When Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. walked out on stage at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre, the audience was in awe of how great both of them looked. There were in even greater awe how they sounded nearly 50 years after first hitting the charts as members of The 5th Dimension. One audience member said of McCoo, “I can’t believe she’s my mother’s age.” Another audience member said of Davis, “Look at him move.”
McCoo, 72, is the very personification of elegance and has scarcely aged since the early 1980s when she hosted Solid Gold. Her voice is every bit as beautiful and puts to shame many of today’s contemporary female performers who rely on Auto Tune. Davis, who turns 78 later this month, is fitter than a fiddle and his voice has lost none of its power. What is all the more remarkable is that this was nearly a two-hour show and they were moving around with the energy of a couple half their age. When I watched them I thought of comedian Mario Joyner’s riff that it really isn’t a compliment when you say that someone looks good for their age. With this in mind, let me say that both McCoo and Davis look good. Period. Together, they are a duo like no other. Next month, they will have been married for 47 years. Many a couple, be they in Hollywood or Hoosierville, could take a page from their book.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the former 5th Dimension alumni together in concert. In May 2008, I took my Dad to see them at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. Situated off Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, the Art Deco style hotel is a place where one can easily get lost. Dad found this out first-hand when he couldn’t find his way back to the lounge from the Men’s Room. He went through a door and there stood none other than Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. and they would engage in conversation for several minutes. Dad did tell him that he came at my insistence. Still, I bought the tickets and he got to meet them. Nevertheless, it was like they were singing in a very fancy living room as we weren’t more than 10 feet from them. What struck Dad the most was the love with which they looked at each other after all those years of marriage.
That love had not changed one iota when they appeared at the Wilbur. As in 2008, their set was a medley of their lives beginning with the story of the 5th Dimension, their marriage, their decision to leave the 5th Dimension in 1975, their later decision to work solo careers before deciding they didn’t want to appear on different stages at the same time.
However, there were some significant differences. As with many acts of this vintage, the show began with a video retrospective of their career. What jumped out at me was seeing Frank Sinatra joining the 5th Dimension dressed in a Nehru jacket singing Laura Nyro’s “Sweet Blindness.” That was from a special called Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing, which aired on NBC in November 1968. It marked Blue Eyes’ first serious attempt to connect with the ’60s generation.
But the most significant difference was the addition of three voices to truly make for a 5th Dimension experience. McCoo said how much she and Davis missed having those additional harmonies. So they added three voices — one male and two female — to make for the Next Dimension. It certainly made songs like “Up, Up & Away” and “Go Where You Wanna Go” have a richer sound.
Both McCoo and Davis would have an opportunity to spotlight their own vocal talents. McCoo paid tribute to Lena Horne with her rendition of “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” (as she was passed over for the film version of Show Boat in favor of Ava Gardner even though Gardner couldn’t sing). Before singing the song, McCoo said that her love for torch songs began as a child, but that her mother would ask her, “What does an 11-year old know about “The Man Who Got Away’?” McCoo also sang a powerful rendition of the Association’s “Never My Love.” Meanwhile, Davis sounded exactly like Wilson Pickett when he sang “In the Midnight Hour” and showed off his gospel chops with “This Little Light of Mine” (a song he sang regularly when he collaborated with the gospel legend, the Reverend James Cleveland).
It amazes me how certain songs can get an audience to sing along. I have experienced this twice within the past few months with Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” at two very different tributes to Nyro. Not surprisingly, it happened again with McCoo and Davis who had their first million seller with that song. McCoo and Davis also sang three other Nyro songs — “Sweet Blindness,” “Save The Country,” and “Wedding Bell Blues” complete with Davis humorously playing hard to get with McCoo. They would also shine with Ashford & Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (made famous by Marvin Gaye, Jr. & Tami Terrell) and their own signature duet song “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show).”
McCoo and Davis began the second half of the show by paying tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White who passed away in February. They did so with “Got To Get You Into My Life.” Although it’s a Beatles song, Earth, Wind & Fire would have a hit with it from the soundtrack of the otherwise disastrous 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This began an extended Beatles tribute which consisted of “Get Back,” “Obla-Di, Obla-Da,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude” and concluded with a somber version of “Blackbird” with pictures of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that claimed the lives of four African-American girls. “Blackbird” would then segue into “The Declaration.”
The most ambitious song ever recorded by the 5th Dimension, “The Declaration” was a three-part suite consisting of the singing of most of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and concluded with the Rascals’ “People Gotta Be Free.” The most powerful portion of the “The Declaration” is Davis’s vocals on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which I contend is the definitive version of this now integral piece of the American songbook. Yes, Billy Davis, Jr.’s interpretation tops that of Sam Cooke himself. In fact, after Davis finished singing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” he received a lengthy standing ovation which delayed the start of “People Gotta Be Free.”
McCoo would get a rapturous standing ovation of her own after she sang “One Less Bell to Answer.” This was followed by a cover of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” which included a photographic retrospective of their lives ranging from pictures from childhood to pictures of McCoo and Davis with President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush at his inaugural as well as Pope John Paul II.
It looked like that would be the end, but as they walked off the stage, Davis turned around and said, “Wait! Stop! We forgot something!” That something would, of course, be “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the Broadway musical Hair which proved to be the 5th Dimension’s biggest hit.
This was one of those shows I truly wished had gone on longer. Now that they have five part harmony again, I would have to love have heard “Carpet Man” by Jimmy Webb (who also wrote “Up, Up & Away”). I would have also delighted in hearing McCoo sing “Love’s Lines, Angles & Rhymes,” which is a truly precious song.
But what might be even more satisfying would be if they got to perform again in front of a larger audience. Next year’s Grammy Awards come to mind. The video montage showed McCoo and Davis singing the Song of the Year nominees at the 1977 Grammys, which ranged from Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” to the Starland Vocal Band’s insidious “Afternoon Delight” along with Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs.” It would be great to see McCoo and Davis do the same at the 2017 Grammys even if they would likely have to sing to the likes of Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, and Justin Bieber. McCoo and Davis would add a touch of class to the proceedings while introducing themselves to a new generation of listeners. Who knows? They could end up trending on Twitter. In which case, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. could enter a whole new dimension.
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