In a career spanning forty years, Marilyn McCoo has become one of the most successful female recording artists in American music. With super group The 5th Dimension, her husband Billy Davis Jr., and as a soloist, McCoo has earned seven gold albums, five gold singles, six Grammy awards, and a star on the Holly-wood Walk of Fame. Her own fame was cemented as a singer when she helped the hippie generation "Let the Sunshine In" and showed the world that "You Don't Have to Be a Star" to find lasting love.
Began Singing as a Child
Marilyn McCoo was born on September 30, 1943, in Jersey City, New Jersey. At the age of seven she moved with her family to Los Angeles. Her parents, Mary and Waymon McCoo, were both doctors who provided McCoo, her two sisters, and one brother with a solid middle-class upbringing. McCoo sang before she took her first step. Dance, piano, and voice classes followed and by the time she was a teenager McCoo was set on a career in entertainment. At 15 she entered Art Linkletter's Talent Scouts, a local Los Angeles talent show. Tall, with striking good looks, McCoo soon began modeling. Meanwhile, she graduated high school and enrolled in UCLA, where she earned a degree in business administration.
In 1962, McCoo entered the Miss Bronze California contest. After sweeping the talent competition she went on to earn the crown. At the event she met Lamonte McLemore, a photographer for Jet and a part-time vocalist. McLemore's photos of McCoo were featured in the magazine's column "Beauty of the Week." He also invited her to join his singing group, The Hi-Fi's. She accepted and began performing with them in Los Angeles clubs. Soul legend Ray Charles caught one of their gigs and invited The Hi-Fi's to join him on tour. Charles also produced the group's single "Lonesome Mood."
The Hi-Fi's disbanded in 1965 and that same year McCoo, McLemore, Florence LaRue, Ron Townson, and Billy Davis Jr. joined forces as The Versatiles. At first the group sang for fun. "We started out as friends, singing as a hobby," McCoo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In between gigs, McCoo worked for a department store and later as a job developer in Watts for a group called Economic Youth Opportunities. Davis, however, had brought to the group a connection with the recording industry, and a record deal was soon in the works.
Found Fame with The 5th Dimension
The Versatiles briefly signed with Bronco Records where future R&B icon Barry White was working as a music director. When that deal collapsed, they joined the Soul City label and changed their name to The 5th Dimension. With a crew of veteran session musicians, the five singers recorded their first hit in 1966, "Go Where You Wanna Go." They followed that release with the full-length album Up, Up, and Away. Catchy pop with an R&B attitude, the title track highlighted the group's vocal acrobatics and lodged itself at number seven on the charts. Another standout track was "Learn How to Fly," driven by McCoo's clear vocals.
Up, Up, and Away snagged The 5th Dimension four Grammy awards in 1967, including Best Pop Performance by a Group and Record of the Year. McCoo and company became stars. A follow-up album, The Magic Garden, also released in 1967, was tepidly received, but did nothing to hurt the band's popularity. 1968's Stoned Soul Garden, widely considered the group's best work, featured two chart-topping singles—the title track and "Sweet Blindness."
In 1969 The 5th Dimension hit the upper stratosphere of stardom with The Age of Aquarius. The album's first single, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," became a mega-hit, occupying the number one spot on the charts for six weeks and becoming the un-official anthem of the 1960s. It earned the group two more Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. A second song, "Wedding Bell Blues," also went to number one. In this gospel-tinged ballad, McCoo took center stage, infusing the lyrics with tender yearning when she crooned, "C'mon and marry me, Bi-ill." Fittingly, 5th Dimension co-singer Billy Davis Jr. did just that.
Partnered with Davis in Marriage and Music
McCoo and Davis had developed a strong friendship from the moment The 5th Dimension formed. "When we met, there was no immediate physical attraction because we weren't each other's physical type," McCoo told Jet. "So, Billy and I became friends." After four years of constant togetherness—performing, touring, rehearsing—the duo realized they were in love. "Our relationship was built on being around each other all the time," McCoo told Jet. They were married on July 26, 1969, setting off a 30-plus year partnership.
In 1970 The 5th Dimension released yet another chart-topping album, Portrait. It is home to one of McCoo's strongest performances, "One Less Bell to Answer," a steamy, torch song dripping in soul. The group released nearly a dozen more albums over the next five years, though they never again reached the success they had in 1969. McCoo recorded several powerful solos including "Loves Lines, Angles, and Rhymes" from the album of the same name, "(Last Night) I Didn't Get To Sleep at All" from Greatest Hits on Earth, and "If I Could Reach You" from Individually and Collectively. All three songs made it to the Billboard Top Ten.
By 1975 McCoo and Davis had decided to leave the group. "In the back of our minds, we still had that desire to see where our careers could go as individuals," McCoo told NPR radio host Tavis Smiley. "The 5th Dimension had a wonderful sound … and every sound has its run. And we had had our run. Well, Billy and I weren't ready to accept that, so we were saying, 'Let's do something different. Let's do something new." Recording as a duo, they released 1976's I Hope We Get To Love In Time featuring the single, "You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)." The song went straight to number one and earned the duo a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group.
At a Glance …
Career: The Fifth Dimension, singer, 1965-75; solo, and with Billy Davis Jr., singer, 1975-; actress, 1977-.
Memberships: Children's Miracle Network, board member; Los Angeles Mission, board member; Cancer Research Foundation, board member; Soldiers for the Second Coming, founder.
Awards: Miss Bronze California, 1962; Grammy Award, Record of the Year (with Billy Davis Jr.), "You Don't Have to Be a Star," 1977; earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (with The Fifth Dimension), 1991; Children's Miracle Network, Achievement Award, 2002; Grammy Hall of Fame, inductee (with The Fifth Dimension), "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," 2004.
Addresses: Management—The Sterling/Winters Company, 10900 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1550, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Web—www.mccoodavis.com.
Broke into Broadway and Books
McCoo moved into television in 1977, co-hosting The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. Show on CBS. The prime-time variety show featured comedy sketches by Jay Leno and Tim Reid and, of course, lots of singing. In the 1980s McCoo hosted Solid Gold, a music show that featured a count down of that week's top ten songs interpreted by the famous, spandex-clad Solid Gold dancers. McCoo also made guest appearances on The Love Boat and Night Court, and had a recurring spot on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. Onstage, McCoo began appearing in musicals—The Man of La Mancha, Anything Goes, and A … My Name is Alice—with the dream of appearing on Broadway. "I had hoped those shows would lead to a Broadway opportunity; but in any case, I felt that if I was serious about my dream, I needed experience," she told The Philadelphia Tribune. Her dream came true in 1996 when she landed the role of Julie in a Broadway production of Showboat.
As her acting career unfolded, her singing career steadily rolled along. She and Davis released The Two of Us and Marilyn and Billy. On her own, McCoo released Solid Gold in 1983 and The Me Nobody Knows in 1991. The latter was a contemporary gospel album that reflected McCoo's spiritual beliefs. Incorporating jazz, soul, and Caribbean beats, the album made the Christian music charts and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Gospel recording. She and Davis also maintained a busy schedule of touring and performing, particularly on the Gospel circuit. In 1990 they joined the original members of The 5th Dimension for a national reunion tour.
In 1999 McCoo and Davis took two musical productions on the road: The Duke Ellington Songbook Tour and It Takes Two. Of the latter, Davis told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "It's a love, unity, and togetherness kind of show. Songs were picked for two people, and it just kind of fell into place for us because of who we are and what we represent." McCoo and Davis further shared what they represented with the 2004 publication of Up, Up and Away: How We Found Love, Faith and Lasting Marriage in the Entertainment World. The book came with a CD of love songs including "I Believe in You and Me" and "Because You Love Me." Not only a testament to lasting marriage, the book was a testament to a lasting career. It came out as McCoo was entering her fourth decade as an entertainer. Like her marriage, her career showed no signs of stopping.
(With the 5th Dimension) Up, Up, and Away, Soul City, 1967.
(With the 5th Dimension) Stoned Soul Picnic, Soul City, 1967.
(With the 5th Dimension) The Age of Aquarius, Soul City, 1969.
(With the 5th Dimension) Portrait, Bell, 1970.
(With the 5th Dimension) Love's Lines, Angles, and Rhymes, Bell, 1971.
(With the 5th Dimension) Individually and Collectively, Bell, 1972.
(With the 5th Dimension) Greatest Hits on Earth, Arista, 1972.
(With Billy Davis Jr.), I Hope We Get to Love in Time, ABC Records, 1976.
(With Billy Davis Jr.), The Two of Us, ABC Records, 1977.
(With Billy Davis Jr.), Marilyn and Billy, Columbia, 1978.
Solid Gold, RCA, 1984.
The Me Nobody Knows, Warner Brothers, 1991.
(With Billy Davis Jr.), Spirituals: Songs of the Soul, Discovery House Music, 2004.
With Billy Davis Jr. and Mike Yorkey, Up, Up and Away: How We Found Love, Faith and Lasting Marriage in the Entertainment World, Northfield Press, 2004.
Showboat, Broadway, 1996.
The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Show, CBS, 1977.
Solid Gold, 1980s.
Jet, August 15, 1994; October 16, 1995; August 9, 1999; October 18, 2004.
St Louis Post-Dispatch, August 14, 1996; November 11, 1999.
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., www.mccoodavis.com/marilyn.htm (June 10, 2005).
The Original 5th Dimension, http://members.aol.com/laruemccoo/ (August 16, 2005).
Marilyn McCoo's warm alto has been best known as the lead voice of the phenomenally popular 1960s pop group the 5th Dimension. McCoo met her husband, Billy Davis Jr., when both were performing in that group, the pair went on to a successful career as a duo, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. McCoo was also a solo performer, appearing in several musical theater productions and hosting or co-hosting the Solid Gold television variety show for much of its run from 1980 to 1988.
McCoo was born on September 30, 1943, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her parents, both physicians, moved the family to Los Angeles when Marilyn was seven, and she grew up taking dance and music classes in the midst of the city's entertainment industry. She did modeling and entered talent shows as a teen. Although she enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles and earned a degree in business administration, she had her sights set on a career as a performer. She got her start in 1962 when she entered and won a beauty pageant called Miss Bronze California. Jet magazine photographer Lamont McLemoore shot a spread of McCoo photos for the magazine but also invited her to join his group, the Hi-Fi's. The group had some success performing in Los Angeles clubs and they toured with rhythm-and-blues superstar Ray Charles in 1965.
The Hi-Fi's disbanded that year and McLemoore began to discuss a new group with a friend, Billy Davis Jr. McCoo and another Miss Bronze California, Florence LaRue, were brought on board along with Ron Townson to form the Versatiles. At first McCoo had few expectations for the group beyond enjoyment; she was working as a retail clerk and had an activist job in the Watts neighborhood with a group called Economic Youth Opportunities. "I told LaMonte it'd be okay to form a group because I loved group singing," she told Jet.
The Versatiles were signed to the small Bronco label, where they worked under artists and repertoire executive Barry White. He was the first of a long series of influential creative figures with whom McCoo and the 5th Dimension had the good judgment to associate themselves. When they moved to the Soul City label they took the name the 5th Dimension, riding one of the early waves of psychedelic pop. Working with a group of top Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, they cracked Billboard's pop top 20 with a single, "Go Where You Wanna Go," early in 1967.
From there on it was "Up, Up and Away" for the group, to use the title of their first album and multiple Grammy Award-winning hit of 1967. McCoo's vocals were always prominent in the mix, and she was equally effective blending in with the elaborate pop production of their iconic 1969 hit "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" or taking the vocal lead on such ballads as "One Less Bell to Answer," by the pop songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The group was adept at identifying composers typically not connected with African-American vocal ensembles; "Up, Up and Away" (and many other 5th Dimension songs) came from the pen of country-pop songwriter Jimmy Webb, and "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues" were written by folk-pop poetess Laura Nyro.
Married Fellow 5th Dimension Group Member
Although McCoo had nothing to do with the composition of "Wedding Bell Blues," her lead vocal on the song had an autobiographical aspect: she and Davis had been dating for several years by the time the song appeared in 1969. At first the relationship was purely platonic, although the foundations for a deeper relationship were being laid. "Billy and I spent a lot of time talking to each other," McCoo recalled to Jet. "I found I really liked him, really liked his spirit, his heart. I thought he was a neat guy, but that was all." The relationship deepened into romance, although it was troubled by conflict. "We fought like cats and dogs," McCoo told Jet. "We fought for the two years we were going together. Daily! We were fighting on the day we got married." That day was in 1969, and the 5th Dimension continued to enjoy moderate hits, although not at the level of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," for several years after that.
The new marriage was threatened in its early years by disputes in which McCoo and Davis found fault, among other things, with each other's performing styles. After turning to a marriage counselor they emerged with a stronger marriage—and a new musical vision. In 1975, after a performance at Harvard University, McCoo and Davis left the 5th Dimension. "It wasn't friction," McCoo told the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger. "We were all friends. But it was dissatisfaction. We had to see for ourselves."
Performing as Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr., the duo was signed to the ABC label. Working with several veterans of the Detroit music scene who had landed on the West Coast, they recorded the album I Hope We Get to Love in Time, produced by Don Davis. The album's second single, "You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)," featured Motown label legend James Jamerson on bass and went to the number one spot on the R&B and pop charts; it was a tuneful early example of the genre that later received the name black pop. The duo's second album, The Two of Us, appeared in 1977.
That album represented the last time McCoo saw the R&B top 30, but she remained in the spotlight throughout the disco era and beyond. The duo's album Marilyn & Billy, recorded for Columbia in 1978, contained the original version of the song "Saving All My Love for You," later a major hit for Whitney Houston. McCoo and Davis hosted The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. Show on the CBS television network in the late 1970s, and McCoo returned to the small screen as a solo performer in the 1980s on the dance variety show Solid Gold; she was its host or cohost for most of its run between 1980 and 1988.
For the Record …
Joined group the Hi-Fi's, 1962; with Lamont McLemore, Florence LaRue, Ron Townson, and Billy Davis Jr., formed the 5th Dimension (at first called the Versatiles), 1965; vocal soloist, the 5th Dimension, 1965-75; performed with Billy Davis Jr. as Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr., 1975—; hosted Solid Gold television program, 1980s; released solo album Solid Gold, 1983; released gospel album The Me Nobody Knows, 1991; released Marilyn McCoo Christmas, 2000.
Awards: Miss Bronze California, 1962; six Grammy Awards with the 5th Dimension; Grammy Award (with Billy Davis Jr.), Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group, for "You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)," 1977; Hollywood Walk of Fame (with the 5th Dimension), sidewalk star, 1991; Children's Miracle Network, Achievement Award, 2002; Grammy Hall of Fame (with the 5th Dimension), for "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," 2004.
Addresses: Mailing address—Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr., P.O. Box 7905, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Website—Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Official Website, http://www.mccoodavis.com.
McCoo recorded a well-received contemporary gospel album, The Me Nobody Knows, in 1991, and she and Davis returned to the studio in 2004 with another religious release, Spirituals: Songs of the Soul. That year they released a book, Up, Up and Away: How We Found Love, Faith and Lasting Marriage in the Enter-tainment World. They remained married and continued to tour successfully as of 2007; Leslie Gray Streeter of the Palm Beach Post wrote in 2005 that theirs was "literally the first South Florida show I've been to in a theater where nobody left early." McCoo appeared in stage productions both by herself (she replaced Lonnette McKee in a Broadway production of Show Boat) and with Davis (they joined forces for The Duke Ellington Songbook Tour and It Takes Two). Her television appearances included a recurring role on the Days of Our Lives soap opera. McCoo was featured on the Colors of Christmas tour with fellow middle-of-the-road soul singer Peabo Bryson. She received an achievement award from the Children's Miracle Network in 2002.
(with Billy Davis Jr.) I Hope We Get to Love in Time, ABC, 1976.
(with Billy Davis Jr.) The Two of Us, ABC, 1977.
(with Billy Davis Jr.) Marilyn & Billy, Columbia, 1978.
The Me Nobody Knows, Warner Alliance, 1991.
Warrior for the Lord, Diadem, 1994.
White Christmas, Delta, 1996.
Marilyn McCoo Christmas, Platinum Disc, 2000.
(with Billy Davis Jr.) Spirituals: Songs of the Soul, Discovery House, 2004.
Contemporary Black Biography, volume 53, Gale, 2006.
Houston Chronicle, November 28, 2004, p. 8.
Jet, October 16, 1995, p. 61; August 19, 1999, p. 59; October 18, 2004, p. 38.
New York Times, March 27, 2003, p. E3.
Palm Beach Post, February 4, 2005, p. 36; February 7, 2005, p. B7.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), August 26, 2001, p. 13.
"Marilyn McCoo," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 28, 2007).
"Us," Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Official Website, http://www.mccoodavis.com (September 28, 2007).
—James M. Manheim