Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Share Their Secrets to Success
Over the course of nearly a half century, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. racked up a string of massive hits with The 5th Dimension and even more as a recording duo. But their fairy-tale 45-year marriage is an equally impressive achievement.
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. are living proof that you really can have it all. A string of massive hits with The 5th Dimension, even more as a duo, a stack of gold and platinum records, Grammy Awards, starring roles in television and on stage and a fairy-tale marriage of 45 years. The R&B power couple hung out with The 411 recently and we got them to spill some of the secrets to their success.
The 5th Dimension ruled the charts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bringing soul, pop and Woodstock together like never before. Their music defined a generation and launched the careers of songwriters Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro. The music included “Up, Up and Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Go Where You Want to Go,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All,” “If I Could Reach You” and one of the most iconic anthems of the era, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The 5th Dimension also ruled the hearts of Marilyn and Billy, who met when the group started in 1966, fell in love and were married by 1969.
At the height of The 5th Dimension’s success, Marilyn and Billy did the unthinkable. They dreamed of a new career path and left the group to record as a duo. “We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen,” recalls Davis.
“We knew we had walked away from a lot of success and it was very risky, but we didn’t want to look back on our lives 20 years later and say, ‘Wow, we always wanted to do this or that,’ so we looked at it as giving it a shot,” adds Marilyn. At first, their record company offered each of them recording contracts. “We went back to them and asked about ‘how about doing this as a duo’ so it wouldn’t impact our marriage,” she continues, giving a hint of what has made their relationship work for so many years.
When their first single, “I Hope We Get to Love in Time,” didn’t resonate with fans, the couple never lost faith. “We weren’t worried,” McCoo says with determination in her voice. “We knew it was a totally new venture. We knew as big as we had become in The 5th Dimension, we could never expect that lightning could strike twice in the same place.” But it did, and what a storm is was.
“We were so happy when ‘You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)’ started to take off,” Billy chimes in with excitement. “We really felt good about it. And we had no idea it was going to be as big as it was.” The track became a No. 1 hit and won the duo a new Grammy Award.
What came next surprised everyone except the ambitious young couple. Already bona fide superstar singers, Marilyn and Billy changed the course of pop culture by becoming the first African-American couple to host a network television series. “The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Show” aired on CBS throughout the summer of 1977 and cemented their status as one of the most popular — and talented — couples in America. “Don Cornelius opened up doors,” says Marilyn, “new doors for African-American performers. He showed the marketplace that there was a demand for R&B music and that demand crossed all the barriers. People for so long tried to keep the music and the audiences separated. But he proved that audiences wouldn’t stand for that.”
Marilyn later went on to become a part of another iconic ensemble, the “Solid Gold” television show cast, co-hosting the weekly program from 1981-84 and 1986-88. In between, she appeared in the soap opera “Days of Our Lives” and on Broadway with “Show Boat,” while Billy starred in theatrical productions “Blues in the Night” and “Dreamgirls.” They even reunited onscreen for “The Jamie Foxx Show” in 1999.
But they never stopped the music. The pair continued to record and tour together, branching out on occasion for solo work, including Billy’s 1982 gospel album, “Let Me Have a Dream,” and Marilyn’s series of Christmas albums, including a Grammy Award-winning collaboration with Quincy Jones on “Handel’s Messiah.” They performed for presidents and a pope and earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with their 5th Dimension partners. Through it all, their biggest and most important collaboration was the real winner: their marriage.
“Challenges and disagreements and fights are natural and happen to everybody,” Marilyn answers when asked about what keeps them strong after all these years. “When people realize that their challenges aren’t so different from everybody else’s and that we work through and find answers to the challenges, it gives them hope. We had so many people asking how we managed to keep our relationship together that our manager once said, ‘You guys have so much to share you really need to write a book,’” she continues. “So we did. In the book we wanted to talk about what it’s like to go from anonymity to fame, but then we also wanted to share about the challenges…
“ … that you go through in a marriage, because a lot of people don’t know what to expect,” Billy says, finishing her sentence.
The book, “Up, Up and Away,” was published in 2004 and remains one of the most popular relationship books available, proving yet again that there is nothing this couple can’t do. In 2008, the couple released a new album, “The Many Faces of Love.”
“We put ‘The Many Faces of Love’ together to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary,” explains Marilyn. “We like to encourage people to stay together in their relationships. Staying together is not an out-of-touch concept. People always want to have that partner there, and there’s nothing old about that.”
Which brings us to the secret. How to have success in love and in — not one, not two, not three, but four — careers (yes, they run their own record company, too). “Work ethic is so important,” Marilyn explains simply. “A lot of times you start out in the business, you’re young, thinking it’s so cool, that it’s always what you’ve wanted, and you begin with fun and excitement in mind. We had a wonderful man in our lives named Renee De Knight who taught us what it takes to make things work. We came into this with all of our bad habits, like running late, and Renee sat us down and said, ‘Look, this is a business.’ So he started teaching us, helping us to establish a strong work ethic that we still have to this day. And then you find out that all of the things that you do take time and energy and effort and focus and concentration to make them come off well.”
That work ethic continues to pay off. Marilyn and Billy started their own record label in 2008, releasing “The Many Faces of Love” and this year’s live double CD, “Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Live.” Their concert on the upcoming Soul Train Cruise will showcase songs from “Live,” a mix of their massive hits, a bit of jazz, a bit of gospel and a lot of fun. “We are looking forward to this,” says Marilyn, “We’ve worked with James, Valerie, Russell and have known Gladys for a long time. We’re hoping to see as many of the shows as we can.”
“A lot of the entertainers are friends — we’ll know some of the passengers, too,” adds Billy.
“And we’re going to spend a little time talking with the passengers about marriage and relationships,” reminds Marilyn.
“Which is exciting, because we always get a lot of questions,” Billy says with a smile.
“Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Live,” “The Many Faces of Love” and their book “Up, Up and Away” (as well as items from The 5th Dimension) are all available at Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.’s website, www.mccoodavis.com.
Meet Marilyn and Billy when you sail on Soul Train Cruise 2015.
Call Amber at 585.653.8746 for remaining cabins, and book yours before the cruise sells out.
Passionate about music and passionate about cruising. Put 'em together and I'm in heaven -- you can catch up with me on a themed cruise and, especially, on an Entertainment Cruise!