Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. have what so many people are searching for, a love that has stood the test of time. Even now 50 years later, they are still very much in love with one another and have an enviable formula for their lasting romance that they share with us.
The “First Couple of Pop & Soul” first came together a few months before joining the legendary R&B singing group, The 5th Dimension. And they carefully nurtured a connection that would be lasting. Despite what folks would assume, the couple’s relationship wasn’t always smooth sailing. Marilyn and Billy do admit that their love did have very difficult challenges, but the tests were a strengthening power, a kind of glue that kept them together during the hard times.
Both Marilyn and Billy realized long ago that they are each buckled down with a person whom they genuinely respect, admire, love, and most importantly, like. The fact that they genuinely like each other is the reason why their foundation has been unshakeable. What has also cushioned them both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is the reverence and love they have for their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Despite having earned a total of 7 Grammy Awards, 15 gold and 3 platinum records, Marilyn and Billy refuse to retire their mics because performing fuels them. The pair admitted that what also makes them most happy these days is just knowing that they are by each other’s side. Even if one partner is upstairs and the other is downstairs, they rest easier when they are close to each other.
At the end of the day, Marilyn and Billy’s struggles have made their love victory sweeter. They have learned that love is a challenge but life is a greater challenge. What you will come away with after reading about the pair is that they will continue to hold onto each other very, very tightly.
50BOLD: I love how you refer to each other as “baby!”
Billy: We’ve been calling each other “baby” for 50 years!
Marilyn: That’s the way we talk to each other. You know what makes it really special is that we are friends. Billy and I are friends.
Billy: We were friends right from the start, before we got married.
50BOLD: Well ‘they’ say that a good relationship is really based on a strong friendship.
Marilyn: Yes, it really is.
Billy: And we have the Lord in our lives which is a big plus.
50BOLD: The group the Versatiles became the 5th Dimension. Did you know each other prior to joining the Versatiles or did you meet when the group was formed? At what point did you both know that you wanted to be together?
Marilyn: Billy and I met about two or three months before the group started. We discovered we had something in common. We both loved music and wanted to sing ever since we were kids. I also admired how honest he was about voicing his opinions when various situations would arise involving the group.
Billy: Sometimes I would share things they didn’t want to hear. They would get mad at me, but I said you asked me. (laughter)
50BOLD: You know the interaction between the two of you is so loving, even after all these years. What’s the exact date of your wedding anniversary—July what?
50BOLD: Wow, now Marilyn do you have to remind Billy once in a while about the date of your anniversary or does he always know?
Marilyn: He knows.
Billy: Oh, I better know! [laughter]
Marilyn: You know what, when Billy and I first got together, Billy couldn’t remember birthdays. He’s really bad at birthdays and my feelings would get hurt until I realized, he didn’t remember anyone’s birthday. And so therefore, I didn’t take it personally [Billy’s laughing]. I said okay, either I’m going to act silly and get all huffy and angry and start an argument because he forgot my birthday, or I’m going to start preparing him a month out. And that’s what I did. My birthday is at the end of September, so at the beginning of the month I’d say now don’t forget what’s coming up pretty soon.
Billy: And now after so many years, I can’t forget. [laughter]
50BOLD: That is so beautiful. Who were the original members of the Versatiles?
Billy: Besides Billy and I, the other original members of the Versatiles were Lamonte McLemore, Ron Townson, and Florence LaRue. There were five of us and we went on to change the name of the group to the 5th Dimension.
50BOLD: So Billy as you can imagine, I tried to do my research, but couldn’t find much information about your background. I know you grew up in St. Louis. You began singing at a young age but did you always know you wanted to perform?
Billy: Oh yes, I’ve been singing ever since I was in kindergarten. Early on, I knew that singing was going to be my profession. In fact, I knew Lamonte and Ron; we all grew up in St. Louis together but never imagined we would end up in California to form a successful group called the 5th Dimension.
50BOLD: Can I correct you just a bit if you don’t mind. The 5th Dimension wasn’t just “a group.” They were a group of AMAZING performers!
Billy: Well, yes, but you know when you start out as friends who are trying to do something, you’re just a group. Basically, it’s about getting together to rehearse to see what comes out of it. Now I had been in the service. When I left the military, I formed my own band. I performed at a few night clubs. I wound up calling Lamonte to ask if he knew someone at the Motown location on the West coast. Lamonte knew the label’s West Coast President Marc Gordon who ended up becoming the 5th Dimension’s manager.
50BOLD: Did you sing in church?
Marilyn: You did sing in church!
Billy: Oh yes, I did sing in church.
Marilyn: Billy sang with a gospel group.
Billy: Before the 5th Dimension, I sang with a group called the Gospel Singers and we made records.
50BOLD: And Marilyn, are you an East Coaster?
Marilyn: Well, I’ve been in Los Angeles since I was seven.
I was born in Jersey but I lived in Columbus, Ga. My mother was from Jersey City. My mother became a doctor and was inspired by Dr. Edwards, a gynecologist and obstetrician in New Jersey. After my mother finished medical school, she and my father, they met in medical school, began their practice in Columbus. But my mother always said that when she was ready to give birth, Dr. Edwards would deliver her children. And so every time my mother got ready to deliver one of her children, she’d travel up to Jersey and Dr. Edwards would deliver us. I mean my mother was determined. If she said something, she did it.
Billy: But you have to realize that during those times for a woman to become a doctor was hard. So the respect and devotion Marilyn’s mother had for Dr. Edwards was just beautiful.
50BOLD: What a great story! Marilyn, did you also decide early on that you wanted to sing?
Marilyn: Well, I‘ve always loved music, and in my family, my father loved music. Before my father attended medical school, he sang with two guys. My father is from Alabama. And he sang with these two brothers and they called themselves The Jones Boys. They left Alabama and went up to New York City and got to sing with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. They performed with Fletcher Henderson for about two or three years then broke up. My father then decided to attend Meharry Medical College because his father was a doctor. So my grandfather was a doctor and my father, an only child, was also expected to follow in his father’s footsteps.
50BOLD: Marilyn, was there any pressure for you to go the medical route as well?
Marilyn: I have two sisters and I had a brother and my parents never tried to pressure any of us to go into medicine. They wanted us to choose our own direction in life. But when I started getting involved in music which I loved, my father encouraged me, and also made sure I took vocal lessons when I was a teenager. He was thrilled that I loved music and was one of our group’s biggest fans. He would follow us around all the time.
Billy: And besides, none of the kids could stand blood. [laughter]
Marilyn: That’s another important point too, baby!
50BOLD: That is so funny. [laughs] Marilyn, you actually auditioned for the popular variety show, The Art Linkletter Show.
Marilyn: Oh my gosh! I was on The Art Linkletter Show twice. The first time I auditioned I was about 10 or 11 years old, and at a day camp. Some TV people came to the day camp to interview a few of the kids who were there. And they wanted to find kids who were not afraid to speak in front of a camera. I NEVER had a problem speaking to anyone.
Billy: And not today either! [laughter]
Marilyn: So that was how I ended up on The Art Linkletter Show. There was another show called Kids Say the Darndest Things. And so, I ended up getting chosen to be on the show. I was on the show once and said about two or three lines. The audience laughed and that was the end of my being discovered. [laughter]
50BOLD: And then you went into modeling?
Marilyn: I actually never did modeling.
50BOLD: You never did modeling?
Marilyn: Never modeled. Now, when I met Lamonte he was a photographer and I was in the Miss Bronze California Beauty Pageant. He was taking pictures of all the young women in the pageant. And so I did a couple of modeling shoots for him. I thought modeling was boring, because all I did was stand there in clothes, smile or do whatever. My heart was really into music; modeling was not an interest at all.
50BOLD: So interesting how you never modeled professionally…. Now, getting back to how you both maintained a love relationship while singing in the same group professionally, was it ever an issue?
Billy: Well, when you’re in a professional singing group and start to develop feelings for another member, you do tend to think, “Oh my God, if this doesn’t end well, would we still be friends and will it affect the dynamic of the group?”
Marilyn: And then there’s the “What if he starts flirting around with somebody else” worry!
Billy: Yes, like am I going to get beaten up by her! [laughter] You start thinking will the relationship between the two group members result in the break up of the group. I’m glad we didn’t let the worrisome thoughts overtake us because our relationship continued to flourish; Marilyn and I got closer and closer. And here we are 50 years later; we’re still friends and we still love one another. It’s been a beautiful, beautiful marriage and a beautiful ride for both of us!
50BOLD: You both are such an inspiration to us all.
Marilyn: You know Leon, Billy and I would drive to rehearsal together and talk about our lives. Billy openly discussed his life, and I told him about mine. We developed a friendship. I realized that Billy just had this special quality about him.
Billy: She was always attracted to me but didn’t know it! [laughter]
Marilyn: Oh, and when you put on those blue and white plaid pants…. [laughter]
Billy: And when I put on those blue and white plaid pants they just messed her up! [laughter]
Marilyn: All of a sudden, I was looking at Billy on stage one day, and thought he had a wonderful way of dancing and I said, “hmmm.”
50BOLD: What a great story!
Billy: No, no, no, you know the story’s true baby. [laughs]
Marilyn: I rest my case.
50BOLD: So let me take a moment here to ask you for some love advice. Do you have tips to offer on how to maintain love regardless of the circumstances that may be trying to pull your relationship apart?
Marilyn: I can’t really tell people how to maintain their relationship. I feel my relationship is so blessed because God put us together. But I always ask people this, do you like the person you’re about to marry? This is one of those questions that you have to go home, be alone and ponder for a while. You’ve got to chew on your response and decide if you really like the person you are in a relationship with. I discovered that I liked Billy. I liked his heart. And I also liked his honesty. I found that we shared a lot in common. And I felt our union was like…yeah, this feels right.
50BOLD: Talk about pondering that you’ve said. So many of us get into relationships without liking the person whom we are about to marry.
Billy: By the way, I paid Marilyn to make that comment. [laughter]
50BOLD: Marilyn, so even though I asked the relationship question for our readers, guess who received quite a bit from your response?
Billy: Brother, a lot of times we get gems from conversations with one another and this is how we learn, you know. A successful relationship also means that each partner has to be who they are. You can’t get into a relationship trying to change the other person to make them who you want them to be. This is never going to happen! You have to just accept your partner for who they are and once you do this, your relationship will run smoother.
50BOLD: At what point in your relationship did the two of you come to the realization that you cannot change one another?
Billy: After we fought for ten years! [laughter]
Marilyn: SO true, that’s true! [laughter]
Billy: I’m telling you, even though we were friends, we fought.
Marilyn: You know what, we fought so bad that when we told the other group members we were going to get married, they said, “Oh no, there goes the group!” [laughter]
Billy: They said, “Oh Lord help us!” But once Marilyn knew she had a problem then everything was alright. [laughter]
Marilyn: I’m not even gonna…
50BOLD: I love it! You became one of the first African American couples to have a network variety show—The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Show back in ’77. Did you land the program because network executives took note of the love you shared and decided it would make for a successful variety show format?
Marilyn: I wouldn’t get that deep because at that time, Sonny and Cher had their own successful variety show. The TV executives were looking for another Sonny and Cher kind of format. The husband and wife recording duo the Captain and Tennille also had a weekly variety show. TV executives had an entire summer where they were trying to discover that next couples successful variety show format. And we were one of the couples they sought out.
Billy: But at the same time, we didn’t know we were the first Black couple to have a network variety show; we weren’t even thinking along those lines. We were just thinking about being on television and how best to represent our people.
Marilyn: We always thought about representing.
50BOLD: How were you received by the viewing audience? Did the audience support you?
Marilyn: Well, our show was on for only six weeks, as a summer replacement but it was hard work.
Billy: We had to half learn songs and could not put into them what we wanted to before presenting them publicly.
Marilyn: With the music that we were recording, we’d work on it for weeks. So, when the show didn’t work out for us, we weren’t really sorry.
50BOLD: You viewed the show’s ending just as an experience in your professional life.
50BOLD: Were you received favorably by your audience via congratulatory letters? On the flip side, did you receive mail from those who did not want to see African Americans on television?
Marilyn: We weren’t really aware of any backlash.
Billy: No we weren’t. If we did get any letters, they weren’t shown to us.
Marilyn: But here one interesting story. Do you remember when the 5th Dimension was on “It Takes a Thief” starring Robert Wagner? There was an episode that called for a musical act and so the show’s producers wanted to use the 5th Dimension. There was a guest role for a lead female and so I was it. I had this story line with Robert Wagner who was so kind and helpful.
Billy: Yes, Robert was a really nice man.
Marilyn: Robert knew we were out of our element, so he offered to help in any way. There was one romantic scene where Robert kissed me and it was later edited out! I could and couldn’t believe it.
Billy: The network didn’t want to air the kiss?
Marilyn: Well, the year was 1970 when the show aired. I was initially surprised that the kiss would even be aired on television. And then when the actual episode finally aired, the kiss was cut out.
50BOLD: And I can understand the kiss not airing because I grew up in segregated Virginia.
Now, there was a time when the phone stopped ringing, and the offers weren’t coming in as frequently, how did you handle that period of time in your career?
Billy: Well, I guess you’re referring to the time when we left the group.
Marilyn: After we left the group, we had hit records. And we also had the Marilyn McCoo and the Billy Davis, Jr.’s show and then…
Billy: No, no, no, no! When we left the group and decided to go on our own, everything stopped. We didn’t get calls from agents, no calls from anyone.
Marilyn: We left the group in ’75 and then within a year we had a #1 hit record.
Billy: We had the hit, You Don’t Have to Be a Star.
Marilyn: So, we continued to work and then we had that TV show and then afterwards, it got quiet.
50BOLD: How did you handle the quiet?
Marilyn: It was hard. Billy was enjoying working with a few acts he had wanted to produce. And for me it was hard because I only wanted to perform. And so I was really sitting at home trying to figure out what do I do now. Should I go back to school to become a lawyer? Do I want to get out of the business completely? I didn’t know what to do. And it was during that time that I really started examining my life to figure out where I was, and what was important to me. And also during that time, I began to examine my faith. I really had not spent much time in a church. And it was then that I began to draw closer to the Lord.
50BOLD: Now there’s a storyline that says you were driving around and happened upon a revival meeting where you discovered the Lord; is this public relations or fact?
Marilyn: It’s kind of a true story but in a small way.
Billy: It wasn’t a revival meeting.
Marilyn: By the time we “happened” upon that gathering, I had already accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. But I hadn’t told Billy about it yet because I didn’t know how he was going to respond. We had gone to church a few times and felt like…we don’t need this. But a girlfriend of mine began speaking with me about the Lord, and getting me into the Bible. As I began reading the Bible, I would call her with questions that were on my heart. And it was through speaking with my friend and reading the Bible that I realized how much I really needed God in my life. I prayed to receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Now the question remained, how do I get Billy to join me?
Billy: This guy Frank was a Motown producer friend of ours whom we had known for years.
Marilyn: Frank was always trying to get us to go to church but we’d respond with “thanks but no thanks!” So now—I’m shortening this for you because it’s a very long story. And so, on this particular evening, Frank and some other believers were at a program called Jesus at the Roxy. The Roxy was on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. Now I was trying to figure out how to get Billy to come to this Jesus at the Roxy program. Now as close as we were, I did not tell Billy that I had prayed to receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I just didn’t know how to tell him. And I didn’t want him to think I was becoming some kind of Bible-thumper.
Billy: You have to realize that Jesus at the Roxy was a club.
50BOLD: Yes, I’m familiar with it.
Marilyn: Philip Bailey from the group Earth, Wind and Fire was singing at the gathering on that particular night.
Billy: Yes, Philip Bailey and many other celebrities were there.
Marilyn: The singer, songwriter Syreeta Wright was also at the gathering that night.
Billy: So Marilyn and I were driving down Sunset and she looked up to see we had passed the Roxy. And she said “Oh, Billy look! Frank and them are at Jesus at the Roxy. Why don’t we go in the place to see what’s happening!” And this was fine with me. Little did Marilyn know that while she was going through this whole thing of accepting the Lord, I was watching her. And at the same time, I was conflicted because I grew up in church. And I was saying to myself, “My God, I should have been the one to teach her about the Bible, the Lord, Jesus and all of these scriptural things. We should have taken our spiritual walk together.” So yes, I agreed to go to the Roxy. And while we were there that night, there was a lot of preaching and talking about the Lord.
Marilyn: And singing.
Billy: And there was the singing of praise songs going on at the Roxy. And then someone asked, who wanted to accept the Lord, who wanted to give their lives back to the Lord and I stood up. And I didn’t know that Marilyn had actually accepted the Lord. And so, I stood up with my eyes closed and when I opened them, Marilyn was also standing next to me. We both needed to walk the right way with Christ.
50BOLD: Jesus moves you and you don’t even realize it.
Marilyn: Yes, this is so true; Jesus moves you.
Billy: Yes, and even to today he’s using us. He’s using us today.
50BOLD: And when people think of Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, they think of the two of you as the perfect couple. Two absolutely beautiful people, talented, famous, living your best lives. And you’ve said that marriage has not always been easy, was your union ever really tested?
Marilyn: Well, there’s one major thing. And you might want to share this with him baby.
Billy: Yes, about my drinking, my alcoholism?
Marilyn: Billy’s a recovering alcoholic and hasn’t had a drink in over 30 years.
50BOLD: Wow, congratulations!
Billy: My drinking had gotten to the point where I was hoping that champagne would run out of my faucets. I was gone you know. If you’re addicted to something and you’re trying to break away, it is hard. I can understand alcoholics, drug addicts, anyone with a substance abuse problem; I can understand because I’ve been there. And as long as we don’t admit there’s a problem then, we’ll never defeat it. Never! Once you admit to having a problem, you’ve taken the first step towards recovery. You’re on the road to actually doing something about your addiction. And unfortunately, you will do something during your addiction that will let you know, you’ve got a problem.
50BOLD: Now switching gears. You have been busy lately. Can you please tell us about your current show?
Billy: The show that we’re doing now called “Up, Up and Away” is a musical fable created basically by our management company. The show tells the story of our lives all the way up through now via songs and some dialogue.
50BOLD: Where can the show be seen?
Marilyn: Well, we’re performing the show in casinos. And we know that people always want to hear our hits, so we always give it to them like One Less Bell and Aquarius. People know our hits but don’t know things about us like Billy sings the blues and does a wonderful job. So we always make sure the blues portion is in the show. We perform the music we love and that we feel is going to appeal to our audiences.
50BOLD: It sounds to me like loving what you do is the motivation for keeping you two up on stage and performing before an audience.
Marilyn: Yes, we love what we do.
Billy: Sure. We still enjoy what we do. And everybody wants to know when we’re going to retire, and that we should have retired a long time ago. [laughter] Well, as long as we can hit those notes…
Marilyn: And as long as we can remember the lyrics…
Billy: …we’ll keep moving and performing! [laughter]
Marilyn: And I do want to mention that we had a wonderful time on the Tom Joyner cruise. And you mentioned the song, One Less Bell. When I sang it on the cruise, I think every woman in the audience was singing it with me. It was just so touching!
50BOLD: You both talked about aspects of your relationship in your 2004 book, Up, Up, and Away and How We Found Love, Faith and Lasting Marriage in the Entertainment World. Do you think it’s high time for a memoir at this point?
Billy: You’re probably right about us writing a memoir at this point in time. We just need to slow down to put it all together.
Marilyn: Right now we’re in the studio and we’re working on a new project that we’re excited about. We’re working with some young producers. It’s really interesting because they are bringing new ideas and some of the music is new and some old. We’re just excited to see where this project is going to lead.
50BOLD: Let’s talk about happiness right now. What makes Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo happy and content?
Billy: Well, we love just being in our home together. This might sound crazy but we enjoy being in the house just hanging out with one another, laughing and talking. We are very content when we know one’s upstairs, and the other is downstairs. When one of us is outside somewhere, then we worry.
Marilyn: We’re waiting for the other to get home.
Billy: Yes, I’m waiting for Marilyn or she’s waiting for me to get home!
Marilyn: I think for me happiness and contentment—is being thankful.
Marilyn: Being thankful for what you have…gratitude. A lot of people look around to see what other people have, that they don’t have. I say, don’t look at what you don’t have, look at what you do have because there are always going to be people who have more than you.
Marilyn: But if you look at what the Lord has given you and you’re thankful, it will bring you contentment.
Billy: And we’re very content at this stage of our lives.
If you want to catch up with Billy and Marilyn to get information on upcoming concerts or projects, visit their website http://mccoodavis.com