A Conversation with Jimmy Webb about Harry Nilsson
Mike Ragogna: Jimmy, how've you been?
Jimmy Webb: Good. I'm on the road, I'm literally on the road but I'm enjoying myself. I've had some good gigs...that's my Summer tour. I'm just staying in the trees and I'll sit by the pond with my buddy. That's about it, that's the outlook. I read a really good review of the Harry Nilsson box set in Rolling Stone. It was a four-star review, it really made me feel good.
MR: And there's also the new book Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter.
JW: It's funny because I've got Alyn Shipton's book laying here on the floor of the car and I love the book. It's really a cool time for Harry, I just feel it.
MR: I wonder what it is about Harry Nilsson that people keep evoking him, using him as a source of inspiration, and citing him as one of their influences though Harry--with the fifteen or so albums that he had--didn't seem like he was one of those artists that was, at the time, considered as important as he ended up being.
JW: Well, he said to me one time while we were sitting and having a drink a couple of years before he went down, "You know, Jim, the way it's looking, people are only going to remember me for singing 'Without You.'" In a way, we're all victims of our heads. People have a tendency to focus on the chart material and a lot of the other stuff slides by. I wrote a full-on cantata, almost a secular cantata--even though I did deal with Christ to some degree--for Artie Garfunkel and Amy Grant called The Animals' Christmas. It cost a king's ransom and was probably two years in the making with a cast of thousands. Geoffrey Emerick was on the board and we put the thing out, and they had no idea what to do with it, CBS and Sony. It just went under the radar. I think that a lot of Harry's albums came out, some of them very good. He doesn't get a lot of credit for A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, but that was the first standards album. Everybody's gone hog-wild cutting American Songbook records, but Harry was the first one. That was an original thought, that was a real thing.
MR: Plus there was Nilsson Schmilsson, an enormously successful and popular LP.
JW: Nilsson Schmilsson, of course, was the great, I think, seminal record of Harry's career that Richard Perry produced. I was there for a while at the recording.
MR: You were there? What were the sessions like?
JW: They were very orderly. Richard Perry was a very organized producer who brought in top-quality sidemen, he was a good casting director, he knew who he wanted for certain things. He wanted Jim Keltner on the drums, he wanted this, he wanted that, or he wanted Nicky Hopkins; he had ideas about who he was using. Other people were using the guys out of Elton's band, like Dee Murray, the bass player, the guy they called "The Badge," who was an acoustic player. London was full of hot players and Richard liked to use that as a kind of artistic palate. Harry was more off in the direction of anarchistic art.
MR: [laughs] That's perfect.
JW: I remember one time walking into a session over at RCA in a big studio and he had actually just cut this magnificent record called "Salmon Falls."
MR: Oh yeah, what an awesome production!
JW: I was really stunned by this thing. I thought, "This is as important as any record I've ever heard." Beautiful Paul Buckmaster strings, yet still raw and raucous and rock 'n' roll and rebellious and also wise and instructive at the same time. It was a lot of things. It was symphonic but at the same time, it was still in the pocket. So I got over to hear this thing and he played it for me but what was going on out in the studio was pretty much a shambles. Brian Wilson was playing "Da Doo Ron Ron" on a B3 organ; he was singing that, and Danny Hutton and Micky Dolenz were doing vocals on something else, I don't know what. I couldn't honestly tell you what except that there was a horn section in there and Van Dyke (Parks) was humming the parts. I sat there for about twenty to thirty minutes and it was just a cacophony. I have to be honest with you, I was thinking to myself, "Jeez, I wonder if some of the executives from RCA walked in here right now, what they would think of this?" but some great things came out of it.
MR: Which recording session was that one?
JW: It was on the same slate with "Salmon Falls," but they had already done "Salmon Falls" by the time I got there, and they were working with steel drums and horns and all kinds of stuff. He was already way off into the third world thing. He was kind of like a pioneer; he's been undersold in a lot of areas.
MR: It seems that Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet are the pair of albums that were the gateway into Harry Nilsson's works if future fans didn't come in on a hit.
JW: Yeah, I would put my hand up and say, "Yeah, I knew about those records." What about them?"
MR: I'm just curious, how did they affect you when they came out?
JW: I'm going to be very candid with you...I was horrifically, irreparably envious.
MR: [laughs] Nice.
JW: I could not stand it that he was that good. I could not stand it. It was at least another brace of years before he and I got together and actually realized that we had a relationship in the offing and that we were going to be friends. I don't think that either one of us knew that we would come to rely on each other as much as we did.
MR: Jimmy, what was your relationship with him over the years? How did it progress?
JW: Well, he didn't involve me a lot in his recording. Like I said, I'll go back to Richard Perry. I played the piano on "Jump Into The Fire"; you can hear that, I'm credited on the album. It was just me sitting there pounding, [hums tune], so literally there was like blood on the keyboard. It was my sole contribution to Harry's records. But we were seriously like party mates to begin with, and I mean some hard partying. I was just talking to another one of my buds, Danny Ferguson, and I was saying the thing about Harry was you could never say that he threw in the towel. When you left the house with him, your wife would be saying, "When are you coming back?" Danny Hutton said, "Harry was a ride." That's the best quote that I could give you; that's the way the early days were. I think that, unfortunately, to kind of loop back to what I think your original question about his relative obscurity is, a lot of attention was paid to Harry's shenanigans and that has a way of distracting people. It's a shame, really, because he was doing some great things like "Salmon Falls." I defy anybody to listen to that and say that isn't seminal. That should have been Number One; that should have been like a Beatles record. But the party became a thing and a kind of code of honor went along with it.
MR: Yeah, as is evidenced on the album Pussy Cats with John Lennon.
JW: Yeah. I'm actually not making this up, but he came into my house one night coughing up blood. I said, "Holy s**t, I didn't know things had gotten so bad!" He said, "No, no, no. My lungs are fine, man. I left them on the mic.
JW: He was proud of that. There was a lot of testosterone floating through the air, and John, in a way... Well, there are a lot of Lennon fans out there, God forbid I should say anything about John, but he kind of brought out the worst in Harry. I think they would have probably both been better off if they had been somewhere else, doing something else. But I understood. I understood. I had been there, I had done it, but I had reached the point where--even though I never stopped loving him like a brother, and I think Ringo's right when he says, "Harry was my best friend," I think they were best friends, I was somewhere a little bit outside of the bullseye on that but we were close--I got to the point where I wasn't as much fun as I had been to start out. I started backing off of some of the really self-destructive behavior and I was getting a family going at home and rather liked that. I had a young wife, I had some things to deal with before I croaked off and went to the happy hunting grounds. I actually began to feel such a responsibility, which was kind of a miracle.
MR: But considering how so many artists, etc., partied hard like that, it was also a part of that era, wasn't it?
JW: Listen, all around us, it was part of us. You didn't go anywhere without your bottle of cocaine. Come on, I'm up front about it. Everybody had cocaine on them. Anybody could have been stopped at any time and arrested. Everybody was carrying, and if you weren't carrying, then you weren't hip. Some people, I guess they had their fill. Paul McCartney says that he stopped doing it, he might have been the only guy who stopped doing it, but everybody was into it, I would say, pretty strongly. I first started trying to put it behind me around 1979, 1980. I started tapering off and I remember that I got concerned about my children because they were getting old enough to know what drugs were. I got concerned about them seeing drug use or seeing material lying around the house. I became concerned that they would begin to take that as an ordinary part of life. By 1985, 1986, I was out of it completely, probably before that. I put that one behind me, though I still had a couple of hurdles to get over. I've been sober about fourteen years, fifteen years, I stopped smoking before that. It's been a gradual process for me, self-preservation. But at the time, everybody was doing it. People were hauling out their stash in a restaurant and knocking lines down on the table. Rolling up a hundred dollar bill right there.
MR: Can I ask you, just personally, when you realized and you stopped because of your family and all that, did you notice that your creativity changed at all?
JW: I have a good friend named Bill Whelan who's Irish and he wrote the music to Riverdance and when I told him I was going to stop drinking, he said, "You'll be surprised how lucky you get."
JW: Yeah, all of the sudden your luck comes back. Amazing things happen on the spiritual level with your mate, your children, with your friendships, and I think somewhere deep within you, you find a kind of spark in every day that makes it worth living.
MR: Nice, that's beautifully said. Jimmy, there was, Nilsson Sings Newman. It seems that as Randy Newman's popularity was steadily growing from word of mouth, as more people covered his material, and since he had his own critically acclaimed Warners albums...
JW: Oh, yeah, all of the albums were masterpieces in my book. My favorite is Good Old Boys.
MR: Mine too. I think that's one of the best albums ever recorded.
JW: Yeah, it was a widely misunderstood album, by the way. I also loved Little Criminals. I loved them all but I have my favorites. I think, in a way, it was inevitable that Randy and Harry were going to bump heads and I really feel like they did bump heads. I never really heard Harry say, "Oh, yeah, Randy, what a great guy," and I never really heard Randy say, "Yeah, Harry, what a great guy." But they had a similarity in their obliqueness to the mainstream. It was a definite similarity. Randy basically sings a character. That's his voice. It's kind of a bluesy, almost, dare I say, African-American... It's a kind of black sound.
MR: He would probably love that description.
JW: Well I hope so, I hope he would... But Harry, on the other hand, had this operatic tenor. He was the best singer around, man. When Lennon said, "He's my favorite group," that wasn't just a clever line. Anyone who sat and heard the two albums we talked about, Pandemonium... and Aerial Ballet, both of those albums were full of vocal gymnastics that were absolutely awe-inspiring, and if you thought you were a singer, you had to go back and look in the mirror! Here was a guy who could go from a baritone... He could probably go down to the E natural easily, E natural below middle C, probably D, and then he could go all the way up to damn near a high C in his chest voice. He was a freak. And forget about his falsetto, he's up there playing around and doing those yodeling things and playing games, making tricks happen with his voice. Guys are looking at him saying, "Yo, Harry, where'd you learn that one?" He must have spent a lot of time in the bathroom, listening to the echo. He loved echo, by the way, and he used echo as an instrument. He could overdub himself better than anybody I've ever heard. He's definitely in the same class with McCartney, and McCartney is no shabby singer by any means. But I think that Harry put himself in the first ring and I think that even people like Glen Campbell were a little bit stunned by the athleticism of this guy. He just kind of looked like a guy. He was a tall, imposing figure; he would grin at you and he could've been a truck driver. He was a real man of the people. He was the proletariat, but when he opened his mouth, look out! That's why some of those performances caught him and overshadow his records--they were such great performances that they were mountainous. They were pinnacles. I think now is a great time to go back and take another look at Harry, in light of what we know about all the drug use and all the crazy stuff that we were all into and that he seemed to gravitate towards. He reveled in offending people, to be honest with you. It didn't bother him too much.
MR: Pushing boundaries, just like his vocal gymnastics.
JW: Yeah. Absolutely.
MR: Jimmy, if Harry had lived to these days, what do you think he would be doing right now?
JW: He was a big family man. It's hard for people to sort of get that one down. It gets stuck in your throat, like when you choke on a soda pop and it goes halfway across the table. "He was a what?" He was a family man. Loved his family, loved his kids. He would call me every time they had a baby and told me, "We're gonna name this baby Bo," and tell me why they were naming him Bo. There was such tenderness there, that you rarely see in these teutonic American fathers with their chins jutting out, raising their children in manly, masculine ways. But Harry wasn't like that. He was gentle and playful with his kids. Walk into his house, and he'd be in a velvet bathrobe, probably gold-colored, laying in front of the fire with about three or four kids crawling around on top of him. He was a big bear, just as happy as a man could possibly be. I think that today, he would be loving his kids, helping them cope with life, appreciate it for the farce that it is and try to have a laugh. I think that he would be reveling in the idea of grandchildren, I think he would've loved a whole pile of them, that much, I'm absolutely certain of. In my view, he had made a heroic effort to clean up his act and he actually put together enough money to get his family out of bankruptcy, and he had a million dollars in the bank when he died. It was like somebody making an absolutely heroic, last pitch in the ninth inning of the World Series with two out and the whole world listening. His family, he loved even more than he loved drugs and partying and being friends with John. So to me, the one thing that I would like to get out there is he died like a man, he died heroically, he died with his head above water and he could look you straight in the eye and laugh about some pretty crazy goings-on, but he actually did pull it out of the fire. He has that song, "You can climb the mountain, you can swim the sea, you can jump into the fire but you'll never be free." That's actually the song that I played piano on, but in the final moments of his life, he did jump out of the fire and take care of what needed to be taken care of.
MR: So you think that's how we should remember Harry?
JW: I really do. I think we should remember him as a loving father, as someone who absolutely adored his wife on the level of obsession, was as good a friend as you could ever hope to be, and was a musical genius. The thing that tripped him up, if anything tripped him up... I remember one time he said to me, "Do you realize we're the only people in history to ever get to do this?"
MR: [laughs] That's so true, isn't it?
JW: I think if anything tripped him up, it was the notion that this was an opportunity that was not to be missed.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr.
Mike Ragogna: There's so much to talk about, but let's start by discussing two new reissues on Real Gone Music of your albums, The Two Of Us and Marilyn & Billy. Your first duet album together, I Hope We Get To Love In Time, earned you Grammies and featured one of the biggest hits of the seventies, "You Don't Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show)." Did you feel any pressure to follow-up that kind of success with the next album, The Two of Us?
Marilyn McCoo: There's always a sense of pressure.
Billy Davis, Jr.: Exactly right, you always want to come with something that could launch the next album or that could be a hit from that next album.
MM: Yeah, and you really would like to be able to follow up one success with another success. We felt that kind of pressure with The 5th Dimension, so absolutely, we felt a similar kind of pressure because we had had the hit, we had had the TV show.
MR: And the title track "The Two Of Us" comes from The Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. Show, right?
BDJ: That's right, yeah.
MM: And "The Two Of Us" was a song that we sang when we participated in The Tokyo Music Festival in 1977. We ended up winning the grand prize with that song.
MR: What was the grand prize was in those days?
BDJ: It was a beautiful trophy and I think a ten thousand dollar award.
MM: That was split with the songwriters.
BDJ: And we both got watches...
MM: ...gold watches, and some art pieces.
BDJ: It was very wonderful.
MR: So you had the show, you had probably the biggest record of the year, and that song's title became a catchphrase. "You don't have to be a star to be in my show" became embedded in the culture.
BDJ: Right, right, that's true.
MR: You had so many hits as part of one of the great vocal groups, The 5th Dimension, and then you had a monster single and Grammies as a duo. What an incredible amount of success you've had. Was it an overwhelming experience?
BDJ: It was an amazing surprise to us because the first single out on that was, "I Hope We Get To Love In Time," and then they came with "You Don't Have To Be A Star..." and it ended up being so big, it really put us right back where we were at with The 5th Dimension as far as popularity. It was a real surprise to us because we didn't expect it to happen that fast.
MM: Well, I would say that it didn't put us right back where we were with the group, I would say that it was a great launching pad, and it was like, "Wow, we are on our way, what do we do now?" We were just really excited about it and feeling like the sky was the limit."
BDJ: The reason I said that was because it helped to launch the TV show.
MM: That's true.
BDJ: Which took us to another level in our careers because now we got to be on TV.
MM: You're right about that.
BDJ: But that's one of the reasons why I think on The Two Of Us album, they decided to go with "Look What You've Done To My Heart" as the first single, which was a safe Marilyn/Billy single after something like that.
MM: It's something that sounded kind of like something we might do and it was a good song, but Billy and I were talking about it and remembering what was happening at the time. It seemed like that was a good way to go, but the market was moving on, and you never know that until you put something out and it's not getting the reaction you hoped it would.
MR: But didn't it seem to like a creative next step, regardless?
BDJ: It did to me.
MM: It did, and we threw in some things we felt would be a curve, like "My Very Special Darling" and also "The Times," which were kind of left field.
BDJ: We thought they were songs that people would enjoy hearing us sing.
MM: They were songs that we enjoyed singing, and we hoped they would enjoy them.
BDJ: But you know, one of the songs that we thought could really be a big record and that we both fell in love with so much is "My Reason To Be Is You."
MM: And we still love that song.
BDJ: We still love it.
MR: Now, you recorded all these songs where the topics are about being devoted to each other. In fact, I think you have more of them than any other recording couple I can think of. I guess your in love, huh.
MM and BDJ: [laughs]
BDJ: This is true.
MM: I think that's why we gravitated towards that kind of song, because it touched our hearts. It felt like we could really sing them with the feeling that we felt they deserved and we particularly like the songs.
MR: Billy, you wrote the song "In My Lifetime." I'll go out on a limb. It was a love song to Marilyn.
BDJ: Well, I was thinking about where we were at the time and I just wrote my feelings at the particular time.
MM: We'd been singing all these songs written by Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and now here we were singing a song that Billy had written and it was very exciting.
MR: Another thing that links this album back to 5th Dimension days, you covered a Bob Alcivar song, "Nightsong."
MM: Yes, we've always loved doing songs that were musically challenging, and Bob always gave us wonderful arrangements. He gave us "Dimension 5ive" for our group, and "Sky And Sea," and we wanted something like that on that album, and that was how "Nightsong" came into being.
MR: I remember "Dimension 5ive" from your amazing Portrait album, but also from when I worked with you on the double-disc, Up, Up And Away: The Definitive Collection that was recently converted into The Essential 5th Dimension. I recall you and Billy had requested specifically for that song to be on the album.
BDJ: Exactly right.
MM: Because we felt like with Up-Up And Away: The Definitive Collection, for it to truly be a "definitive" collection, it had to represent the group not just with the singles we had put out, but also with the music that kind of helped define where our heads were.
BDJ: We always enjoyed doing jazz-type numbers, even when we were with the group.
MR: The 5th Dimension covered so much territory. You were jazz, you were blues, you were pop, R&B... Billy, I feel like you got such a short end of the stick because you've got one of the great soul voices. I know you had to gravitate towards pop instead of R&B, but my feeling is your voice was made for soul.
BDJ: Thank you.
MM: His voice was made for R&B and yet he could do such a wonderful interpretation of a more or less pop ballad but turn it into something different.
MR: I dare people who listen to Billy's vocal on the 5th's version of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" to not get teary-eyed.
MM: Oh, that's one of my favorite recordings of Billy.
BDJ: Thank you. It was a good song and it was coupled with some other good songs, too, "The Declaration" and "People Gotta Be Free."
MR: Hey, I want to get to "The Declaration" for sure because I love that Nixon story. But let's move on to the album Marilyn & Billy. Do you remember what chain of events lead to you leaving ABC Records? Is it because they were shutting down and you needed to go to a new label and there was Columbia Records courting you?
MM: I think we started the project with Steve Cropper before they took us over.
BDJ: I think we started that with ABC.
MR: That would explain why all the ABC material moved over to Columbia.
MM: I think. I could be wrong on that because again, we've got a few years of forgetfulness in between.
MR: Okay, Frank Wilson produced The Two Of Us and then you moved to Steve Cropper for the next album. Was that because you guys wanted to make a change in your sound, or was it some other reason?
MM: Well, yeah, we were looking for something kind of exciting and different.
BDJ: More danceable.
MM: More danceable because disco was happening and Billy had become more and more interested and more and more involved in the studio. Billy had always been in the studios when 5th Dimension projects were being worked on. Bones Howe was always a very strong and focused producer and did some wonderful things with the group. Then we worked with...
MR: Jimmy Webb on the album Earthbound?
MM: Right. But Billy was becoming more and more interested in producing and it seemed like Steve Cropper and he could be an interesting combination. Steve had that wonderful R&B flavor.
MR: Yeah, his history with Stax and beyond.
MM: So he had Billy co-produce these things.
BDJ: The whole album.
MM: Yeah. You and Steve Cropper co-produced some of it and then you and Michael Masser produced some of it.
MR: Billy, you discovered early on that you'd rather not be a manager of a stable full of nightmare artists. Bonus tracks on The Two Of Us were originally produced for another artist, but you eventually put your own voice on them after your decision.
BDJ: Exactly right. I had all this music and money that I spent, so I decided to go ahead and put my voice on it.
MM: And not only that, but also Mike those were songs that Billy was playing around with after we left the group. At one period in time, Billy and I were trying to decide when we left the group if we should work together as a duet act or if we should work separately because we were both thinking about things we wanted to do and we were thinking that Billy was more of an R&B sound so he should go more in that direction and with me being more pop, I should go in the pop direction. So Billy started producing things by himself and those songs were early Billy Davis Jr. after we had left the group.
MR: Why did you both leave The 5th Dimension?
BDJ: Well, not to say that we were at each other's throats or anything, I just think we had different directions that we wanted to go. Marilyn and I always believed that we needed to sometimes woodshed and come up with new things, go in and learn some stuff and then come back, and some of the others just wanted to keep working, keep working, keep working, instead of trying to come up with anything new. We could see that the stuff that we were doing was getting to be old hat.
MM: And Billy and I wanted to explore new directions with the group's sound and that was one of the disagreements. Should we try to change the group's sound to go along where music was seeming to go, or should we stay in the sound that we had, which had brought us a great deal of success. I think that kind of question comes up with every artist when you've had a lot of success and then the market starts to change and musical directions start to change. You start wondering, "Do we need to change or should we stick with the formula that works?" That was something that we couldn't agree on, and Billy and I had both wanted to sing solo for a very long time, before the group started, even. So we felt like this was the time for us to explore that. We left the group thinking we were each going to go in our own musical directions and it was during that time period when we were working on our solo projects that we started to think that if something happened for Billy, and if something hopefully happened for me, that that might take us off in divergent directions and it might hurt our marriage.
BDJ: And we didn't want that. We would give up anything to not hurt our marriage.
MM: So that's when we decided, "Let's sing as a duet."
MM: So that's how those bonus cuts came about. They were before I Hope We Get To Love In Time.
MR: How did you get Don Davis to produce that project?
MM: Don Davis started working with me on some solos and then we started talking about going in and cutting some things as a duet, and Don said, "I can do that." Our A&R man at ABC thought that Don Davis would be a really, really good choice.
BDJ: That was Otis.
MM: Yeah, Otis Smith. So that's how that came together.
MR: So when you went from that album to The Two Of Us album, did you feel like you needed to switch it up a little bit and that's why you got with Frank? I mean, you had such a big hit with the guy.
MM: Well, Don Davis was in Detroit and we were in Los Angeles. We had had wonderful success with him, but scheduling had been a frustration from time to time and we were wondering if we should try something else to see if that would work better. Of course, how do you work better than a number one Grammy award-winning songwriter? We were still learning so much about the business.
MR: And to be able to be very successful as a married couple must have been head-spinning.
BDJ: It was, I was totally surprised for it to happen that quickly. We were prepared to really take some time to try to launch ourselves but then all of a sudden it just clicked.
MR: We're jumping around now, but let's get back to Marilyn & Billy. So you're with Steve Cropper, you're co-producing, you're having the time of your life. Then "Shine On Silver Moon" gets released and it's a club hit. Now all of a sudden you're a club act, which is a different experience now.
MM: It was, and we were glad to have some representation in that musical area, although it wasn't what we wanted to have for our career. We were not looking to be The Husband-And-Wife Donna Summer, although she had amazing success.
BDJ: At the time, disco was big. It was very heavy, and then, all of a sudden, when that record started going to the discos, we were like, "Okay," but we didn't know how far it would go. Once the guy came and re-mixed it for disco, we saw how right it was. That was a fun song to really do on stage.
MR: Billy you co-wrote "I Got The Words, You Got The Music."
BDJ: It was with a young lady by the name of Dolores Brown. She used to come to us with a few songs and I used to say, "Hey, this sounds great but it needs this and it needs that," and we'd sort of add on to it. Then the other writer on there, Bob Gallarza... Bob played guitar with The 5th Dimension for quite a while, and we used to collaborate quite a bit, and Bob would come with his suggestions for these songs. That's why you'd see Bob, myself, and Dolores as the writers.
MR: And a certain Marilyn McCoo's writing credit is on "So Many Things For Free."
BDJ: And you see Bob on that, too.
MM: And an interesting side note about Bob Gallarza is I think he goes by Robert Gallarza now. He went on to have some wonderful success in the Latino market in Texas.
BDJ: He's huge! He's put out a few CDs on his guitar. The way he plays, they're just beautiful things, and they were very big in the Latino market.
MR: I also see Michael Masser wrote some songs here. He's had such big hits, what was it like working with Michael and Steve in the studio as co-producers?
BDJ: Well Steve was easy to work with. We kind of married up together, we had the same feelings about music. That's not to say that Michael was hard to work with, don't get me wrong, but Steve did more R&B. Our thoughts seemed to flow together, like on the song, "I Thank You," the Sam & Dave number. It just flowed for us because it was something that both of us felt and we could do it and we knew what felt good where. But Michael's stuff was more ballads and more pop, which was still fine with me because I could do it. I thought that "Stay With Me" and "Saving All My Love For You" were fabulous numbers.
MR: And years later, it becomes one of Whitney Houston's biggest hits and signature songs.
MR: I'd bet that your version with Michael Masser served as the prototype when it was time to do the Whitney Houston version.
MM: Well I know that he loved that song, and he believes that every song he's written is going to be a hit.
BDJ: And Michael will take them anywhere.
MM: If it's not a hit the first time, he'll try again. And Michael's very clear and very definite about where he wants to go with his music and what he wants to hear, so the energy was different in the studio.
MR: How did you feel when you heard Whitney on the radio with that song?
MM: Of course, I was fascinated to hear what she had done with it. When I heard her voice hitting those notes with that pure sound and the ideas that she executed, I heard it and I said, "Yeah, she nailed it!" It's so funny because we talked to you the other night about it, and then we saw a movie the other night that ended with "Saving All My Love For You." I went back to our conversation of a few days ago and listened to it again ever-so-closely because of our conversation, and once again, I heard it and I said, "Yeah!" She was, without question, one of our greatest singers.
MR: I have to say, I think there are similarities in your voices.
MM: Well, I consider that a compliment!
MR: There's a naturalness with both of your approaches to singing, a real honesty that comes across. When did you both start hoping you'd get to love in time, so to speak?
MM: You mean when did we fall in love? This is the interesting thing. Billy and I hit it off as buddies before The 5th Dimension started. Billy had come out from St. Louis to Los Angeles looking for a record deal with Motown. I met him through Lamonte McLemore because Lamonte and I had sung with a group, The Hi-Fi's. It was a jazz group, and we toured with Ray Charles. But that group had broken up and Billy had come out and Billy started hanging out with us as we went to parties. Billy and I would sit down and we would start talking about music and start talking about our dreams and our goals and our hopes for ourselves, so we would spend a lot of time talking to each other. That was early on, and then the group came together, and then we started rehearsing, and then I started picking Billy up because at the time, Billy did not have a car.
BDJ: Billy didn't have nothing.
MM: Billy had a dream.
BDJ: [laughs] I had a dream. Thank God it came true.
MM: I would pick Billy up and go to rehearsal and we just talked and talked and talked and laughed, and Billy would tell me about his girlfriends and I would tell him about my boyfriends and our problems. We were just buddies. And then, I don't remember how much time later, some months later, I got to know Billy, and I thought, "He's such a cool guy, it's a shame that he's my buddy, he would be a great boyfriend!" But I wasn't attracted to him, I was attracted to him as a really wonderful human being. I always tell the story, and it's in our book, about the blue-and-white plaid pants that Billy had that he would wear on stage before we started doing all our matching outfits, our Boyd Clopton designs. One night, Billy was on stage moving and dancing and I was watching him and I thought, "Oh, that's interesting!"
MR: Wait, it was the pants!
MM: So my song started to change a little.
BDJ: Mike, I didn't know that, but when she started doing things that were out of character...
MM: ...for your buddy.
BDJ: For my buddy... I started saying, "Wait a minute," and this fascination started to come and it was like, "Oh, no. This can't happen because we're buddies, and if this doesn't work, we can't stay together."
MM: There goes the groove.
BDJ: There goes the groove, there goes the friendship, there goes everything. And we stayed away from it as long as we could, but it just started to click and then we stayed with it.
MM: And here we are.
BDJ: God sanctioned it, because here we are.
MR: Marilyn, did your "Come on and marry me Bill" from "Wedding Bell Blues," have anything to do with your getting married? Was Laura Nyro in this mix as well!
MM: Well actually she wrote it for a Bill in her life. She had written it for a guy in her life named Bill, and she recorded it and it was released as a single here in California. When we were working on The Age Of Aquarius album, Bones Howe, our producer, brought it to one of the listening sessions when we were considering music to record and he thought it would be a lark for me to sing "Wedding Bell Blues," because Billy and I were going together. At the time that we recorded it, we had not decided to marry yet.
MR: So that song is kind of in the mix for real, it was a legitimate, "Marry me, Bill!"
BDJ: Yes, exactly right!
MM: Except that I wasn't trying to get married. We were doing fine!
BDJ: So many people got to looking at us like we were married that after a couple of years, everybody was wondering, "When are you guys going to get married?" I said, "Well we've been going together for two years now, maybe we ought to go ahead and get married because we don't want this thing to get away from us." So I hit her with the question and here we are.
MM: And I said, "There you go."
BDJ: "There you go, playing games again."
MR: Billy, when you proposed, were you wearing those pants?
MM: Sure, he proposed to me in the blue and white plaid pants. No, that's not true.
BDJ: No, I wasn't wearing the pants. That's a good one, Mike, I like that.
MR: By the way, congratulations on your book Up-Up And Away: How We Found Love, Faith, And Lasting Marriage In The Entertainment World. Marilyn, you began to sing lead on many of the 5th hits such as "One Less Bell To Answer," "Love's Lines, Angles And Rhymes," "(Last Night) I Didn't Get To Sleep At All," and "If I Could Reach You." Maybe it started with "Wedding Bell Blues"...
MM: It's kind of hard to say. I'd say that "Wedding Bell Blues" was...
BDJ: ...like a fluke.
MM: Yeah, although Bones always said that he thought we might have a hit with that. But then "One Less Bell To Answer" was a totally different sound from "Wedding Bell Blues." After "One Less Bell..." it seemed like all of a sudden, they started kind of following that direction.
MR: And it was validated because you kept having hit after hit with that sound.
MM: Yeah, well it was kind of hard for the group. It was even hard for me. I was delighted to have songs that I was singing lead on and to have them being received so well but it was hard because we were still basically a group, and we had always gone with a group sound, and when we did have leads, most of the time, those leads would be Billy, not me. If you look at the first three albums, Billy sang lead on a number of the album cuts. So it was an awkward time.
BDJ: It was awkward for the rest of the group, too, because our second album, Magic Garden, had the song, "The Worst That Could Happen." The reason why they didn't release the version with my lead was because they wanted to keep The 5th Dimension sound.
MM: They said "The 5th Dimension sound is a group sound," so they did not release "The Worst That Could Happen," which was a song that The 5th Dimension recorded first.
MR: Wow. Billy, you were robbed!
MM: So then The Brooklyn Bridge covered that and released it and had a huge hit with it.
BDJ: Now here' something that will knock you down; when we heard it on the radio, we thought it was me! That's how close it was! We actually thought it was me. Marilyn had to say, "Billy, that's not us, there's no background on ours.
MM: I heard some background vocals on the version that was playing on the radio, and I said, "Baby, that's not us. It sounds like you, but we didn't sing any backgrounds on your version."
BDJ: I thought it was me. We were still supposed to be having The 5th Dimension sound but then once we started having hits with Marilyn, they just kept going and going with that.
MR: That's why I always say your not being a household name is unfair. I mean, listen to how soulfully you sang songs like "Let The Sunshine In," "My Song," "Feeling Alright?" and especially "The Rainmaker."
MM: That was quite a song, wasn't it?
BDJ: That was a good song cause it was a challenge. "The Rainmaker" was almost like me doing "Rosecrans Boulevard." I love those offbeat songs because they're always a challenge.
MR: Yeah. And the other thing I wanted to bring up is that it seems like it might be arguable that "Together Let's Find Love" might have been the first Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. duet single.
MM: Well, yeah!
BDJ: You've got a point there, because I always thought "Together Let's Find Love" was one of the best songs we did as a duet, and it fit. It just flowed, but it didn't catch on.
MM: There are some songs that can be wonderful songs, but they have to hit at the right time, and if they don't, they've missed their moment.
MR: And my feeling is you also have to be on a label where Clive Davis wants to really make a hit out of your song, too.
BDJ: Exactly right.
MM: The record company has to be in it and ready to make it happen.
BDJ: And let's be honest, a lot of those songs took a lot of money to make hits.
MR: Yeah, yeah exactly.
BDJ: They put a lot of money behind those songs to make them be hits.
MR: "Promotional money."
BDJ: Exactly right. If you've got that kind of money to put behind them, and the record companies do, you've got a better chance.
MR: There you go. So let's take the Marilyn & Billy story further. You both had Christian music careers and you also hosted the TV show Solid Gold, Marilyn. Solid Gold followed the Marilyn & Billy album, right?
MM: Yes, exactly, yeah. The record career was floundering and we weren't quite sure where we were going to go and we were trying to figure out where we were going to go. Then along came this opportunity to audition for Solid Gold to work with Andy Gibb. The first year of Solid Gold, Dionne Warwick hosted it and then the second year, they decided they wanted to go with Andy Gibb being the main host but they liked the combination of the white male and the black female. They had done that with Dionne and Glen Campbell, and they liked that look, so they decided that they wanted to try that with the show. I went in and did an audition with Andy Gibb and they liked our dynamic together. But it was so funny because, at the time, I came home and my manager called. I said to Billy, "Baby, they want me to do Solid Gold but I'm really worried." He said, "What are you worried about?" I said, "I'm worried about our recording career," and he said, "What recording career? We don't have a record deal right now!"
BDJ: "We don't have a recording career, you'd better get on Solid Gold so we can keep going!"
MR: Years later, you have The Many Faces Of Love, your 40th Anniversary album. Can you go into that album a little bit?
BDJ: Well, we wanted to celebrate our forty years of marriage and decided that we wanted to do some love songs that we enjoy.
MM: And love songs from that era when we fell in love. We just really felt like this was something we wanted to do as a tribute to our marriage, and that's why we did it. We worked with Scott Smith and Laythan Armor because they were two people who we liked very much, who had become friends, and whose music we had enjoyed. We all worked on putting that project together.
MR: How do you keep your voices so in such good shape?
MM: We feel like it's a blessing.
BDJ: A gift from God, really.
MM: We've never done a lot of heavy hanging out, and we don't do a lot of heavy hanging out now. We're not up until four or five o'clock in the morning. We don't do a lot of drinking and all that stuff. We try to do all the right things that you're supposed to do.
BDJ: Especially to keep your voice.
MM: It's worked for us. I mean, you don't have to self-destruct just because you're a performer. There are a lot of performers out there that take care of themselves and continue working for many, many years.
BDJ: And then there are a lot of performers that self-destruct because they think that they're supposed to do all the things that show business has got to offer.
MR: They bought into whatever that fantasy is.
BDJ: ...of "how show business should be."
MR: I imagine you guys still enjoy performing live after all these years.
BDJ: Oh, yeah.
MM: Yes we do, and we do our hits, but we also love continuing to find other music to add. Billy's doing some wonderful blues in our shows now, and I end up doing some jazz ballads and things like that.
BDJ: And they're wonderful, too.
MM: So we play around with stuff and continue to enjoy doing what we do.
MR: Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., what is your advice for new artists?
BDJ: One of the things, I would like to say for new artists is make sure you are dedicated to your profession, because dedication is probably one of the most important things as far as trying to make it in this business. This business demands dedication.
MM: And I would like to say try to be true to who you are as an artist, to your own sound, because there's there so much talent out there, there's so much competition. It's really interesting to watch shows like American Idol and The Voice and all those shows that are out there today and you see these young artists come out there and they do what they do. Don't try to be somebody else, be who you are and bring what you feel you have to share with the audience. You see somebody like Adele; if you were to see a picture of her without hearing her sing, you would say, "Oh that's cute. That will never happen." But as soon as she opens her mouth and you hear this incredible talent, this incredible gift... She has taken the world by storm because she's true to who she is as an artist.
MR: Isn't it amazing that she was able to break through the din of all the dance music and all the electronic stuff?
BDJ: Isn't that something, she broke right through it. Yes.
MM: Well you know, an interesting thing, too, Mike, is that Billy and I always talk about timing. Timing is so important.
BDJ: I think the world was ready for that sound, ready for something different.
MM: Sometimes, someone with the most incredible gift can come along and not click and it's not because they're not incredibly talented, it's the timing.
BDJ: And so many of those things have happened. We knew incredible singers that tried and just didn't make it so they're off doing something else.
MM: Or you can continue to do what you want to do and not think in terms of "I'm going to sell ten million records." Come out there and do it because you love it and let it take you where it's going to take you, and hopefully, you can make a career doing what you love.
MR: I felt like that one of the secrets of Adele's success was that she sings with an honesty and passion. It raises goosebumps, and it's like a natural thing for her.
BDJ: That's true. What you said is real.
MM: She is truly gifted.
MR: One last thing that is one of my favorite 5th Dimension moments. Please can you go into the story of singing "The Declaration" at The White House for Richard Nixon?
MM: Oh boy. Well, The 5th Dimension was invited to perform at The White House, and it was for President Nixon and the fifty governors. They were having a conference about drugs. Of course, any artist that's invited to perform at The White House is honored. We were very excited about it. One of the records that was out for us at the time was "The Declaration" based on The Declaration Of Independence.
BDJ: And when we did "Up-Up And Away," they wanted to check our lyrics because we're talking about this beautiful balloon and they thought it was some drug thing.
MM: They wanted to find out what kind of balloon we were talking about. But anyway, a friend of ours had put The Declaration of Independence to music, so we thought that it would just be really incredible to sing The Declaration of Independence in The White House in Washington, D.C.. Of course, The Vietnam War was going on at the time and there was a lot of anti-war protesting going on, so when we finished the song, there was a moment of silence because if you look at the words to The Declaration of Independence, it's really kind of...what's the word I'm looking for here?
MM: Revolutionary. And here we are singing these words at this time when there's all this protest going on and people saying, "We shouldn't be in Vietnam, we need to get out of there." The fifty governors really didn't know whether to clap or what, so there was this moment of silence and everybody kind of looked at the president. President Nixon started applauding, and once he started applauding, everyone started applauding. But it was a very awkward moment for us.
BDJ: I think he even stood up and started applauding. Then all the other governors stood up and started applauding.
MR: So there wasn't anything afterwards like the secret service rushing you guys away and debriefing you, was there?
BDJ: No, no that didn't happen. We kind of got away with that.
MM: It was awkward for that moment, but you know, President Nixon handled it very well. And everybody was fine because this is what our country was built on.
MR: That's one of my favorite stories ever of any group. What an amazing part of history to have been a part of. That's really incredible.
MM: It really was. That was an incredible moment.
BDJ: I'm going to give you another little trivia here before we leave. That song, "The Declaration," we've had so many teachers in school tell us that they have used that record to teach children The Declaration of Independence.
MM: Because when something is set to music, it's easier to learn the words.
MR: I may use that for my own kid.
MM: Yeah! You'll be amazed. Sometimes when I try to quote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," then all of a sudden I have to stop and sing it under my breath.
MR: Well, I have to be honest, the times that I've had to refer to it, I've had to think of the song.
MM: Have you, too?
MR: Actually, that song is my only way of remembering most of The Declaration of Independence.
MM: Well then you know exactly what we're talking about.
MR: So thanks for having that recording. I don't want to keep you too much longer. You're an amazing couple, wonderful artists...
MM: We always enjoy talking to you, Mike.
MR: I've appreciated your records for decades, and I want to thank you personally for your music. You contributed in a major way to my life. All the best with everything.
MM: Well, thank you.
BDJ: We appreciate that, Mike.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne