Laura Nyro wrote this song when she was just 18, and released it on her first album in 1967. The song finds the singer letting her boyfriend (Bill) know that although she loves him, she's becoming frustrated waiting for him to propose to her (Beyonce updated this theme with her hit "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It))."
So, was there really a "Bill"? Alan Merrill would know - the son of Jazz singer Helen Merrill, he grew up with Laura, and they thought of each other as cousins, since her uncle married Alan's aunt. Alan, who became a rock star in England with his band The Arrows, explains: Around 1958 or so my mom was dating a married man named Bill Carter, a b-film actor. He was married to Trink Wiman, heiress to the John Deere fortune. My mom and Bill co-owned a jazz club named The Night Owl (not the Greenwich Village rock venue) and were having a very passionate and public relationship. The club was quite possibly funded by Ms. Wiman's money. The affair was so serious in fact that Trink had private detectives invade our apartment at 800 Grand Concourse (Bronx) in 1958, I was there and remember it. The ensuing newspaper scandal was the reason we left to reside in Europe for many years.
This was big family gossip of course, and Laura listened to it as a child and later wrote about it. My mother could never marry Bill, and didn't. Her timing was bad. Seeing a married man was a big deal in the '50s, but that the wife was such a wealthy heiress upped the ante. My mother seethes at the mention of his name now and refuses to discuss him, although she did confirm the story of the affair (and Laura admitting to her that it was the inspiration for the song) when interviewed in Michele Kort's book about Laura's life - Soul Picnic.
My mom was not amused at Laura's incisive lyric, but in fact Laura was an investigative journalist as an artist and got the story spot-on in the song. A zinger from my mom's perspective, but a big winner in terms of sale for Laura!
Laura Nyro, who died from cancer in 1997, was a popular singer, but other artists had far more success with her songs. This song, along with "And When I Die" by Blood, Sweat & Tears and "Eli's Coming" by 3 Dog Night, were all Laura Nyro compositions in the US Top 10 at the same time for a few weeks in the fall of 1969. Alan Merrill told us: "I watched Laura write all of her first songs. I'd go, 'You can't speed up like that, you'll never have a hit. You can't slow down, speed up, slow down, speed up.' And she just smiled at me, like, 'I know what I'm doing.' I said, 'Listen to the Byrds and the Beatles, they don't slow down and speed up.' A year or two later I was looking at the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 songs on the Billboard charts and Laura had written them all!" (Merrill was a member of The Arrows and co-wrote the song "I Love Rock And Roll." For more of his stories about Laura, see our interview with Alan Merrill.)
The 5th Dimension had hits in 1968 with Nyro's songs "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness." The group's producer Bones Howe was good friends with Nyro and loved her songs, so he encouraged them to record another one for their Age Of Aquarius album. The song was exceptionally fitting for the group, as members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. were engaged at the time, but had not set a wedding date. This played well on television appearances, as Marilyn would sing to "Bill" and Davis would put on that look guys get when they're being hassled about getting married. McCoo and Davis did get married later in 1969, and remained together.
"Wedding Bell Blues" became a common phrase in pop culture after this song became a hit. The title has been used for several books, a 1996 movie, and episodes of television shows.
"Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" was the first single released from the album and the first #1 hit for The 5th Dimension. "Wedding Bell Blues" was released next, and also topped the charts.
Herb Bernstein worked as an arranger and conductor on Nyro's debut album, which featured the tune. "What I wanted to do was incorporate all her thoughts into my arrangements," Bernstein explained in Michele Kort's book Soul Picnic: The Passion and Music of Laura Nyro.
Making changes to any of Nyro's songs was a difficult task because the singer was adamant about maintaining the integrity of her music, which featured unusual melodies and chord changes not often found in hits of the time. "She was very artsy-fartsy," said Bernstein. "If you heard 'Wedding Bell Blues' the way she first played it for me, you wouldn't believe it was the same song. She had that little riff - dah bah buh DOO buh DOO - that she used a lot, but she'd stop every sixteen measures and go into another tempo. I said, 'Look, I'm as artistic as the next person, but you have to think of the commerciality of these things. If you're gonna change tempo every thirty seconds, you're gonna lose the average listener.'"
Nyro's version features harmonica playing from Buddy Lucas, a jazz saxophonist and bandleader who did session work for several artists, including Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin. The 5th Dimension's rendition did not feature the harmonica.
In the 1991 movie My Girl, about a girl coming of age in the early '70s, Vada (Anna Chlumsky) sings this to a photo of the teacher she has a crush on.
Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn December 7th 1969, the 5th Dimension performed "Wedding Bell Blues" on the CBS-TV program 'The Ed Sullivan Show'... Three months earlier on September 27th it entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; and on November 2nd, 1969 it peaked at #1 (for 3 weeks) and spent 15 weeks on the Top 100... Original group member Ron Townson passed away on August 2nd, 2001 at the age of 68... May he R.I.P.
Staley from Dallas, TxI love how this song is the "Blues" but the tone is so happy--you know Bill is going to marry her.
Steve Dotstar from Los Angeles, CaA favorite of mine during the early 70's I love the production and also Marilyn Mc Coo's voice! Hi, Marilyn! You sang it beautifully!!!
Adam from Philadelphia, PaYou can find Laura Nyro's original version, as well as "And When I Die," and "Stoney End," on her first album (from 1966), reissued as "The First Songs." The other songs are just as good and hold up better than the Fifth Dimension's somewhat schmaltzier take on her work, which included several other songs besides this.
Ken from Louisville, KyWhen they performed this song on stage or on TV, McCoo would sing this song directly to Davis who would make funny quizzical faces during her performace. This was part of the stage act, the two did get married later that year, and still are married today.
Richard from Talladega, AlCheck out Marilyn's CD "The Me Nobody Knows". I think it's out of print but available used. Find it fast!
Musicmama from New York, NyMuch as I like The 5th Dimension, I think that it borders on the criminal that the only mention Laura Nyro has on this site is as the author of this song. She was probably the most inventive, and the most feminine (and I don't mean girly) lyricist and performer of the rock'n'roll era. The thing is, her performances were very quirky and she didn't have the same kind of stage presence as, say, Joni Mitchell or Suzanne Vega. But they and any number of other performers credit her influence on them.
Carol from Irwin, PaI was dating a guy named Bill when this song was popular and it was so embarassing when it came on the radio....because I DID want to marry him. Didn't happen.....
Steve E. from Des Moines, IaWithout a doubt, Marilyn McCoo was the single most underated female vocalist of this era... too bad she allowed herself to be hidden amidst a quintet and while a loving husband (Billy Davis, Jr.) a decidedly less talented performer. If the 90's would have been her time, she would have have outdone any of the plethora of female artists of that era!
Martin from Sydney, AustraliaI used to work for a Department Of Social Security call centre. We had a compilation record playing on-hold music that included this song. We received a complaint from a Sole Parent Pension recipient about constantly hearing the lyric "Marry me Bill, I got the wedding bell blues".