CD REVIEW: “Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. LIVE”

The Many Faces of “Live:” 
McCoo & Davis at the Top of their Show
by Robert-Allan Arno
     First, let’s not mistake this review’s pun-in-the-title (“The Many Faces of ‘Live'”) for the recent treatise our two romantic stars issued a few years back, “The Many Faces of Love;” that outing was a recording studio wonder, featuring the great Pop/Soul love songs as a testament to 40-plus years of marriage.  This latest double-volume ambitious effort from Marilyn & Billy’s own label is so breathtakingly “live,” it’s like seeing the two on Broadway, yet in an intimate cabaret setting, that’s how these pros make it happen, juxtaposing sensibilities all over their “nicer place.”  Yep, the mega hits they made as former lead singers of Grammy legends, The 5th Dimension like “Up-Up and Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” are all here and have an authentic patina that simply shimmers…we still wait for McCoo’s gossamer highs at the conclusions of both “that balloon ride” and the “Bill, I love you so” jaunty saga, and man (girl), the lady delivers!  Later, their all-time biggest, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” rivals the original in execution which is a feat in and of itself, as that medley from “Hair” was the year’s top number one in ’69!  These lovebirds never rest on their craftily blended laurels, their notes are dexterously bright yet tastily seasoned, their selections are often unexpected as the festivities unfold.
     Billy Davis, Jr., one of music’s greatest Soul singers, is the king of effortlessness.  And he knows how to tell a story.  Ever the engaging showman, he quotes a Bible verse from Ephesians before further tugging at the heartstrings with his bluesy interpretation of the classic, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.”  Marilyn McCoo, whose eternal beauty seemingly reflects the incandescent soul of her silky voice, does something uncanny here.  She’s found a tune from a recent Clint Eastwood movie that’s “pure Marilyn,” it seamlessly fits as an extension of her body of solos that are her fans’ cherished gems. There’s a soupcon of “Never My Love,” “If I Could Reach You,” “Open Your Window,” and more, in her spectacularly delicate yet empowered treatment of the jazzy ballad, “Why Should I Care.”  Yes, La McCoo should sing every theme song of every movie out there, I just bet you’ll be thinking!
     In their charming patter, Marilyn and Billy state, “The old songs let us do the new songs.  (We all tend to say) they don’t make ’em like they used to…but then along comes a song…”  And so we get a haunting medley of a fan fave from MarBill’s first duet album (35 years ago!), the pensively languid “Easy Way Out,” melded with a current chart topper by Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now.”  Later the duo digs into Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.”  A touch of Country on the former, neo-Soul on the latter, they’re emoted with such deep finesse, you can see and hear how this pair could be hit makers themselves in any decade.  Further addictive romps like the Earth, Wind and Fire version of “Gotta Get You Into My Life” prove why McCoo, Davis and their 5th cohorts influenced not only EWF, but an entire musical generation.  The generous duo is never afraid to give homage back.  They salute the late Nick Ashford with a Funk-ily ingenious revision of a 5th Dimension Top 20, Ashford & Simpson’s “California Soul,” that sounds more like it’s from a Marvin & Tammi album than The 5th’s.  Much fun ensues, too when Billy gets all good-natured raucous on “Steppin’ In,” the twosome also brings the Disco-tinged goods to their Grammy winning duet signature, “You Don’t Have to Be A Star (To Be in My Show).”  Then Marilyn stops everything with the quintessential torch that is the jewel in her crown, “One Less Bell to Answer.”  And this ain’t your Mama’s “Bell,” this is all “new year,” the culmination of show biz perfect meets life experience gut-wrench.  Billy in turn, goes from poignant to “true grit” in the finale, “Lean on Me”/”Love Train” while Marilyn, the gifted back-up vocalists and the audience hop aboard with joy.
     Co-Producers Davis and Laythan Armor make sure “Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. Live” packs such a soul-thrilling “picnic” of delights, you’ll want to listen again, and again…then go see them perform in 2014…then go home and listen again!  With a special nod to Music Director Darrell Alston and stand-out guitarist Major Black amid a stellar band, the project is a testimony to artistic integrity, creative verve and enduring love.  It just doesn’t get any better from Marilyn & Billy, two icons who clearly adore one another, their work and the continued opportunity to bring such diverse magic to their equally diverse, dedicated fans.
“Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. LIVE” is available now at:
(Review by Robert-Allan Arno for FOREVER 5th DIMENSION, copyright 2014, The Soul of the Voice, Ltd.)
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