Entertainment Lead Story Local News Music West Edition

Singing duo speaks at Dorsey about life, success

LOS ANGELES — They didn’t just come to talk about their music.

Singers Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo visited Dorsey High School Sept. 25 as part of the sixth annual Back to School With the History Makers program.

Davis and McCoo, who helped form the singing group The 5th Dimension, discussed their marriage and the importance of performing in the classroom as well as onstage.

Some of their best-known songs include the Grammy Award-winning “Up, Up, and Away,” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which played before the student assembly.

For McCoo, it was chance to visit her alma mater. She graduated from Dorsey in 1960.

She told the students she started attending Dorsey in the middle of her junior year.

She said she wanted to find topics that would hold the students’ attention, and that she “prayed about it” for inspiration beforehand.

“I wanted the kids to see how teachers can be very important in their lives,” McCoo said later “I had four [Dorsey] teachers that really impacted me. One was a negative story with a positive outcome. I didn’t want all of [the stories] to be wonderful.”

Among McCoo’s high school mentors was a drama teacher who chose her to play the lead in a school production, and another who placed her in an advanced composition class after she learned of her college aspirations.

Although she had a less affirming relationship with her 11th grade history teacher, McCoo said still counted her as an important influence. She said the teacher tested her strength when she assigned the class to write an essay on an important person.

When McCoo chose African-American abolitionist and statesman Frederick R. Douglass, she discovered that her teacher did not know who he was. Then, after she turned in the paper, the teacher asked her which book she copied it from.

“Instead of letting this woman belittle me and get me down, I started feeling pretty good,” McCoo said. “If she thought I copied it from somewhere, that must mean I’m a good writer.”

The students expressed disbelief and outrage when they heard that a teacher did not know whom Douglass was, a reaction that reflects progress, according to McCoo.

Indeed, the school’s ethnic profile may have looked different when McCoo was a student. She said she remembered more Caucasian than black students. Now, the school represents 100 percent minority enrollment with black students as the majority at 52 percent, according to the Public School Review.

Donald Singleton, the Dorsey government teacher who organized the event at the school, said that he “loved it,” and would welcome guests from the HistoryMakers again.

“They were insightful and honest,” he said. “I liked how they stressed that education is essential and that they talked about academic rigors, not just the entertainment world.”

Students, too, enjoyed the presentation. One 16-year-old senior for example, described it as “very inspirational,” and said she was impressed that, “they took something so little like being in the choir and took it as far as they did. Most people don’t make it that far.”

The student, who plays volleyball and soccer and took photographs of the assembly for the yearbook, said she was surprised that McCoo and Davis had stayed married for 46 years. That provoked an astonished reaction from the audience as well.

The couple met in Los Angeles while pursuing music careers. After they married in 1975, they left The 5th Dimension and released an album together the following year, “I Hope We Get To Love In Time.”

It featured the single, “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show),” which went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned the pair a Grammy Award.

In 2004, McCoo and Davis wrote a book: “Up, Up and Away…How We Found Love, Faith and Lasting Marriage in the Entertainment World.”

Although they started out as friends, McCoo said she was not attracted to Davis at first.

“I didn’t like her either!” Davis responded, with laughs from the students.

The couple stressed that marriage was another endeavor that took as much hard work and “compromise” as a successful music or academic career.

“So many students seemed interested in what we had to share,” McCoo said later. “I think kids today, they want to get it right, find opportunities to make their lives better, so they’re open to listening to us older folks.”

The visit from McCoo and Davis Jr. was part of the History Makers program.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spearheads the nationwide program that saw 400 prominent African-Americans visiting classrooms in 67 cities in 32 states to share the stories behind their success.

Ten others participated in the Los Angeles area, including jazz singer Carmen Lundy and radio host Greg Mack, who appeared at El Camino Real Charter High School in the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica High School, respectively.