Upon their 46th wedding anniversary on July 26, and this Blog’s 7th anniversary, Marilyn and Billy called me for some unique talk that might just tell you some things you don’t know about them! We laughed a lot, shed a tear or two, and philosophized about an array of subjects the fans requested to know about including some rare tunes…and it’s all from their hearts to yours. We started, chatting about an unusual photo-find, so have a cup of coffee or tea, sassafras perhaps, and join us for this super-sized edition!
Marilyn & Billy: Singing in the Light
A Forever 5th Dimension Exclusive Interview
by Robert-Allan Arno
Robert: “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” 1970.
Both: That was it!
Marilyn: And so many interesting asides happened with that project, and one of them was we were supposed to shoot it in one day, on a Saturday, and that evening we went to dinner to celebrate that we were finished…we were gonna fly home the next day. So we went to a lovely steakhouse and I decided to have some Chateaubriand…which I don’t often order. And LaMonte (McLemore) decided he wanted some…and back then, if you wanted Chateaubriand, two people had to order it, so Mac and I ordered it…and we both wound up with food poisoning! I woke up at 4 or 5 in the morning, sick as a dog. Then about 7 AM the phone rang, and our manager called to say some of the footage we shot the day before had been scratched.
Billy: And it was so cold! (laughs)
Marilyn: But baby, that was the boat to get to the bridge, this call was to go back in-studio. I remember it clearly because I walked in and smelled those donuts–which I usually love–but I was still so sick, all I could deal with was water.
Marilyn: And when LaMonte came in, we had found out he’d been sick, too…
Robert: You know, I’ve seen everything you’ve ever done since your first Peter Max special, but that’s the one thing I missed…so you’ve now filled it in more than I could have ever imagined!
Billy: And the song we were singing was “If I Had a Hammer.”
Robert: Ah, that’s nice to know. That’s something we’re reminiscing about from back in 1970, but here in 2015, just the other day, one of the hosts of CBS’s “The Talk,” Sheryl Underwood cited you two as a longstanding married couple. She noted your “roots” with The 5th Dimension and called your signature duet, “You Don’t Have to be a Star,” quote the bomb.
Robert: I mean the audience was cheering! How did you feel when you found out about that?
Marilyn: We were delighted…
Billy: All of a sudden to be mentioned on a top show like that…it’s like, wow, they didn’t forget us!
Marilyn: And Robert, we thank you for making us aware or we wouldn’t have even known…we did watch the footage you sent over.
Robert: I was sitting here with my mouth agape at Sheryl’s nod to you…yet, isn’t my life always “six degrees of 5th Dimension!”
Billy: Robert, you come up with more stuff than anybody!
Marilyn: Oh, and while we’re at it, I wanted to mention it was such a wonderful thing you put together with the fans for Billy’s birthday…about the tunes they’d love him to sing.
Billy: I thought it was fantastic, I thought, “Yeah, I could do that!”
Robert: I asked fans what pop, soul, blues, gospel or American standard classics would you like Billy to re-envision live or should a new recording come up. Some of the suggestions were “That’s Life” by Sinatra from Andy…
Robert: “Fields of Gold” by Sting from Loretta, “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong from Alain…
Both: Good one!
Robert: Do you like when people do that…I mean you’re telling me you essentially do…but could it be a bit invasive…
Both: No, no!!
Billy: We like that, because we like all types of music!
Marilyn: When we were working on THE MANY FACES OF LOVE , we were talking to the project’s producer, Scott Smith, in the planning, who thought Billy should sing “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and Billy could not hear himself singing that song.
Marilyn: I mean it’s such a natural, isn’t it Robert? Well Scott and I had to talk Billy into singing that song, I said, “Baby, it’s your voice, it fits you, it’s perfect.” I finally just said to my husband, “Why don’t you just say I don’t hear myself doing it, but Marilyn who knows my voice so well hears me doing it…let me see what I can do with it!” And Billy’s been doing it in our live show since we recorded the project, and people love it, it’s one of the biggest responses we get. I’m saying all this to say, I think it’s really important we hear ideas from other people, because sometimes we miss it…
Billy: It’s like what we were talking about pre-interview, Robert (about taking direction as actors). We can’t monitor ourselves as much as we try; somebody else can see things we can do, better than we can.
Robert: That’s amazingly open-minded, which leads to a question. What is your process for finding new material, do you tend to take notes along the way, when you run into songs you’d like to do, or do you have huge brainstorming sessions with your musicians.
Billy: All of the above. We might hear something on the radio or a song someone’s doing live, and say “That’s a great song to attempt” and jot it down…
Marilyn: And then we have to find our bits and pieces of paper…
Marilyn: And our manager Jason Winters hears things for us to do, his ideas are so creative. Over the years, we’ve learned to listen to his rationale and go away and think about it, really chew on it, because we respect his artistic sense…we give it time.
Billy: Something we gave much thought to for our 40th anniversary, was making our self-produced album, THE MANY FACES OF LOVE, a concept album. We decided we were going to talk about the different phases…well, “faces” of love from the beginning, to marriage, to many years later. What would a person say when you first meet–“You are so Beautiful”–it’s overwhelming; as you continue to go into this relationship she becomes your “Shining Star”; and then you have a conflict and say “Just Once (can we figure out what we’ve been doing wrong.)” Hopefully “We Can Work it Out,” and then you’re married 40 years and you ask “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” We were wondering if people would get the concept?
Robert: Well, first off you narrate it so eloquently, Billy. And yes, like PORTRAIT was considered The 5th Dimension’s seminal album, THE MANY FACES OF LOVE is considered “Marilyn and Billy’s” seminal project.
Both: Thank you.
Robert: And we get to celebrate with you here. What I’ve noticed–and this past year alone, I’ve had the blessing of seeing your Christmas show, your concert on Valentine’s Day in Vegas, and I recently enjoyed your “Soul Train” cruise broadcast on Sirius radio…Both: Oh yes!
Robert: …and what I noticed each time–and I had to pinch myself–is that as many times as I’ve seen you since say ’72, in concert, you always continue to surpass yourselves as artists…I really wanted to savor that. And I noticed a slightly different phase, or “face,” which is a point of ease, and grace, fun and effortlessness that comes from many years of artistic work and relational work…I hope I’m putting it where it can be understood, but it’s simply breathtaking to behold.Marilyn: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Billy: It’s the flow of the shows..it’s how we work off each other up there, it’s really who we are.
Marilyn: It comes from trust…and being relaxed…letting it flow and letting it show! I keep working on trying not to be the perfectionist that I talk about in our memoir…
Billy: (laughing) I think one of the greatest things we can do on stage, is to let each other be who we are…don’t try to edit yourself, that it’s all OK, and you fall right into it.Robert: Yes, people are responding to not only the evolution of your working together but to how individual you are…it’s fascinating!
Billy: We’re definitely different!
Robert: Well, other interviewers have observed you guys complete each other sentences, and that may sometimes be true, but what intrigues me is how you retain your distinct qualities. We see and hear two very unique souls and it’s so sentimental as it’s very reflective of your union. And isn’t harmony about different notes blending so well together?
Marilyn: Yes, that’s beautiful, Robert.
Billy: Well said.
Both: Different notes blending together! (laughs)Robert: This leads us into what we three tend to incorporate in each interview, I call it our “MarBill Master Class.” There are so many fans who are artists themselves, either established or coming up, and they express to me how you influence them, and they want to learn some secrets, some tips. I’ve loved Marilyn’s former mention of her early coach Eddie Beale, who reminded “a song is a story to tell,” and Billy’s spectacular motto, “What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.”
Robert: People are astounded by both of your vocal chops to this day…the timbre, the range, the pristine quality. Can you tell us what you do to maintain your “cords,” keep them in such amazing condition.
Billy: We don’t smoke or drink, we’re protective of what we do with our voices. We try to get the rest we need to produce once we get on stage.
Marilyn: And we always vocalize before we get on stage…think about dancers, there’s no way they can get out there without warming up their limbs, their muscles. And we feel the same way about singing. A lot of being able to continue to hit the notes that we go for is a blessing, it’s a gift and we’re very thankful. Sometimes on stage when I’m getting ready to go for a note and I’m not sure I’m going to make it, and I hit it, in my mind I’m saying “Thank you, Lord!” (laughs) Because as the years go by, you want to do the best you can at this stage.
Billy: Sometimes before I go on, if I have a little cold or may be a little hoarse, but I know I gotta go on, before I hit the stage I say, “Father, you got it!”
Marilyn: Through the years, you learn to sing around things. Someone may say, “I’ve never heard it quite like that before!” What they don’t know is we were trying to dodge a note! (laughs)
Robert: Have you ever thought of formally teaching a Master Class for singers.
Billy: We’ll talk to people about developing their singing but we haven’t thought about giving a class.
Marilyn: But a Master Class would be an interesting thing to do because you talk about approaching the challenges of a performance, and we should probably consider that. It’s just that we’ve worked with some of the most incredible teachers, vocal coaches like Seth Riggs. He came along at a time in my life when there were certain things I couldn’t do with my voice, and I figured that’s just the way it is. And he sent me a message that said if you come and take some classes with me, I can help you hit notes you never thought you could hit. I said, “I’ll do it!” And sure enough, he took me to new ranges and places I thought I could never go. When you work with people like that, they know so much, you leave it to the pros who spend all their time…
Robert: …teaching technique.
Marilyn: Yes, that’s why I’ve always been a little hesitant…
Billy: I was studying with a cantor, Nate Lamb, to get me to hit those lower notes…
Marilyn: like Lou Rawls!
Billy: Finally Nate said, “Haven’t you done well singing those high notes with The 5th Dimension, how much money have you made?” (laughs) It’s funny how people want to always do something else…instead of developing the instrument that you’ve got.
Marilyn: The gift that God gave you.
Robert: See, that’s the essence of your potential teaching, the tech people mentor that element well, but you guys would direct people to tap into their gift and unique authenticity… it’s very general in say, a beginning lecture, and then it becomes specific as you work with each person’s interpretive skills. I mean you’ve performed on the stages of the world, and when we talk like this, people learn so much, we get letters. And hey, I’d take your Master Class!
Marilyn: Thank you. Well, I have to say, you bring a lot of that out in us, Robert.
Robert: Well, now it’s time for the magic…the mystery….of rarities! In the past you’ve been so kind to talk about everything from “Open Your Window,” to “Leave a Little Room,” to “Sky and Sea,” to even that delicious-sounding Marilyn single still in the vaults, produced by Don Davis, “Time is a Restless Old Man.”
Robert: So today, we have some different goodies the fans wanted me to discuss, you ready?
Both: Go ahead!
Robert: Well, like your apex, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” it came from a Broadway show, “The Me Nobody Knows,” and it’s very, very pretty, and the fans just love it although it was never a big hit. It’s “Light Sings.” Any thoughts?Billy: No, it never became big but it was always an interesting one to me. With my makeup, you know I’m one to like peace, harmony and people living as one, and the theme, “light sings all over the world,” well, I was really happy to get that message out.
Marilyn: I really liked the song, I really liked the performance of it…in the context of the show. You know there was a build up to the verse, and then there was a little transition building up to the chorus, that was taken out of the version that we recorded, and I don’t know if that made a big difference or not. The first time we heard “Aquarius,” I mean that song hit everybody in the group…you know the story. Florence (LaRue) and I were sitting together in the audience of HAIR, and the guys were sitting together, because the show was so popular, we couldn’t get seats together. And we got together at intermission and said, “My God, we have to do that song!” Now our producer Bones (Howe) knew more about the history of the tune, that others had tried to record it and it didn’t become big, so he came up with the concept of combining it with “Let the Sunshine In,” which all together made it the tremendous hit that it was. So people want you to do that sort of thing again, but in most cases, lightning doesn’t strike twice. So it was always questionable whether “Light Sings” was going to be another “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”Billy: I never thought it was going to be, because I never thought it was as strong. But it said just what it was meant to say…
Marilyn: …within the body of the presentation. You know what Robert, you never know what’s gonna hit and what’s not gonna, and we liked the song and recording it, and of course you hope it will get some attention, and be another successful recording for you, but that just wasn’t it. We’re not saying Bones or Bob (vocal arranger, Alcivar) could have done something different, that it was missing something from the production. It was an amazing piece in the play, but standing on its own, there’s always that risk.
Robert: Now here’s another fan fave from a Broadway show, it wasn’t a single, but an album cut, it’s “Day by Day” from Godspell.
Both: Oh, yes, yes!
Billy: That was a good one, I enjoyed singing it, we did do it in our live shows a lot…I’m trying to remember where it was placed…
Robert: I think it was second to last…
Marilyn: Yes. Those live shows we did, we need to bring in another name, Rene DeKnight, who was so important to the success of our concert performances, and he taught us a lot about putting a show together. “Day by Day” was a song that had such an impact, again, when you talk about context. Where “Day by Day,” was placed in our live show, and Billy singing the Gospel ad-libs, it just worked in uplifting the audience, taking them to a place.
Robert: Yes, that segment, “Let the airwaves flow” goes down in “5th history” as magnificent…
Marilyn: Oh yes!
Billy: (sings:) “Flow-oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh!” And the opening and the closing of the album, that’s all Jimmy…it put The 5th Dimension in a whole new light.
Robert: Marilyn certainly has a plethora of industry admirers, including Jimmy, but Jimmy has gone on record in his book “Tunesmith” as declaring Billy to be one of our greatest Soul singers. Does working with that kind of admirer at the hub put you under a certain type of pressure to live up to the expectation, or do you have to put that out of your head?
Billy: To tell you the truth, I never had any pressure with Jimmy, he’d let me do what I needed to do…maybe he’d think I could re-do a line better.
Marilyn: (imitating Jimmy with a twang:) “Could you try that again, Billy!”
Billy: But my biggest pressure was on myself…to tell the story, to live it. To get the message out. What blew my mind about Jimmy is he hears all this stuff in his head…it’s beautiful to be around it, to be a part of it.
Robert: I’m always impressed with your basically wanting to tell the story, Billy. Certainly, Marilyn subscribes to that in her work, but you set an example for male singers. You remind us it’s not only about vocal chops, sense of rhythm, or finesse with a ballad…
Marilyn: ….but it’s the emotion, so when people hear him singing the song it carries over to their emotion. We’re talking about working with a producer who has such a high regard for your gift. I think what happens is you feel more freedom to explore and experiment. We always knew how Jimmy felt about Billy’s voice, and when you work with someone who thinks you have just the most amazing voice, you know they’re going to be supportive, and interested in where you’re taking it.
Billy: One of the songs on there that really touches me to this day, is “Speaking with my Heart.”
Marilyn and Robert: Oh, yes!
Billy: I mean, I’m coming off of, um…
Robert: “Lean on me Always,”
Billy: That’s right, where I’m nearly screaming, onto something sweet.
Robert: And you’re prophetic, talking about the shift from one song to another, because I was gonna note that the fans literally divide the album between the mellifluous tunes like “Speaking with my Heart,” “Moonlight Mile,” and Marilyn’s memorable “When Did I Lose Your Love,” versus the more edgy material like “Don’t Stop for Nothing,” “I Got a Feeling,” and “Lean on me Always.” I guess “Walk Your Feet in the Sunshine,” and “Magic in my Life” fall somewhere in between. But there’s something notably exhilarating about the polarity of that album.
Marilyn: Yes. I want to say some more about “Earthbound.” But it’s really hard for me to talk about it without being moved to tears, because I think it’s one of the most beautiful projects we did. And I think one of the reasons I get emotional about it is because it was the last one we did with the group. If only we had known…
Billy: We just didn’t…
Marilyn: If only we had known what…what was happening in that studio. There was so much other stuff going on that all of us were in the midst of, and we couldn’t see the forest from the trees. So I love that project, I think it was one of our best.
Billy: We hadn’t gotten into that project…
Marilyn:…until they just re-released it! We hadn’t even listened to it because there was so much pain associated with the other “stuff.” But when we listened and heard the artistry, the beauty of the work…
Billy: I call it true professionalism, because even though we were going through so many emotional changes, you couldn’t tell.
Robert: Artistically, the original five were at their peak.
Robert: And what a lesson your story carries for artists and anyone reading this, about trusting that there is that light to be found, that prevails at the end of the proverbial creative tunnel. There’s a subtext of forgiveness…
Billy: …it’s about love…
Marilyn: …yes, there’s a lesson there.
Robert: Well, since we’re sharing such unconditional sentiments, a song that makes me emotional just to think about–and it’s often on my mind because of its continued relevancy–was part of “The Independence Medley” from PORTRAIT. LaMonte and I got a bit weepy every time it came up while writing his memoir…
Marilyn: I know, it’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” It’s a song we do to this day in concert and gets a tremendous response…Billy’s interpretation is awesome. About the recording, around the time the PORTRAIT project was being mastered, interestingly enough the group was on the road, and I was off recovering from some minor surgery. And Bones called me into the office to hear the final mixed version of the entire project. And when he played “A Change is Gonna Come,” (tearfully:) I wept.
Robert: I always wait for it in your live shows, and if it’s not there one year…
Marilyn: …we bring it back!
Robert: But that recording–Billy’s pathos, the build with the flaring group back-ups, the sense of hope–everything about the past, the climate of the times it was recorded, and a look to the future is there…it’s a transcendent time capsule.
Both: (hushed:) Yes, yes.
Robert: I’m so glad we got it included on last year’s “Playlist: The Very Best of The 5th Dimension” CD, I was proud of that.
Billy: And going back to The Independence Medley, “The Declaration” started it off. So many people have come up to us, about how they used it. The kids learned to recite The Declaration of Independence through the music. We’ve had teacher after teacher report that to us through the years.
Robert: That medley of “The Declaration,” “A Change,” and “People Gotta be Free” is truly unforgettable.
Marilyn: So powerful.
Marilyn: Isn’t that weird, and I tend to remember almost everything we’ve done!
Robert: Yes you do…maybe that’s why I hammed up my description.
Robert: I’ll send it to you guys. It’s the final tune of the “Living Together, Growing Together” album.
Marilyn: Would you do that, Robert, oh I can’t believe I am drawing a blank! What a curve, we can always count on you to go deep!
Robert: I have a few more questions that came in from the fans. Like from Brian, about potential new recordings, did we already mention that people have requested a Blues CD from Billy.
Marilyn: I feel that he really needs to do that!
Robert: Yes, and others are requesting a Torch-driven CD from Marilyn. And Susan asks about the chance of an all-new “MarBill” Christmas CD.
Marilyn: We thought about Christmas…with “The Many Faces of Love,” for our 40th anniversary, and our recent “Live” (two volume) CD…
Billy: …they happened when the opportunities presented themselves…
Marilyn: surprisingly, we didn’t really plan them.
Robert: Wow, but then of course, you dug into the concepts…
Marilyn: they started to germinate. (laughs)
Billy: Yes, so, the same for any new recordings that might come up.
Robert: I bet that vibe goes for where you tour. I have fan requests from Miguel for Chicago, and from David for New York City.
Billy: We used to play New York a lot, lately we sing a lot in Florida…meaning yes, again it’s where the opportunity arises…but we love to perform for the fans.
Robert: With the 50th anniversary of The 5th Dimension coming up in October, well, you did the quintessential reunion tour of The Original 5th Dimension in the 90’s when Ronald (Townson) was still with us. Recently, people have enjoyed you two joining Florence and the current 5th Dimension on stage, it was last summer for a touch of “Let the Sunshine In.” Then LaMonte joined you two this past Valentine’s Day in Vegas for more “Sunshine.”Billy: LaMonte was really getting down onstage with Marilyn and me! (laughs)
Robert: John was wondering if there might be more like that in store.
Billy: We enjoy those moments, but once again, if the opportunity should happen. Florence does her thing with today’s group, of course Marilyn and I do ours as a duo. But we’ll go see each others shows, we go to dinner together. LaMonte and I grew up together. We are all still good friends.
Robert: That’s very heartwarming, the essence of The 5th Dimension means so much to so many. You’ve brought such joy and grace to our lives, Marilyn and Billy, and it is such a pleasure to honor your 46th wedding anniversary in this way, with our delightful yet meaningful confab. And I know we’ll do a salute to Marilyn’s solos for her upcoming birthday in the fall, with fan suggestions just like we recently did for Billy’s.
Billy: We’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, Robert, and none are like the ones we do with you. We fellowship all throughout, it’s spiritual in nature…
Robert: I’m very touched.
Billy: And they continue, they get better and better.
Robert: And thank you both for spending this time to also celebrate the seventh anniversary of FOREVER 5th DIMENSION. You gave me your blessing when I presented the blog’s concept to you, in your suite after your show at New York’s Cafe Carlyle…you even liked the title!
Marilyn: That’s right. And God bless you, Robert, for doing it.
Special thanks to the special fans for their input, and to Randall J. Jeffries, and Steve Rosenblum
Listen to “Day by Day” at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nV6Bt-_jreI
Listen to “Woyaya” at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0KYBoMX9Jw
Listen to “A Change is Gonna Come” at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqC1yENvEMY
“Like” the Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. (Official Fan Page) on Facebook for up-to-the-minute news, including concert appearances.
THE MANY FACES OF LOVE, Marilyn & Billy LIVE (2 Volume CD), EARTHBOUND (re-issue), The memoir, “Up-Up and Away.”