'No greater honor than working for the Lord': Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr. say faith drives their music

The 5th Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in 'Summer of Soul.'
The 5th Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in "Summer of Soul." | Searchlight Pictures

For Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. of the Grammy-winning group The 5th Dimension, faith has always been the driving force behind their decadeslong music career.

“There is no greater honor than to be working for the Lord,” Davis told The Christian Post. 

The husband-wife duo, who've been married for over three decades, co-founded the original The 5th Dimension, known for classics including “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Sweet Blindness.” 

A devout Christian who grew up in the church — and became a pastor himself — Davis said that while the group’s songs aren't overtly religious, many of them are infused with “gospel flavor.”

“Growing up in the church and being a believer, it's just a part of something that’s just in you,” the 83 year old said.  

“Not to say that I converted to secular music, but … it’s all I wanted to do in my life. But I also didn’t want to deny my faith and my background. So I just brought that with me. The songs that we sang were going to end up having some gospel flavor to them because that's what I came out of.”

The couple, who've been performing for more than 60 years, have broken numerous racial and cultural barriers, and are among a slew of iconic artists featured in "Summer of Soul." The acclaimed music documentary premiered on Hulu over the weekend and is playing in theaters nationwide. 

Across six days in 1969, tens of thousands of people gathered in a park in Harlem to see performances by The 5th Dimension, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, David Ruffin of The Temptations, Gladys Knight and others. 

Over 40 hours of the Harlem Cultural Festival were filmed by the TV producer Hal Tulchin, but the footage remained in the basement for nearly 50 years. Thanks to first-time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, that footage is now available in a two-hour documentary. “Summer of Soul” isn’t just footage from a concert; it’s an exploration of politics, art, fashion and black culture in the 1960s. 

Wearing bright orange and yellow outfits, The 5th Dimension performed their hit song "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” at the festival. For the group, the opportunity to perform at the festival was monumental, as they’d been unfairly dubbed, as McCoo points out in the documentary, “the black group with the white sound.”

So watching the footage back for the first time five decades after it was filmed, McCoo recalled, was nothing short of awesome. 

“We were really happy to be there because it was a free concert,” McCoo recalled. “And we were getting a chance to go and perform in front of a large group of our own people who very seldom would come get a chance to come and see what The 5th Dimension was doing because quite often our tickets might be too costly for them to be able to afford to come. 

"But this was a free concert, and they brought their children and they were there, they were ready to have a good time, they were excited about it. And I just remember that; I just remembered the whole feeling of the surroundings and the energy of that day was awesome.”

Watch the interview below:

Earlier this summer, the couple also released their first album in nearly three decades, Blackbird: Lennon-McCarthy Icons. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, the album pays tribute to songs penned by Beatles’ songwriters John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

“We wanted to reach out and encourage people to try to get to know one another, and to start showing one another love and caring about one another,” McCoo said, adding that many of the Beatles’ hits fit the message the couple wanted to deliver. 

“We are more alike than we are different, and we just felt like this project was giving us a chance to communicate that to our listening audience," she continued.

The Beatles music, Davis agreed, can be interpreted in many different ways. Davis and McCoo's gospel-infused cover of the song "Help," for example, is reminiscent of a prayer pleading to God for help in fighting hatred. 

“It’s the way it’s interpreted,” Davis explained. “They were asking for help, but I took it in more of a Gospel way of the way that I felt the help was needed and coming from a place from above. You're really pouring your heart out for this help and asking the One that could really help you to help.”

The album also reflects the duo's commitment to civil rights. The song “Ticket to Ride” is a tribute to Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement who refused to give up her seat to a white man, while "Blackbird" is an homage to those who have sacrificed their lives in the name of justice.

“We're so excited about the response that we've been getting from people who've been listening to the project and saying how much they have been touched by those songs,” McCoo shared.

The songwriting pair said they pray that listeners take their message of love and inclusion to heart. “And that they will understand where we're coming from, what we’re all about, what we need to do and what we're trying to say,” Davis added.

“One of the things we pray [is that] this project that we worked on, Blackbird: Lennon-McCarthy Icons, will be something … that will bring some healing and some togetherness to our nation which is so badly needed right now,” he said. 

“Summer of Soul” (rated PG-13) is now showing in theaters streaming on Hulu.

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