In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. – “You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show)”
HIT #1: January 8, 1977
STAYED AT #1: 1 week
When two people leave a group together, and then go on to record with each other, what do you call that? It’s not a solo career. A duo career? I guess it’s a duo career.
In 1969, the same year that the 5th Dimension hit #1 with “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” the two most visible members of the group married each other. Billy Davis, Jr. had been, more or less, the leader of the 5th Dimension. Marilyn McCoo had been its best singer and its obvious breakout star. The two of them met in the 5th Dimension. They got married when they were in the 5th Dimension. They decided to leave the 5th Dimension together. And then, almost eight years after those two #1 hits, McCoo and Davis got to the top of the charts one more time, with a song that they were basically singing to each other.
McCoo and Davis decided to leave the 5th Dimension in 1975 after they both took part in est, the vaguely cultish and extremely ’70s self-help workshop thing. They figured they weren’t actualizing their potential. Apparently, they were right. At first, the idea for both of them was to launch their own solo careers. But when McCoo started working with Don Davis, the former Stax producer who’d had a huge hit with Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady” the previous year, Billy Davis, Jr. decided that they should make an album of duets instead. (As far as I can tell, Don Davis and Billy Davis, Jr. are not related.)
Don Davis wanted to get a distinctly non-5th Dimension sound for the group’s two ex-members, so he tried to make the two of them sound as Motown as possible. Don Davis got the song “You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show)” from two former Motown staff songwriters, James Dean (not that one) and John Glover. The song wasn’t originally supposed to be a duet, but he reworked it so that it would work as one — an in-love couple singing to each other rather than a solo singer offering an ode to a significant other. Don Davis also brought in a group of former Motown session musicians, including James Jamerson, one of the greatest bass players who has ever lived.
Every member of the 5th Dimension was black, but the 5th Dimension were never really a presence on R&B radio. Instead, that group made a form of genteel supper-club pop music that was geared to white audiences. “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” had a different trajectory, hitting first on R&B radio before crossing over to the mainstream. McCoo and Davis sounded just as happy and unthreatening on their own as they had in their old group, but they were tapping into a different sound.
And yet there’s not that much difference between “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” and those previous hits. Motown and supper-club pop had both been big influences on disco, and while “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” isn’t exactly disco, its bright, buoyant strings and ecstatic horn-bursts at least push it in that direction. Maybe Don Davis was just aiming for a classic Motown sound and not quite getting there — and if you were making Motown pastiche in the mid-’70s and not quite getting there, it just ended up sounding like disco.
The big difference between those old 5th Dimension hits and “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” is that “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” has room in it. Rather than doing up-with-people group singalongs, McCoo and Davis had the space to show their voices off, to do gospel-style runs and dips and twirls. That worked great for McCoo, a stupendously gifted technical singer with a Broadway-ready crystalline warmth to her voice. Davis didn’t have that same range, but he had a nice Southern grit. They have chemistry, and they complement each other.
What they don’t really have is personality. You can’t get much of a sense of who McCoo and Davis are from “You Don’t Have To Be A Star.” They’re directing generic love-song lyrics at each other, and they sound like distant echoes of more-famous singers. “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” basically sounds like the budget version of a Diana Ross/Al Green duet. (Ross and Green never actually sang together. That would’ve ruled.)
McCoo and Davis certainly make the most of “You Don’t Have To Be A Star,” but the song itself just isn’t especially strong or memorable. It’s got one of those choruses where the two of them just repeat the same phrase over and over, and the phrase itself is about five words too long. Most of the backing musicians do great work — especially Jamerson, who is subtle and in-the-pocket but also busy. (James Jamerson basslines are like that. You can hear a song a hundred times and not notice his work at all, and then you can just suddenly catch on one day to how hard he was killing it.) But there’s also a truly irritating flute in there, and the arrangement does nobody any favors. “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” is a pleasant-enough song, but it’s not really anything more than that.
After “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” had its run, McCoo and Davis never got back into the top 10. They spent the summer of 1977 hosting a CBS variety show; they were the first black couple to get their own one of those. In 1978, they recorded the original version of “Saving All My Love For You,” a song that will eventually end up in this column. Later on, McCoo hosted a season of Solid Gold. The two of them seem to have settled into a life of semi-fame, performing together on the oldies and gospel circuits and occasionally putting out records together. They also co-wrote a book in 2004.
This past summer, McCoo and Davis celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. So maybe they’re not stars, but they’re still in each other’s show.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Janet Jackson and Ralph Carter singing “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” together on a 1978 episode of Good Times:
(Janet Jackson will eventually appear in this column. Ralph Carter will not.)
PUBLISHING NOTE: This column has been daily since it started last year, but at least on a trial basis, we’re moving it to three days a week — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If this sucks for anyone, please let me know in the comments section.