Eight-time Grammy award-winning entertainer Marilyn McCoo, 71, has been married to her 5th Dimension bandmate Billy Davis Jr. for 45 years. In the 1980s, she hosted “Solid Gold.” In 2004 she and her husband published a book, “Up, Up and Away,” about how they have managed to stay together while working together. The duo recently performed at Rivers Casino’s fifth anniversary party.
Did you ever experience stage fright?
Oh gosh, yes [laughing]. I have experienced stage fright on many occasions. I still get stage fright to this day, but a lot of it has to do with how prepared I feel. That’s just who I am. Usually Billy will know I am experiencing it because I can’t stay still.
I was with the 5th Dimension, and we had recorded “One Less Bell.” We had been invited to perform at Frank Sinatra’s farewell performance — it came to be known as Frank Sinatra’s first farewell performance [laughs]. Gregory Peck, Sammy Davis Jr. and Barbra Streisand and all of these major, major artists were there that night. It was big-time old Hollywood glamour. My sister was in the audience. We sang two or three songs and I was so nervous. I asked her, “How did we do?” She said, “You guys did fine. ’One Less Bell’ sounded a little strange.” I was so nervous, my voice was actually shaking and I couldn’t stop it.
But you are so comfortable on stage.
I don’t get it often now. If we are breaking in a new show with a lot of new material and we haven’t performed it in front of an audience and don’t know what the response is going to be, there is an edge that comes with that.
What do you do when you don’t get that positive feedback and energy from an audience?
You are there to do a job. You have been paid to give them a show. Now you can’t always please everybody, but you always have songs in your show that you feel are icebreakers or crowd-pleasers. You feel like, ’Well, if this song didn’t work then this next song should work.’
One night, when I was doing “Solid Gold,” I was invited by Paramount Studios to perform for a group of people they were saying thank you to. I was the opening act and Johnny Mathis was the star. The people were more impressed with one another then they were with us [laughs]. I was singing and they were talking. That is one of those shows that has stayed in my memory in a not-too-pleasant fashion [laughing].
You have been singing your hits such as “Up, Up and Away” since the ’60s. Are you able to do it on autopilot? Does your mind wander? Can you forget where you are in a song?
Yes, yes to all of those questions. We can and often do sing them on autopilot, but when you do that there is always the risk that you can forget where you are even when you are singing a song you have sung 1,000 times. It teaches you not to approach your hit songs on autopilot. Each time you sing those songs in front of a new audience, it is a fresh experience for them. It is very easy for people to say, “Eh, pass. I’m not that interested in seeing them.” So to have them there wanting to see you and giving you the opportunity to continue to do something you wanted to do all your life, you look at it as a blessing.
On the roller coaster of fame, everyone asks: When did you know you made it? But I want to know when you realized you were being replaced by the next new thing and you had to find a way to stay relevant?
It happened kind of slowly, at least the first time, because I have been up and down a few times. Up with the 5th Dimension and then when Billy and I left the group, it was a trip. We left and thought, “Well, we will have to prepare ourselves because over the next few months we will probably become less relevant and people may not return our phone calls as quickly.”
Patricia, it happened within two months! We were shocked. That was before we recorded “You Don’t Have to be a Star.” Then all of a sudden we were hot again. You learn who the people are who really care about you. Then down again and then “Solid Gold” came along. We have been up and down a few times. The good thing is you know the routine.
So did singing, “Marry me, Bill” in “Wedding Bell Blues” have anything to do with you and Billy getting married?
Not really. Billy likes to tell people that is when he decided to propose to me, when I sang that song. That’s nonsense [laughing]. Actually, we were going together and we were putting together our new album, which was “The Age of Aquarius.” Laura Nyro, who wrote the song, recorded it as a single, and it was a hit in California. But it wasn’t a hit in the rest of the country. [Producer] Bones [Howe] brought the song to the group and said, “I think we should put this on the album.” It seemed like a lot of fun because Billy and I were going together. But by the time it came out we were already married.
Was there ever professional competition between you and Billy?
Uh, yeah, it started in the beginning [laughing]. Billy has this wonderful commercial voice and can sing all kinds of different music. In the beginning, Billy would always have at least three or four solos on our albums. I used to be like, “Well, I wish they would ask me to sing a song [laughing].” It wasn’t until “Age of Aquarius” and I recorded “Wedding Bell Blues.” It just so happened my first solo ended up being a hit record. Then I did “One Less Bell,” and that became a hit. So now Billy is thinking, “I have been singing all these solos and nobody has ever picked my songs.”
Show business is so hard on self-esteem. I read that you are very religious. Was that always the case?
In the beginning, I did not have a very strong faith. I started realizing there was something missing. I thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t grateful enough for all the wonderful things that had come to me. But it wasn’t that. I started realizing that God had a plan for each one of us. The main plan is he wants us to draw closer to him. That is when we find total fulfillment.
With all that said, were there any sacrifices you made for your career?
Ah, yeah. Billy and I have a son from Billy’s first marriage, and I am thankful that we do. We have been involved in Steven’s life. When Billy and I got married, Steven was 5. He was with his mother and then he came and lived with us for like six years and then went back to his mother in the latter part of his teens. We are very much together now.
I wish that maybe I had one or two more children. That is something I feel that I have missed out on. When you are out on the road a lot, you miss your friends’ and family’s special moments. So there is always something that you are going to miss out on. You know, we make choices and then we have to live with them.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.