(April 24, 2016) This year just keeps getting sadder in the world of music, and this one really hits us hard. Legendary Philadelphia soul singer, Billy Paul, has died at age 81. Paul actively performed for a half century, but was best known for this chart-topping 1972 hit, “Me and Mrs. Jones.” It was without a doubt one of the most lauded soul songs ever — after overcoming some initial controversy — and Paul made it his own with an expressive delivery over pristine Gamble & Huff production.
Paul (born Paul Williams) grew up in Philadelphia in a household where jazz ruled. He attended Temple University and Granoff Music School, and soon after was performing locally, covering virtually all types of popular music to growing crowds. By the late 50s he was appearing with Jazz and Pop stars such as Charlie Parker and Nancy Wilson and cut his first record, “Why Am I,” for Jubilee Records. He later teamed with upstart record executive Kenny Gamble for the live jazz album, Feeling Good At The Cadillac Club and the more soulful Ebony Woman.
Things broke out for Paul, though, when he signed to Gamble & Huff’s new Philadelphia International Records and recorded 1972’s 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul. The disc’s high point, “Me and Mrs. Jones,” was beyond huge, hitting number one and becoming a Grammy winner and one of the year’s biggest hits. Despite the stark lyrical theme of continuing adultery, audiences were drawn to the irresistible bass line and to Paul’s right-on vocals. The accompanying album also became a big hit.
Paul’s follow-up single, “Am I Black Enough For You?”, drew its own controversy, and failed to chart high – perhaps stalling his crossover success. But while Billy Paul never matched the success of that hit, he continued to churn out successful music for the rest of the decade, landing a sizeable hit with “Thanks for Saving My Life,” and placing several other songs on the charts, including “Be Truthful to Me,” “Let’s Make a Baby,” and a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let ‘Em In.” Throughout this time, Paul was fearless in putting messages in his music, even as radio and others found controversy in his work.
Paul moved from label to label in the 80s and 90s with limited success, but was a consistently popular concert draw. He formed Billy Paul Management and Production and began working with other Philadelphia-based artists. He also continued to perform around the world well into the 21st Century.
Pop music fans may have only known Billy Paul for a single song, but what a song it was. And soul music fans will remember the much deeper catalog of soul and jazz recordings and live performances that kept Billy in our minds right until this sad day. He will be missed and remembered.
credit: Chris Rizik