‘The Magic Garden’ Revisited: Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. on Jimmy Webb

1967: It’s “The Summer of Love” but things aren’t so lovely in Hollywood.

The 5th Dimension are recording The Magic Garden with producer Bones Howe. It’s an ambitious follow-up to the group’s debut, Up, Up and Away (1967), which featured five compositions by Jimmy Webb, including the Top 10 title track. In between arranging and conducting the sessions for the new album, Webb discusses his lyrics with the group. Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Jr., Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore, and Ron Townson sing the words with their distinct, precise harmonies. The Magic Garden is the young songwriter’s first album-length score. He’s only 21 years-old.

Unlike its predecessor, this musical journey was not a ride in a beautiful balloon. In fact, upon close inspection of the lyrics, the mini-opuses of The Magic Garden sounded like someone took a spear and tore that beautiful balloon to shreds. The melodies and rhythms had to be accessible for AM radio play, yet a palpable undercurrent of anguish and melancholy resided beneath the sitars and harpsichords. Even the singles extracted from the album had a brilliantly deceptive optimistic quality. Did radio listeners realize that they were singing along to one man’s torment about the dissolution of a love affair?

The real-life fortunes of both Jimmy Webb and the 5th Dimension dramatically contrasted with those of the protagonist in The Magic Garden. “Carpet Man” and “Paper Cup” climbed into the Top 40 in early-1968 while a cover of “Worst That Could Happen” by New York-based group Brooklyn Bridge became a Top 5 gold single the following year (The hit prompted the 5th Dimension’s record label to re-release and re-title The Magic Garden with the title of the hit song) As “Carpet Man” commenced its run on the charts, the Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon-produced title track of Up, Up and Away earned an astounding six Grammys at the 10th Annual Grammy Awards. That same year, Glen Campbell was awarded two trophies for his recording of Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”.

Of course, the 5th Dimension would record many more of Jimmy Webb’s compositions throughout its career, and Webb’s collaborations with a number of legendary artists created one of the most respected song catalogs in popular music. The Magic Garden captures the songwriter and the group at a moment when all of the right elements conspired to deliver a seminal album. 5th Dimension co-founders Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. recently recalled the experience of working with Jimmy Webb on a pop music masterpiece (note: additional artist tributes to Jimmy Webb will appear in PopMatters’ forthcoming interview with Jimmy Webb about his new album, Just Across the River):

Davis: It was Jimmy’s idea for The Magic Garden to be a whole piece.

McCoo: It’s a love story about him and a young woman and them falling in love all the way through to the break-up, which is pretty obvious from the lyrics.

Davis: Jimmy is probably one of the best songwriters I ever worked with. I got a chance to sit down with him and learn his songs and the meaning and the experience of them so I could interpret them. It was just amazing to talk to a young guy with that much depth. If you listen to the lyrics of his songs, they are so deep. You almost have to go to the dictionary to find out what the words mean!

McCoo: “Requiem: 820 Latham” is one of my most favorite songs that Jimmy wrote. I recite those lyrics to people when the subject of Jimmy Webb comes up and I always ask people if they are familiar with “Requiem: 820 Latham”. Most of the time they aren’t. When you start reciting those lyrics…

Davis: …They’re so meaningful that they bring tears to your eyes.

McCoo: Even today they still bring tears to our eyes. He sets the stage. He talks about, “When I came to you there in that cold telephone-pole-horror of the night”. How did he come up with that?

Davis: It was like 12:30 or one o’clock in the morning. One of those times when people are home and it’s just the nighttime. It’s eerie. So many people come up to us and ask us about “Requiem: 820 Latham” and say, “What is he saying?” We explain it to them and they say, “Oh I got it”. There’s another song that he did (on Up, Up and Away) called “Rosecrans Blvd”. You talk about poetic…you’d have to do a story just on that! When he was telling me this story, I looked at him and said to myself, ‘But you’re just 20 years-old! How do you come up with this stuff?’ It sounds like a guy who’s been in the world awhile.

McCoo: That is the genius of Jimmy Webb. We labored to get those notes right and he wouldn’t accept anything less.

Davis: One of the great things about his songs is that they were so well put together musically that a lot of people thought they were simple. It sounded simple but they were hard. Even today, when people play “Up, Up and Away”, they hear and they think, ‘That’s easy’, but then they start trying to play it and go, ‘What is this?’

McCoo: He’s a genius and anybody who loves music and loves the best songwriting is going to appreciate Jimmy Webb. When you sing a lyric (from “Orange Air”) like…

“I remember kissing her that sad last night through the screen so hard

I had a checkered mouth and nose

She sold out so quickly that before I knew what hit me

She was laughing with the others at my funny clothes”

….his lyrics are so visceral. They’re not just poetic. They clobber you.

Davis: That’s why I feel like he stands alone.

McCoo: You go down to your core to get Jimmy Webb. When Billy and I were talking this morning about what songs we might think about when we were talking to you, one of them was “Paper Cup”. We were talking about how even though it’s about a guy who’s kind of drowned his life and sorrows in alcohol, that paper cup doesn’t have to be about alcohol, it could be about escaping the pain of life that you’re dealing with. We were told by a very dear friend of Michael Jackson’s that “Paper Cup” was one of his most favorite songs. We were talking about what that song meant to Michael.

Davis: I would imagine that it made him think of how he’d withdraw into his little space.

McCoo: You really need to spend time with Jimmy’s work because so much thought and so much feeling went into the lyrics, as well as the music and the flow of it. Sometimes when Billy and I are driving to Vegas, we put The Magic Garden album on and we are transported to the places that he’s singing about: remembering the relationship (because we knew the young woman), remembering the hours that we spent on each song, remembering one night that we spent 16 hours on “Orange Air” and then we had to leave the studio, go home, and pack our clothes and go to the airport! We consider The Magic Garden to be one of our finest works. We were so thankful to have been a part of that project.


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