He-and-She Act, Working on a Cabaret Thing, Baby
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. performing at the Cafe Carlyle.
HIROYUKI ITO FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
The husband-and-wife team of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. are a prime illustration of how pop culture, which seems so complex at any given moment, eventually congeals into a nostalgic cavalcade in which distinctions among musical styles and eras begin to dissolve.
In the duo’s debut engagement at the Cafe Carlyle, George Gershwin, Otis Redding, Motown, the Beatles, the theme from “Solid Gold,” Burt Bacharach, Sam Cooke and Laura Nyro bleed into one another in an all-purpose hit parade in which familiarity is the binding ingredient.
Ms. McCoo and Mr. Davis, now both in their mid 60s, are the most famous alumni of the Fifth Dimension, the group that homogenized pop and rock strains into cheerful, polished lounge music that made grown-ups feel comfortably groovy 40 years ago. At Tuesday’s opening-night show they announced they were about to celebrate their 39th wedding anniversary. Their cozy his-and-hers act inevitably evoked comparisons to those other longtime lovebirds, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who have made Feinstein’s at the Regency their New York nightclub base.
Whereas Ashford and Simpson convey real enthusiasm, joy and spontaneity, Ms. McCoo and Mr. Davis retail a packaged togetherness that feels more authentic on television than in cabaret. Both are still strong singers, although Ms. McCoo’s bright, metallic voice on Tuesday showed signs of erosion. She overcompensated by singing louder and applying excessive ornamentation to “One Less Bell to Answer.”
When Mr. Davis sang “Grits Ain’t Groceries (All Around the World),” a 1955 rhythm-and-blues hit for Little Willie John, revived 14 years later by Little Milton, the unvarnished soul singer inside him strode to the fore. That song, as well as a tribute to Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” suggested that his deepest musical loyalties have always been to rawer sounds than he is known for.
Ms. McCoo’s musical flashback to her earliest influences was Edward Redding’s torch song, “The End of a Love Affair.”
Vocally assisted by Darrell Alston, their musical director and pianist, and by Major Black, the guitarist in a quartet with Kevin O’Neal on bass and David Cowan on drums, they created a reasonable facsimile of the Fifth Dimension harmonic blend. As Mr. Davis and Ms. McCoo led the audience in a singalong of their biggest hit, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” 1969 seemed very near and further away than ever.
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. will appear through May 31 at Cafe Carlyle, at the Carlyle Hotel, 35 East 76th Street, Manhattan; (212) 744-1600, thecarlyle.com/entertainment.cfm.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company