One of Philly soul’s best-known and most distinctive voices was stilled on April 24 when Billy Paul, the Me & Mrs Jones man, died as a result of pancreatic cancer. He was 81.
Born in North Philadelphia in December 1934, Paul – born Paul Williams – was influenced mainly by female jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as a child and grew up on the city’s jazz scene, attending the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music for formal vocal training. He later attributed the development of his unique style to imagining himself to be a saxophone and delivering his notes in the same mellifluous manner. He managed to share stages with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, The Impressions, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Roberta Flack before recording a first single for Jubilee Records in New York at age 16: Why Am I notched up a favourable review in Billboard.
In 1957 he was drafted into the army and ended up in Germany on the same base as Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby’s son, Gary. He got together with the latter in the Jazz Blues Symphony Band. After returning home, Paul formed a jazz trio with pianist Sam Dockery and bassist Buster Williams. In 1959 he joined the New Dawn record label and released the single Ebony Woman backed with You’ll Go to Hell, both written by Morris Bailey Jr.
It wasn’t until the late sixties that he ran into Kenny Gamble, the latter approaching Paul after one of his performances at the Sahara Club in Philadelphia and suggesting that the singer sign for his new label, Gamble Records. Paul’s first release was a live album, Feelin’ Good A The Cadillac Club, which didn’t make the charts, and by the second, Ebony Woman, which emerged on the Neptune label, he began to merge his jazz stylings with the Philly soul of Gamble and his partner Leon Huff.
The big break was, of course, the international hit Me & Mrs Jones in 1972, a slinky, ‘slippin’ around’ ballad cut for Philadelphia International and the label’s first number one record, followed by the album 360° Of Billy Paul. Me & Mrs Jones sold over two million copies and won Paul a Grammy. The follow up single, Am I Black Enough For You, didn’t, however, do as well, perhaps Paul’s new-found crossover audience thrown by the song’s ‘black power’ message. It later turned out that Paul himself felt anger towards his overseers at PIR about the choice of single, feeling that better direction from upstairs might have maintained his upward trajectory at a crucial time. More recently he retracted some of his statements on the matter – including those made in a Swedish documentary from 2009, Am I Black Enough For You? – and acknowledged the record’s quality. In any case, 360° Of Billy Paul became a number one album, which tends to suggest that whatever fears the singer claimed to have over the effect of Am I Black Enough were at least vastly over-exaggerated and almost certainly pretty near groundless.
Paul’s next album, 1973’s War Of The Gods, included the single Thanks For Saving My Life b/w I Was Married, and took the artist through a short-lived psychedelic-soul period that, for one album, included extended socio-soul suites, the latter inspired by Billy’s friend Marvin Gaye and his What’s Going On album. It wasn’t especially successful and two years later Paul returned to his jazzy soul style for Got My Head On Straight. It didn’t sell either and by the end of the same year Paul rushed out another album, When Love Is New, which did provoke some hit single action in the shape of Brown Baby and Let’s Make A Baby, the latter in particular getting a reaction from politician Jesse Jackson due to its perceived message of pre-marital sex and a careless attitude to prospective parenthood. Since Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On had already set the bar considerably higher for sexy soul some two years earlier and that Richard Pryor regularly performed on stages at Jackson’s events, the whole controversy seemed like a PR stunt on the politician’s part.
The uneasy relationship with Jackson resurfaced in 1976 when Paul’s version of Paul McCartney’s Let ‘Em In changed the songs lyrics to include the names of a number of deceased former civil rights leaders – Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Louis Armstrong – and interspersed the verses with extracts from speeches by King and Malcolm X. Subsequently an engineer at Chicago radio station WVON altered the tune to splice in parts of a Jesse Jackson speech in place of the Martin Luther King excerpts, without Paul’s knowledge. Many saw this as another cynical stunt by either the politician and/or his supporters. In any event, the Let ‘Em In album was Paul’s best seller since 360°, and the single Your Song, a cover of the Elton John tune, was a UK pop hit.
Paul’s last two albums for Philly International were 1977’s Only The Strong Survive and ‘79’s First Class, which provided him with the very good singles Only The Strong Survive and Bring The Family Back. In between, he sang on the Philly All-Stars charity song Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto. In 1985 he ended several years of silence when he cut an album for Lonnie Simmons’ Total Experience Records, entitled Lately. From it, the single Sexual Therapy struggled to number 80 on the UK pop charts. Another similar set for Ichiban in 1988, Wide Open, didn’t fare as well.
The singer then announced his retirement from the stage in London during his 1989 tour – something which he conspicuously failed to do, since he continued to perform all over the place in the years up to his death. Recovering from cocaine addiction, In 2003 Paul sued Gamble & Huff for unpaid royalties, securing himself half a million dollars in the process and inspiring both Archie Bell & The Drells and The O’Jays to follow a similar legal path.
In addition to receiving the Grammy for Me and Mrs. Jones, Paul won several Ebby awards given by the readers of Ebony magazine, was a recipient of an American Music Award, the NAACP Image Award and numerous proclamations and keys to cities across the United States.