Many of us grew up with sweaty basement parties where the whiff of suede jackets blended with Woolworth’s perfumes and the funk of soulful tunes; we rocked and swayed to Aretha’s beat, got down with James Brown, and wrenched our bodies out of shape doing the African Twist.
But then it happened, the 5th Dimension came along and cooled us off, dousing us with the gentler rhythms of champagne soul. There was something very different about their music, an all American wholesomeness that somehow didn’t fit the funky basement image. They were also extremely prolific, delivering hit upon hit.
From the late Sixties to the beginning of the Seventies — Up, Up and Away; Stone Soul Picnic; Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In; and Never My Love — the 5th Dimension’s albums and singles bubbled to the top of the charts, one after the other, and five faces beaming with success became familiar images on our television screen.
It was up, up and all the way, or so it seemed, but all good things must come to an end — and so did the 5th Dimension. However success breeds success, and so it was that the 5th Dimension bred the inimitable Marilyn & Billy. When the charismatic team Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., recently hit the Big Apple, I dropped in at their Waldorf Towers suite.
ROUTES: Let’s start with your new album, Marilyn & Billy. It opens with a disco tune, then modulates into something else — why such a mixture?
Marilyn: We’re excited about it because we feel that, musically, this is a better indication of the direction we want to go in than our last two albums. I see them as being the product of our shedding our last ten years of 5th Dimension music … we’re evolving as we move away … and into what Marilyn and Billy are really about. And I think this album is a better example of direction we would like to go in now.
ROUTES: On the inside jacket you say, There’s so much good music around that one shouldn’t limit oneself to one kind … . Wouldn’t the public gravitate to you more quickly, if you had a single sound that was unique to you rather than a variety of styles?
Billy: Not really. Like Marilyn says, we are going in a different direction … . A lot of people have told me that they think this is probably the best album we’ve done … this sound is something we want to do. It’s where Marilyn and Billy are in ’79.
ROUTES: What about the pressure in the industry to go disco? With that being the hot sound, do you feel that your approach is still valid?
Billy: Yes. With disco being so popular nowadays, we want everyone to know that we do disco tunes. I’ve Got the Words You’ve Got the Music is very disco, but we also want our fans to know us for singing songs like, It Took A Little Time to Fall in Love … something that is sung back and forth — a love song, because we are singers!
ROUTES: So good vocals are important for today’s music?
Billy: Definitely. That’s what we’re into. Since we can do any kind of music, we don’t want to type-cast ourselves as just one type of artist. Singing just R ‘n’ R would be very frustrating when you know you can sing a ballad.
Marilyn: Yes, we have taken a hard route. And we realize it’s not easy for the public to grasp [when it comes to style].
ROUTES: Natalie Cole is a performer with more than one style. She wasn’t as easy to grasp as Aretha Franklin or Roberta Flack and now she’s been dubbed the unpredictable Natalie Cole.
Marilyn: And that’s nice. Even though you want to come out with recordings that reflect the times and the market demands, you have to be true to yourself.
ROUTES: Your creative self?
Marilyn: Exactly. You cannot go at it from the stand point of wanting to sell two or three million albums. You can’t just say this is not music I enjoy and I’m not particularly proud of the project, but its gonna sell three million albums. I’d love to sell three million copies! But I will not compromise in order to do it, not to that extent.
Billy: People who do things like that are not really dedicated to the art; they want to make some money and then — once they’ve made it, once they’ve taken from the industry — they don’t want to put anything back into the business. Once you take something from the post you’ve got to put something back so we can keep the pot here for a long time.
Marilyn: Take Barry White. His talent lies more in the fact that he knows where the market is than in his singing. And his productions always hit the market [she snaps her fingers]. He’s no great singer, his talent lies in the production and an understanding of the commercial aspects of the business. That’s great for him. It wouldn’t work for us.
ROUTES: You’ve had a string of successes when you were with the 5th Dimension. Did you ever wrestle with the fear of failure?
Billy: Of course. We wrestle with that all the time.
Marilyn: You see, in between the hits we had records that didn’t happen … After Up, Up, and Away, we didn’t have another hit record until Stoned Soul Picnic, a year to a year and a half later. We had Paper Cup that came out — and it was a bomb. Then Carpet Man, that bombed, too. We began to wonder if we were just going to be a one-hit act. Then we found Stoned Soul Picnic. That happened for us, then Sweet Blindness was a big hit, then a couple more bombs, but Aquarius hit big. As the 5th Dimension, we didn’t just crank out hit after hit. There were the bombs in between.
ROUTES: You sound very matter-of-fact about the 5th Dimension . Was breaking away difficult?
Billy: Yessss. Emotionally it was very difficult. We understand the business but leaving people you’ve lived with for ten years, longer… I knew the guys before the group even started. We all grew up together… But as for our creativity… we knew we wanted to grow, to progress as artists. We never felt bad about that part. It was something we had to do.
ROUTES: Did they see your move as antagonistic to their success as a group?
Billy : I’m sure they did.
Marilyn: Yes. Let’s back up a little bit. The year before we made the decision to leave the group … that realization became more apparent. It was scary for me. I was not satisfied with the direction the group was going musically. I kept feeling we could and should do more. We needed a new direction.
My original thinking about the group was that we would be together for years, that we were gonna grow old together. We use to laugh about going out on to the stage like this [She adopts a screechy voice and mimics a very old singer] … we’d be out there singing, Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon … [Billy chimes in and we all have to laugh].
We would always talk about that, so breaking away was something I never really thought about. I always thought somebody else would leave the group before I would, but that last year I kept experiencing the frustrations about the music. I was becoming very difficult to live with, I was constantly bitching and pushing and that whole bit. That must have been difficult for everyone … . It was time to grow.
Billy: … everything has a height. And then after that, that’s it. You know you’ve got to take what you’ve got and take it somewhere else, or it becomes stagnant.
ROUTES: How did you finally make the break?
Marilyn: We were trying to do it in a way that would have the least negative impact on the rest of the members. We had been together for so long. Oh gosh, on two or three separate occasions before telling the group … Billy and I would be in the hotel room. I would just lie there and shiver. I’d start crying and Billy would say, ‘‘Well Baby, if you don’t think you’re ready, stay longer. But I have to go.”
When I realized I still had a choice — we hadn’t told the group yet — I’d feel better. I’d think about it for ten minutes and I’d realize there wasn’t any turning back. When we did tell them, oh God, it was rough, really rough.
ROUTES: They knew what was coming?
Marilyn: They should have.
Billy: When we called the meeting they certainly knew. When you live with people for ten years, you know. It’s a long time … it’s time to move on.
Marilyn: If anyone claims they didn’t know … that really makes me wonder how much attention was ever paid to what was going on with me. If they were that insensitive to my vibes then there’s something wrong.
Billy: That’s true of any relationship — husbands, wives, groups, people living together; if you’re not really into each other, somebody in there is bullshitting … because everybody is supposed to feel each other’s vibes in that unit.
ROUTES: Moving forward to Billy and Marilyn, you’ve been very successful as a team, even in Japan … .
Billy: The way they received us was beautiful! They knew the group. The reception in Japan was fantastic. Probably because we had just won the Tokyo Music Festival Award. It’s a very big event over there. To the Japanese, we were the winners — so we were the greatest.
Marilyn: They were ready to receive us with open arms, Also, we sang in Japanese. They didn’t want us to sing in English. It was funny when we recorded You Don’t Have to be A Star [she sings in Japanese]. They released it in Japanese, but the English version was the big seller.
ROUTES: And at home?
Billy: I’m getting respect from people at home. Guys around my age call me Mr. Davis. I mean that blows my mind! It’s hard for me to get use to that because, to me, I’m just Billy.
People put stars on a plateau of some kind, but we’re just two people out there walking down the streets trying to have some fun like everybody else. Marilyn and I are just two regular people. Many of our friends are not performers, some performers have tremendous egos that are hard to get through.
Marilyn: It’s the pretense. But we do have a lot of friends in this industry.
Billy: I have a little saying: I make money — you understand — money does not make me!
Marilyn: He’s the eternal optimist. He pulls me out when I’m in one of my depressing moods [she laughs].
Billy: Marilyn’s a trip!
ROUTES: What else helps keep it all together?
Marilyn: Having a strong supportive husband is very important. Billy is strong for me … sometimes when we release a record that doesn’t happen, I’ll get depressed if I thought it should have had a shot. [She’s amused by her own melancholy.] When I can’t get feedback, that’s depressing, and then I start thinking that we’re just banging our heads against a brick wall, that nobody’s really into us — I really go through all those trips, reach a low point and then say to hell with this. I fight back. Billy helps to level me off, and meditation helps me a lot. I like practicing TM (Transcendental Meditation). It helps me to remain objective, to let things happen the way they will and not lose faith in myself.
ROUTES: Are you religious?
Marilyn: I would say that I’m a religious person. I believe in the existence of a supreme being. I also believe in the Golden Rule.
ROUTES: Billy, how do you maintain continuity in yourself when it gets tough?
Billy: Well I, … [Marilyn interrupts with laughter].
Marilyn: I keep you up because you realize you can’t get depressed with someone like me around — who gets as low as I get!
Billy: [still laughing] That’s automatic. Somebody’s got to keep this show together, and I know that somebody is me!
Everybody goes through those feelings, you take it as far as it can go. When things don’t happen they just don’t and that means what it means — it’s just not going to happen. As you look for something else. Hey, we have no guarantee that everything we try in life has got to happen. If you hope for that you’re nuts!
ROUTES: A continuation of the kind of thing you did while in the service in Germany?
Billy: No, I had a band in the service. I played a lot of little clubs all over Germany … a very interesting time in my life.
Now I’m working with Cheryl Barnes, Gene McClain and Jimmy Castor, or a project Marilyn and I are working on will become my focus. I switch into work. That helps me get past the bad feelings. It gives me time to think about our situation. I look for answers to questions like: which way the market’s going? Why something didn’t happen for us? You know, a manager has to keep up with everything that’s going on.
ROUTES: How successful can a black production company be? Can it compete?
Billy: Yes. You’ve got everything out there to work with, you just have to know the business. Just don’t go out there and have cards printed up and pay some rent somewhere so you can say you’re a production company. You’d better know what a production is all about. You can’t shortstop. Now, I can look back and see where the 5th should have made more money. If you’re not careful you can end up getting beat. You have got to take time out to learn about the business side of the entertainment field. You don’t have to be Einstein, you just have to be concerned about your operation. There are a lot of obstacles for black people, but we can get around them. If you’re intelligent enough to get around it, and when you do, you can turn around and look at it — let them wonder how you got past it.
ROUTES: Marilyn you indicated before that you’d like to have more freedom. Has being successful increased or limited your freedom?
Marilyn: It’s taken away freedom, freedom to move about. The more recognized you are the more you get stopped — your privacy is infringed upon. But we understand it. People must realize that when they see us we may be rushing to work or only had three hours sleep the night before.
A woman once became so excited when she saw us that she hauled off and slapped Billy in his back.
Billy: I mean it…h-u-u-r-t!
Marilyn: Also, the limitation may be brought about by my own thinking, but I really don’t feel totally free to say the things I feel. People are interested in Marilyn and Billy the entertainers, not Marilyn the politician or woman with a few causes.
ROUTES: This point of view is so different from your image as one of the 5th, a group once described as being so white?
Marilyn: We shouldn’t attribute everything good or correct to people who are white.
Marilyn: You know, I didn’t grow up in a Baptist church. I don’t have that spiritualist background that gives you that sound that’s so successful in the R & B market. When I sing, I’m being true to my feelings and experiences. So for someone to tell me that I’m not black enough — it’s ridiculous!
Billy: Yeah. What else can we be [he looks at his arms and laughs]. We are what we are. It’s such a problem. I’ve been fighting that one for so long.
Marilyn: Why must we attribute ignorance and all the negatives to blacks. We have got to break our own damn chains before we can have others respect us. The only way we can do it is to respect the gamut of our experiences, styles and looks. I didn’t have a lot of soul food in my house and I feel that that’s a loss to me — it’s a gap in my experience, we all have gaps. We fill them in as we get older. I’m not gonna apologize for the gaps because I had nothing to do with them. My parents raised me the way they thought best. I’m not apologizing for them either.
Billy: That is really my pet peeve — the way our people prejudge each other … this happens whenever people do not get into people.
ROUTES: Do you two ever fight?
Billy: You know life’s not interesting without a fight! Oh, we really get down! Nobody comes around us when we’re fighting. They don’t believe we’re the same two people, who were doing all that love singing out there!
ROUTES: Have you matured as a woman while in this business?
Marilyn: I don’t know how much of it has to do with being a performer and how much is just growing up. I was a very naive person when the 5th Dimension first started.
In the past three years, since Billy and I have been on our own, I’ve really learned a lot about people and dealings. For example, I figured that accessibility to the people we had known would change, especially if Billy and I didn’t become an important force in the record business, that people might stop accepting our calls. And guess what, less than two weeks after we left the group, people weren’t receiving our calls. It happened just like that [she really snaps her fingers this time]. It blew my mind!
ROUTES: I guess that’s show biz.
Marilyn: Yes, I began to realize that a lot of people didn’t really care. [Her expression darkens]. Billy’s taught me a lot. He’s been out there knocking around, he’s been trying to educate me for a long time.
ROUTES: Then came your first hit, You Don’t Have to be A Star.
Billy: Yeah. Then the phones started ringing like mad. [He’s so expressive we all have to laugh.] That’s the way society is. Being too naive is not good. You’ve got to get out there and find out what it’s all about. It’s a form of education — you’ve got to have it!
ROUTES: Billy, have you grown in this business?
Billy: I’ve come a long way. I’ve always been involved in music. That’s been my love. I grow through my music. In high school, I was playing an old raggedy clarinet. I still haven’t learned to play it but I do play the tenor sax. And I’ve started to teach myself the guitar. That’s me.