Gary James' Interview With Marilyn McCoo of
The Fifth Dimension
She's one of the classiest of all singers in show business - not to mention one of the most talented. She is Marilyn McCoo.
You may remember Marilyn from her days with The Fifth Dimension. That group placed 30 songs on the top of the pop music charts, including their signature song, "Up, Up and Away". All in all, The Fifth Dimension won six Grammy Awards and received 14 Gold Records. They even earned a Star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Marilyn, along with fellow group member Billy Davis Jr., who also happens to be Marilyn's husband, enjoyed considerable success as a duo. Their first single, "You Don't Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show)" was a number one hit, a certified Gold million seller, and earned them their first Grammy for Best R and B Vocal Performance by a Duo. That single, from their debut album, helped the album go Gold as well.
Marilyn McCoo was also seen every week in the early 80's as star of the TV show Solid Gold.
Her accomplishments go on and on but career highlights would most certainly include performances for both the President of the United States (President Bush) and the Pope.
Marilyn McCoo is one special lady - and we talked with her.
Q - Last time we heard anything about you Marilyn, you were on a Reunion Tour with The Fifth Dimension. What have you been doing with yourself say, the last six months?
A - I'm in the studio right now working on a Christmas album. I do a lot of corporate work. When companies want to say thank you to their employees for a job well done, they hire artists to come in and perform for them. I've been doing a number of those things. It's a lucrative area. It's a wonderful thing. You don't have to have the latest hit record out there in order to work. As long as the people know who you are and know of your past, they apply a different measure to you. I was just in Las Vegas this month. Billy and I are getting ready to go into Raleigh, North Carolina in April, to do Dream Girls together. So, we're looking forward to that. That's gonna be a lot of fun.
Q - Is there ever a time when you can just relax?
A - No, not a whole lot, unless we take the time. Last November, Billy and I went to Israel as part of a tour, not a working tour, but put together by the Christian Broadcast Network, CBN, Pat Robertson's group. They invited us to come along as celebrities on the tour. We ended up performing for the group one night. There were over 450 people on this tour. It was our first time going to Israel, and we wanted to go to Israel this way, to get a chance to visit many of the old Biblical sites and the special places of the Bible. So we went there for ten days. Then, we left Jerusalem and flew into Cairo, where my sister is living. She's in the Foreign Service and we spent Thanksgiving with her. Then we came home a week after that. So we were gone for about three weeks.
Q - When your schedule is really hectic, can you do the kinds of things most people do; I'm talking about grocery shopping, taking your car into a garage for an oil change, and standing in line at the DMV?
A - I go grocery shopping, because we don't have a housekeeper at this time. Billy and I do a lot of our grocery shopping together. We know places where we can rush in quickly, grab a few things, and come home. We try to protect our weekends so we can do the things that normal people do. Standing in line at the DMV is never appealing to me, and I do everything in my power to avoid that. (laughs)
Q - You have said that "When I went through periods of self-doubt, my mother would just shore me up. By the time I was out of high school, I believed anything was possible." What exactly did your mother tell you?
A - She instilled in my head that there was no such thing as can't, and that if you don't do the job right the first time, you'll go back until you get it done. And, if you want it, if you're ready to work for it, and you're ready to persevere, you can get it. So, when I started into the business, I felt like I was going to be the first Black person to accomplish this and that, because there were places I wanted to go that other Black performers had not been, or maybe had touched there, but not been able to sustain.
Q - Your official bio states, "The Fifth Dimension became one of the classiest and most imitated pop groups of the rock era." Who imitated The Fifth Dimension? Wasn't The Fifth Dimension accused of imitating The Mamas and Papas?
A - The only time we ever imitated the Mamas and Papas was on the 'Go Where You Wanna Go' cut, per Johnny Rivers. He said if you wanna hit record, this will give us a hit record. It was our entree into the business. If you find anything else, I'd like for you to name it.
Q - So who imitated The Fifth Dimension?
A - I don't really know. You have to ask whoever wrote the bio. I feel like The Friends of Distinction... but they didn't really imitate us. They had their own sound that was similar, yet different. But, that was only natural, because one of the guys in the Friends had sung with us, not The Fifth Dimension, but with a couple of us who were in The Fifth Dimension. You know, we were all a former group together. I never really felt like anybody came out and imitated us.
Q - The Fifth Dimension got together when?
A - Late '65.
Q - When you first heard the name The Fifth Dimension, did you like it?
A - We came up with it. When we formed the group it was originally called The Versatiles. At the time we signed with Johnny Rivers, and went into the studio to record, he suggested we come up with something a little 'newer' sounding. He said The Versatiles had sort of an old ring to it. So, we all went home and the next day came back with a list of names. Ronald came in with the name The Fifth Dimension. We knew right away that was it. We all voted for The Fifth Dimension. It said everything we wanted to say.
Q - Why did The Fifth Dimension have to break up? You could've gone on forever.
A - Yeah, except that the sounds changed. It started getting funkier and more raw. Our sound was a very mellow, overdubbed kind of sound. That was one of the disagreements that we started to have in the group. Some of us could see that the direction was changing and we wanted to change with it. But, others were afraid to because this was the sound that had worked. But we were saying it's not working anymore. We're not having hit records, and the reason we're not having hit records is because this sound out there is going a different route. We have to keep up. When you start out new, you don't think about having to keep up. That's not a problem that happens until you've been out there for a little while. Then, directions in music start to change and if this is something you want for the long haul, then you have to change with it.
Q - Motown Records passed on The Fifth Dimension. Did other labels turn you down as well?
A - No. Motown was the only company we wanted to go with. That was the only label we really knew. There were some labels out there that were doing some funkier things. But we felt like Motown understood the musical direction we were attempting to go in. We felt like if anybody could take advantage of it, and really do the right job for us, it would be them. And of course, they were the top record company at that period.
Q - Did The Fifth Dimension play any showcase clubs?
A - We didn't do showcases. People weren't doing showcases so much back then. But we did play some clubs in L.A. There was one called Maverick Flat. We also played at another club called Guys and Dolls, which was a billiard parlor, and on occasion would have acts come in and perform. Dick Griffey, who ended up forming Solar Records, was one of the owners of that place.
Q - Was the Ed Sullivan Show one of the highlights of your career?
A - Oh yeah. It was very important to us getting to be seen by the large number of television viewers. When you did the Ed Sullivan Show, it was like you had arrived. Ed Sullivan liked us a lot. He was really good to us. He liked our professionalism. We were not a hard group to get along with, and it worked out very well for us.
Q - When you co-hosted Solid Gold with Andy Gibb, you said you found yourself constantly having to prove yourself again and again. What did you mean by that?
A - Well, notice the word that you used, "co-hosted" Solid Gold. I co-hosted Solid Gold for two years and I hosted Solid Gold for three years. I hosted it longer than I co-hosted it. But your memory is of me co-hosting. That's an area that will show you that I'm not remembered for what I evolved to, but rather the fact that I was with Andy Gibb, or with Rex Smith. The fact that I had to point that out to you is one of the ways that will answer your question. The year I was with Andy Gibb, Andy ended up missing out quite a bit, and there were times when I hosted those shows.
Q - Speaking of Andy Gibb, was there no one around who could've pulled him out of whatever was wrong with him?
A - I don't know. Aside from Andy feeling a certain amount of insecurity which was understandable, being a younger brother, coming from a family with such a success as The Bee Gees, which I could understand. I didn't realize the extent of Andy's problem. Andy and I never really got to be that close, so I really couldn't answer that question.
Q - It's interesting to note that while The Fifth Dimension was selling millions of records, and playing to sell-out crowds, you were being referred to as "Champagne Soul." Do you recall that?
A - Somebody referred to us in that way. LaMonte liked it, so he used to use it a lot.
Q - Certain critics would write that "The Fifth Dimension sound was too white." Did that get you mad?
A - Yes it did.
Q - So what did you do about it? Did you ever call up one of these critics?
A - No. Because what are you gonna do, call 'em up and say, 'Hey Buddy, I disagree with you, and how dare you say that?' I mean people have the opinions they have. What I would do to counteract that is in interviews such as ours, when I would be questioned about that, I would state my position so that it would be on the record. I have always said that the thing that's frustrating to me, in our I business, and continues to be that way today, is the fact that when a Black artist comes along, we're always expected to sound like we came out of the church. A white artist can come along and they can have any sound they want to, whether it's more pop, or a Joe Cocker type, or a Michael Bolton. They embrace him and call him R and B. They don't look at R and B as being necessarily a sound that only Black people can do when it applies to white artists. But when they look at the pop sound and find Black artists who have more of a pop sound then perhaps of the R and B sound, then all of a sudden we're criticized. And I feel like that's racist. I feel it also indicates the lack of knowledge that these critics have of the varied backgrounds of Black Americans. That was one of the things we were constantly fighting.
Q - Do you ever get tired of singing the same songs?
A - Not really. Many years ago I used to resent having to sing the songs over and over again, when I was still a member of the group. I'll never forget one night we were up in Lake Tahoe, and I think it was Little Anthony and The Imperials that were performing in the lounge. We decided that we were gonna go to the lounge and see him. Anthony was still with them. He started singing "Tears On My Pillow" and "Goin' Out of My Head", the songs that I remembered when I was in school. I remember sitting in the audience saying, 'I hope he sings this. I hope he sings that.' And when he did, it was like "Yes!" It was so exciting. It made me realize what people were thinking and feeling when they came to see us. I said I must never rob them of that enjoyment of hearing those songs that mean so much to them. And so, through the years, whenever the songs start to feel a little stale (laughs), I go back to that evening.