When Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. departed The 5th Dimension following the release of 1975’s Earthbound, their commercial success as a duo was far from a sure thing. Despite being a worthy follow-up to the 5th Dimension’s magnum opus The Magic Garden and a reunion with that album’s composer-lyricist-producer Jimmy Webb, Earthbound didn’t rekindle the group’s fortunes. But McCoo and Davis knew they had one thing going for them: their union, one which is still going strong today. That unbreakable bond did, in fact, translate into a Pop and R&B No. 1 with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” from their ABC Records debut as a twosome, 1976’s I Hope We Get to Love in Time. Though that album has been released on CD in the past – more than once, actually – its two follow-ups have been out-of-print since their original issues. Real Gone Music has come to the rescue with expanded editions of both 1977’s The Two of Us (RGM-0172) and 1978’s Columbia release Marilyn & Billy (RGM-0173).
As part of The 5th Dimension, Marilyn and Billy were chief practitioners of the genre dubbed by some pundits as “champagne soul.” The members of The 5th Dimension certainly had the chops for pure R&B; just listen to Marilyn’s heartbreaking solo on “If I Could Reach You” or Billy’s wild improvisation on “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” But the group’s timeless music – penned by the likes of Webb, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and most memorably, Laura Nyro – epitomized soul with a classy, sophisticated pop twist. I Hope We Get to Love in Time certainly didn’t turn its back on smooth pop, though the 5th Dimension’s longtime producer Bones Howe’s jazz/orchestral stylings were downplayed by new producer Don Davis. (Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and Lamont McLemore soldiered on as The 5th Dimension in Marilyn and Billy’s absence, recording for both ABC and Motown.)
For The Two of Us, producer Davis was out, and Frank E. Wilson was in. In other respects, though, the LP picked up where its predecessor left off, blending melodic ballads with lightly funky up-tempo showcases. The real-life couple complemented each other vocally as well as in every other respect; McCoo brought her expressive and pristine pop vocals and Davis his emotive and more rough-hewn R&B sound to tracks like the sparkling up-tempo single (and album opener) “Look What You’ve Done to My Heart.” McCoo and Davis trade off on lines before uniting their voices as one tight, powerful unit.
The songs on The Two of Us are cast in a positive mold that’s easy to interpret as autobiographical. And why not? With her old group, Marilyn transformed Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” into something very personal, and in doing so created one of the best records of the 1960s. On Carl Hampton and Homer Banks’ breezy, mid-tempo “Wonderful,” Billy croons to his wife, “I never had a dream come true, ’til the day I laid eyes on you,” while on the bubbly disco-lite of “My Very Special Darling,” they ask each other, “Darling, can’t you see that I love you?” even though there couldn’t have been any doubt. “My Reason for Being is You” is a worthy successor to the dramatic ballads Marilyn led with the 5th Dimension, as is the lush title track written by Stephen O’Hara. Bob Alcivar, the arranger behind many of the group’s classics, supplied a composition of his own to The Two of Us, and it’s one of the album’s most rewarding as well as most unusual. “Nightsong” shows off the singers’ purity of tone, as their vocals glide often wordlessly over a fusion-style backing. Art Posey and Josef Powell, who also wrote “My Very Special Darling,” contributed another jazzy track, the offbeat “The Times.” The most personal track on the album is Davis’ own “In My Lifetime,” which, while sung by both McCoo and Davis, plays out like a love song from a husband to his wife. Producer-arranger Wilson applies an AM-ready pop sheen to the song, but it remains intimate thanks to its vocal interplay.
If The Two of Us pales in comparison at all to I Hope We Get to Love in Time, it’s only because there’s not one track as instantly irresistible as “You Don’t Have to Be a Star.” But it’s thoroughly enjoyable listening, and even more so in Real Gone’s deluxe edition. Reissue producer Jim Pierson has added four bonus tracks, culled from ABC singles. The ballad “I’m So Glad I Found You” would have fit comfortably on The Two of Us, but “There’s Got to Be a Happy Ending” allowed both vocalists to cut loose. Even more exciting is the inclusion of a rare Billy Davis, Jr. solo single, “Light a Candle” b/w “Three Steps from True Love.” Like his wife, Davis has a distinctive voice that is instantly familiar; hearing it in a grittier solo setting adds a new dimension – pun intended. The rhythmic “Three Steps” is almost gospel-disco, with Davis wailing in sanctified style over the danceable beat.
After the jump: Marilyn and Billy head to Columbia Records!
Though McCoo and Davis’ success at ABC was unquestionable, they chose to sign with Columbia Records in 1978, where they recorded their third album as a duo. For Marilyn & Billy – no last names necessary for these Grammy winners and television variety show hosts – Davis took the producer’s chair, joining with Steve Cropper for seven songs and Michael Masser for the remaining three. The result is a more eclectic album than the two that preceded it.
Though a legend for his smoking southern soul grooves, Cropper adapted to disco for tracks like the opening “Shine On Silver Moon. ” Marilyn & Billy‘s first track overtly designed for the dancefloor, the catchy Gary Knight/Gene Allan tune is also included in a bright, extended 12-inch mix of 7+ minutes’ length as the sole bonus track on Real Gone’s reissue. (Surprisingly, the 45 single edit isn’t included.) Cropper revisits Sam and Dave’s Stax single “I Thank You” in an arrangement that’s slicker than the original but has some fun, spirited vocals from both singers. “Carry Me,” by “Prince” Phillip Mitchell and Ernie Shelby, has the same southern-smoked flavor.
Marilyn lent her skills as a songwriter to “So Many Things for Free,” propelled by a tasty guitar lick, and Billy was among the writers of “I Got the Words, You Got the Music,” a brassy blast with raspy growls worthy of James Brown. The usually-silky Marilyn even gets into the act on this sizzling, atypical funk workout. More in Marilyn and Billy’s comfort zone is the glossy upbeat pop of “You’ve Got the Love,” complete with sinuous saxophone solo.
Michael Masser and Pam Sawyer’s “I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I Fell in Love)” was introduced by Diana Ross on her self-titled 1976 album; ironically, its pop success was stopped short when Motown rush-released “Love Hangover” from the same album to compete with the version just released by the Marilyn and Billy-less 5th Dimension! Though Gene Page’s arrangement has odd echoes of Thom Bell’s production of “You Are Everything” for The Stylistics, it’s a match of a great song with two great vocalists. Masser and Gerry Goffin supplied two more tracks – one solo each for Marilyn and Billy. Billy’s soulful solo plea to “Stay with Me” would be recorded by Miss Ross on her 1981 album To Love Again, while Marilyn’s “Saving All My Love for You” would take on an even greater life when Masser produced it for Whitney Houston on her first solo album. In the liner notes for Marilyn and Billy, the always-gracious McCoo praises Houston’s rendition: “When I heard her [performance]…I said, ‘Yeah, she nailed it!’ She was, without question, one of our greatest singers.” But McCoo’s original recording is stellar, too, though Masser certainly refined his arrangement for Houston, ratcheting up the depth and drama.
Unfortunately, Marilyn & Billy was fated to be the couple’s only Columbia album. McCoo and Davis contributed one song (“Perfect Dancer”) to the disco-oriented Skatetown, USA soundtrack on Columbia in 1979, but they would then depart the label. (“Perfect Dancer” would have been another nice addition here!) Around this time, Marilyn also recorded the Carole Bayer Sager/Marvin Hamlisch movie theme “I’m On Your Side” for the film Chapter Two; that song has yet to appear on record. Marilyn went on to host Solid Gold and record an album of that name for RCA which is also ripe for rediscovery. It included a duet with Billy, natch.
Mike Ragogna provides terrific and affectionate liner notes for both reissues, drawing on fresh interviews with the artists. Both have also been superbly remastered at Battery Studios by Maria Triana (The Two of Us) and Vic Anesini (Marilyn & Billy). With The 5th Dimension’s Earthbound still apparently in limbo and awaiting reissue, these two new-to-CD titles offer plenty to savor from one of pop’s most beloved duos.