Summer Concert Series in Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Free. Call (310) 305-9545 or visit beaches.lacounty.gov.