On Sunday, May 15, I got the chance to see Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. perform a show in St. Charles, Illinois at the Arcada Theater. Let’s just say the former 5th Dimension leaders and ’70s duo did not disappoint.
If it was already hard to believe that their début hit with the 5th Dimension – the sunshiny Grammy-juggernaut “Up, Up and Away,” with its imagery of hot air ballooning during the psychedelic late 1960s – is nearly 50 years old, it became even more difficult to fathom after seeing this great duo perform it Sunday.
McCoo and Davis, Jr. performed that song alongside many of their other big hits with a new line-up of singers (The Next Dimension) as part of their spectacular two-hour performance at the small venue. The Arcada theater made it an intimate affair and perfectly suitable for this couple who’ve been married since July 1969 and have performed together ever since before the first tapes for “Up, Up and Away” were laid down in the spring of 1966.
In pure Broadway style, the couple walked us through their storied narrative from their beginnings as part of the group named the Versatiles (spelling intentional) to 5D and later their days as a duo, then solo stars – he as a gospel music singer, she as host of the 1980s TV series, “Solid Gold.” Davis even joined his wife in singing the theme song for that popular music countdown show as she recalled how the show introduced her to a whole new generation of music lovers and he admiringly recalled those Solid Gold Dancers – several times in joking fashion.
It was immediately clear that we need not worry about such a thing causing strife in the Davis/McCoo household. In fact, it’s likely a surprise to no one that this amazing show business couple has withstood the test of time, both in their marriage and in their talents. They clearly enjoy what they do (plus they’re still damn good at it), and that was never more evident than in the banter that the two shared as they narrated their personal and professional histories. Davis, now 77 years old, recalled his days as a soul and gospel singer, both before and after 5D, including his recording with the Reverend James Cleveland.
And McCoo, 72, recalled her childhood and how she always tried to emulate such torch-song singers as Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Judy Garland.
In recalling her post-5D solo career, McCoo spoke of her role as “Julie” in the ’90s musical “Show Boat,” the story of a black singer passing as a white one in order to sing as part of a performance company. She recalled how one of her idols, Horne, was ironically passed over for the role in a movie version to – of all people – Ava Gardner, who as McCoo accurately recalled, was neither black nor a singer. She then paid tribute to Horne by singing the show’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
The irony of McCoo playing the role of Julie didn’t escape me, as she was always considered to be more of a pop star than an R&B one during her heyday – although she and 5D (and her husband) had several R&B hits during that time. The fact remained, however, that they had more hits on the Hot 100 than they did on the Billboard R&B chart. Even the duo’s biggest R&B hit, “You Don’t Have to Be a Star,” found a way to top the pop charts – a full two months after it had already done so in R&B.
On a couple of occasions, the duo reminded us of their ’60s and ’70s pop music prowess, first by recalling the great songwriters whose material they successfully recorded over the years, including Laura Nyro, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and many others.
Then Davis even went as far as to mention that they’d battled the Beatles on the pop charts and had “our share of #1s and uh…” Marilyn finishes the sentence that Davis apparently couldn’t, “Grammys? Is that what you were trying to remember?” as the audience laughed. “What’s your name?” McCoo then mockingly asked her husband as the audience affectionately cheered. This crowd – itself featuring an average age of about sixty-something – appropriately gave deference to a man who’s been in the game as long as Davis and who has the right to forget a few “minor” details here and there.
That the 5th Dimension battled the Beatles for Number Ones was surprisingly not an incorrect statement, even if a little misleading to the unenlightened. I researched 5D’s two big #1 singles, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (from the musical ‘Hair’) and “Wedding Bell Blues” (written by the late Nyro and often thought of as McCoo’s “marriage proposal” to Billy – they were married the same year it was a hit). I found that both songs were indeed displaced from #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by Beatles records in 1969 (“Get Back” dispatching “Aquarius” in May, and “Come Together”/”Something” disposing of “Wedding Bell Blues” in November).
Given McCoo & Davis’ great performances of the afternoon and their lovable personalities, we could forgive the other omitted detail – the footnote that the Beatles also had 18 other Hot 100 #1s, while the 5th Dimension’s chart-toppers were limited to those two in ’69.
It didn’t matter, because McCoo and Davis were certainly not there to diminish the Beatles’ contributions to popular music, in fact, the pair paid a great tribute to the Fab Four, beginning with a medley of their tunes about three-fourths of the way through the show. It ironically began with “Get Back” – the song that ended the #1 run of “Wedding Bell Blues,” followed by “Ob La Di, Ob La Da,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Yesterday,” “Let It Be,” and “Hey Jude.”
The largely white crowd of mostly septuagenarians fondly showed their appreciation of the gesture.
In introducing the next Beatles song, “Black Bird,” McCoo recalled how Lennon and McCartney (specifically McCartney in this case) were so good at complex songwriting, it took decades for many people to figure out what they were talking about. Then she launched into a great rendering of the ever-beautiful song, while key images of civil rights-era struggles ran on the video screen behind her. It was a reminder that, before anything else (and despite their overtly pop audience appeal), McCoo and her husband were African-Americans, and the struggle of their people affected them personally.
This poignant theme continued as “Black Bird” segued into “The Declaration (of Independence)” a song the 5th Dimension recorded in 1969 on their Portrait album as somewhat of a protest of Nixon-era policies and the Vietnam War. I recall owning the 45 of that song, which was backed with the medley of “A Change is Gonna Come”/”People Got To Be Free,” both of which followed “The Declaration” in this show’s performance as images of modern-era race-relations staples (Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and others) scrolled in the background.
There were several other stellar moments during the show, including three that garnered standing ovations (aside from the closer, which I’ll get to in a minute).
Marilyn received a standing O for her performance of the 1971 5th Dimension single, “Never My Love,” a remake of the classic by the rock band Association.
Davis, Jr. received an ovation for his epic performance of “MacArthur Park” – the classic hit by both Richard Harris (’68) and Donna Summer (’78).
But the most rousing performance was reserved for what Marilyn termed as her “torch song.” In introducing it, she recalled that childhood dream of hers – to have her very own torch song – and she thanked God and her husband for allowing her to never have to live out the song’s lyrics. Then she belted out “One Less Bell To Answer,” at times holding notes in soprano voice for what seemed like forever as if her life and marriage depended on it.
And about that closer, well, you knew they couldn’t leave the building without performing their biggest hit with the 5th Dimension, the six-week #1 single, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which they did in rousing encore fashion. The whole audience danced and sang along, seemingly forgetting which decade they were in (and what their average ages were).
Then the Davises exited – along with their background singers and band mates – and we were left not wanting to leave the venue, hoping for another encore of 5th Dimension songs, like “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes,” “Puppet Man” or “Last Night (I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All)” – none of which we heard this day, well…at least not until we returned to our cars and put on our own playlists.
And not before we were reminded of just how great this American treasure of McCoo and Davis, Jr. really are. They are great representations of longevity in both their over five-decade careers and their nearly five-decade marriage, and virtually all in attendance were glad for having witnessed them “working on their groovy thing” at least one more time.
P.s., other notable songs they performed included: “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “In The Midnight Hour (Wilson Pickett),” “The Man that Got Away” (Garland), “Go Where You Wanna Go” (Mamas & the Papas, 5th Dimension), “You Don’t Have to Be a Star,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “I’m Just A Lucky So-and-So” (Ella Fitzgerald), “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (in the style of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell), “Reunited” (Peaches & Herb) and “The Way We Were.”
To hear a playlist of 5th Dimension and Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. classics, click here for a DJRob playlist on Spotify.