Three decades after recording their last studio album, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. find themselves back in the limelight.
The 5th Dimension, the popular vocal group that McCoo and Davis co-founded with Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore and RonTownson, is among the performers featured in the new film Summer of Soul that includes never-released concert footage from the long-ago Harlem Cultural Festival.
In addition to sharing recollections of the summer 1969 event with director Questlove in the critically acclaimed film, McCoo and Davis are busy working on an expanded version of their first album in 30 years, the April 2021 release Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons. The multiple Grammy-winning husband-and-wife duo are also among the 38 new Hollywood Walk of Fame honorees announced in June.
“Now, all of a sudden, we’re being noticed like we were years ago,” says Davis. “It’s a blessing.”
One of the Black acts that helped widen the doorway to pop crossover success in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the 5th Dimension first gained major notice with the 1967 breakthrough hit “Up, Up and Away.” The quintet’s shimmering harmonies propelled a subsequent string of singles up the charts, including “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “California Soul,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures),” “Wedding Bell Blues” and “One Less Bell to Answer.” Married in 1969, McCoo and Davis exited the group in 1975 and a year later scored a No. 1 R&B/pop hit with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show).”
In tandem with the social justice and equality movement that reached a boiling point last summer, McCoo and Davis weaved those themes into their latest project, Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons. Using the album’s title track as a catalyst, the duo recorded nine more John Lennon-Paul McCartney compositions threaded in the same vein, among them “Help!, The Long and Winding Road” and “The Fool on the Hill." Their cover of "Blackbird" has since been chosen by the Social Justice Learning Institute (sjli.org) as its “Summer of Equity” anthem.
BMG in association with EE1 (Encore Endeavor 1), owned by Kathy Ireland, released Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons. An expanded version featuring remixes, new mixes and new interpretations of the pair’s past hits is currently in the works. As John Loeffler, BMG exec vp legacy artists, notes, “The duo’s timeless and classic interpretations of their favorite Beatles songs clearly resonated with fans young and old. They remain as current and exciting as ever.”
Back home in Los Angeles after filming a guest stint in Georgia for the CW network holiday special The Waltons: Homecoming, McCoo and Davis chatted about their new Blackbird movement, not sounding Black enough early in their careers and opening doors of opportunity for people of color.
Billboard: When did you first begin shaping the concept for Blackbird?
Davis: It’s been in the works for three years. We were talking with Nic Mendoza, whom we call our “millennial producer.” [Laughs] He was chatting about his generation and wanted to know how we felt about what was going on in the world today. We’d been performing a medley of Beatles tunes in our shows, and one of those songs was “Blackbird” because of its meaning: a song about oppressed people and their struggles. Then it became the catalyst for us doing the album as we started searching out other Lennon-McCartney songs that fit our movement to help people and bring some healing.
Might The 5th Dimension’s 1970 song “Save the Country” be among the new interpretations being considered for the album’s expanded version?
McCoo: We haven't picked all of the songs yet, but that’s a great idea. It’s perfect for right now because nobody knows where we’re headed and what’s going on.. But overall, we’re very excited about the new ideas that are happening as a result of the direction we took with Blackbird. We’re sitting down now to brainstorm and start shaping our plans going forward.
You’re featured in Questlove’s directorial debut Summer of Soul. What was it like then being a group of Black singers criticized for not sounding Black enough?
McCoo: We all came from different musical backgrounds including pop, R&B, gospel and jazz. When put all together, it developed into a style that ended up becoming the “5th Dimension sound.” We started playing a lot of college dates where we first became popular. But one of the things that was hurtful at the time was when Black student unions and others writing for their college newspapers would say they were told that artists “more like us” would be performing at their colleges. But instead “you [the college] go and bring in the 5th Dimension.”
Davis: It hurt. We were Black … but they’d only heard our records and never seen what we really did in our show, which was totally different. However, after seeing the show, Black students started saying, “We’ve got to tell people what you guys are really about.” One of the other ways Black people discovered us was through television. We’re most proud of being among the first Black acts to appear on television then. We got so much feedback from fans who said they were just so proud to see us and have their children see us too.
McCoo: Because they weren't putting too many African Americans on television, we always had our stuff together every time we did a TV show. We knew what we were supposed to do. We went in there to show that we knew how to take care of business — just like they did. [Note: McCoo and Davis later became the first Black married couple to host a network television series, CBS’s The Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. Show in summer 1977. McCoo also co-hosted TV’s Solid Gold between 1981-84.] We felt like every time we did that, we were opening doors to more opportunities for our people. That’s also why we were so thrilled when we ended up performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. They were so excited to see us. And we loved it.
Were you aware the festival was being filmed and that the footage sat on a shelf for over 50 years?
Davis: All we knew is that we were participating in this festival and some filming was being done. But we didn't know what the filming was for. And God knows, we didn't know that it was tucked away for all those years until all of sudden we get a call from Questlove.
McCoo: What's so beautiful is that the timing is so perfect. Fifty years ago, the film might not have had the tremendous impact that it's having today. People are being blown away by all the iconic talent featured in the film.
What does receiving a second Hollywood star —in the live theatre/live performance category — mean at this point in your career?
McCoo: That had been our managers’ [Steve Rosenblum, Stephen Roseberry, Jon Carrasco of Sterling Winters Company] dream for us. We’d already received a star [in 1991 for recording as members of the 5th Dimension], which was beautiful and satisfying. Now we're going to be the first African-American couple to get our own star. But we didn’t get into this business for that. We got into it to sing. With the direction that the country's been going in and all the things that have been happening, we are thankful and proud because again we love opening doors for our people. Everyone needs to learn about who we are and what we stand for as a culture.