Up, Up, and Away
The 5th Dimension’s Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo; still happily married after 35 years.
Marilyn McCoo was a tall, classy, college-educated high-achieving daughter of two L.A. Doctors. Billy Davis Jr. was a shorter, street-wise, Midwest bred ex-serviceman who liked to party. They lived in the glare of celebrity; and when they were married, they had the number one song in the nation.
The 5th Dimension began life in Los Angeles in 1965 as the Versatiles. Lamonte McLemore, Ron Townson, and Billy Davis Jr. all grew up in St. Louis, and moved to Los Angeles independently of one another; each was trained in a different area - jazz, opera, gospel and R&B. Marilyn McCoo was the first female singer to join, and was soon joined by Florence LaRue. Both were beauty pageant winners who’d attended college in the L.A. area.
Budding young songwriter Jimmy Webb (Macarthur Park, By the Time I Get to Phoenix) supplied the 5th Dimension with their breakthrough hit, 1967’s Up, Up and Away. An ode to the pleasures of flying in a beautiful balloon, the song became the group’s first Top Ten hit, which went on to sweep the Grammy Awards, taking home five total, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Its success pushed the 5th Dimension‘s first album, also titled Up, Up and Away, to gold sales status.
The 5th Dimension‘s success peaked in 1969 when the group caught a Broadway production of Hair, and immediately decided to cut a medley of two songs from the show. Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In was a monster hit and grew to become one of the era’s defining pop records; it spent six weeks at number one, sold a whopping three million copies, and won the group its second Record of the Year Grammy. Their accompanying LP The Age of Aquarius went gold and nearly hit number one, and their Nyro-penned follow-up single, Wedding Bell Blues, followed its predecessor to number one as well. The song was something of a mirror of real life; Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo were married that year, and left the group to form a duo, scoring a big hit in 1976 with You Don’t Have to Be a Star. - Steve Huey, All Music Guide
Kansas City’s Bill Miller conducted the following interview with McCoo and Davis. Miller is host of the nationally syndicated Bill Miller Show, which is heard weekly in over 100 radio markets nationwide. Miller is also a contributing editor for 50 & Better magazine.
Miller: There’s a new book out called Up, Up, and Away, written by Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo. You two tell quite a story.
McCoo: It’s funny, Bill, that when you’re living your own story, you don’t think it’s of interest to anybody, but over they years as people learned we have been married over 35 years, many suggested we write a book about ourselves. And we wondered; what would we write about?
Davis: We though we should share with our readers how we pursued our careers and stayed together.
Miller: Let’s talk about your marriage. I know it hasn’t been all good times, and Billy’s health has been worrisome at times as well.
Davis: There have been situations that we have struggled with, including my alcoholism and my cancer. We stuck together. And with God, anything’s possible. Our book talks of the difficult times we went through.
McCoo: And when we were first married we fought a lot…constantly. People used to call us “the Bickersons”. We argued so much; people didn’t think our marriage would last. But we wanted to share with our fans and readers the struggles that we have come through because we see too much divorce today. Some people don’t understand what commitment in a marriage means. We don’t see enough happiness in marriage or in divorce. It seems people aren’t finding that one person that they want to spend their lives with. That tells us that divorce is not always the answer at all. Sometimes you have to work through your problems and when you get to the other side, you just might discover a great relationship.
Davis: Not only that; I think that through the years you learn how to build on a relationship. You go through things together, and when you get to the other side of difficult times, you both have a victory.
Miller: Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In from the musical Hair was a big hit for the 5th Dimension. How did you get acquainted with Hair and its producers?
Davis: We were performing in New York and I had lost my wallet. A few hours later I received a call from this guy “Ed” who found it in a taxi. He asked if I was some big star…sort of putting me on. When I went to his house to pick up the wallet, I gave him 2 tickets to see The 5th Dimension perform that night at the Royal Box in the Americana Hotel. After our performance Ed and his wife came backstage and invited us to their performance, which was the musical, Hair. He was Ed Gifford, one of the producers. That’s where we first heard Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In.
McCoo: We told our producer we wanted to record Aquarius. He said it had been tried by other groups and had gone nowhere; but he would think about it. What he came up with was the medley of two songs; thus our recording of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In which became a Number One hit for 6 straight weeks and won our second Grammy for Record Of The Year.
Miller: And after 35 years of marriage, fame, and fortune, all is well.
Davis: Many think the answer to happiness is fame and fortune. We encounter young people today, and when we ask them what they want to be, they say, “I want to be a star!”
They don’t say they want to be a singer or an actor. They want to be a star. So we ask, “What does that mean to you?”
“Oh, that means rides in limos, we make a lot of money, and we get to wear the baddest clothes.” When we ask how they see themselves accomplishing that, we receive blank stares. They have no idea.
I’ve often wondered why God had Marilyn and me sing Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In. Perhaps it’s because the song’s popularity continues to draw people to see us perform today. When we sing Aquarius in churches and outreach events, we tell audiences that Aquarius may be a song about hope and the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” but Jupiter aligning with Mars doesn’t give anywhere near the hope that Jesus Christ can.
Only the bright light of Jesus Christ will burn for eternity, and that’s whom Marilyn and I have put our trust in. We pray that you will too.
McCoo and Davis can be seen on the Today Show, Saturday, November 20th, and for 4 days in mid-to late November on the Jane Pauley Show. Check your listings. ED.