Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Billy Paul: Soul Searching

Billy Paul
Billy Paul Billy Paul Billy Paul: Am I Black Enough For You Billy Paul in our magazine just a few moons ago.

Utter the name Billy Paul and straight away someone will sing the chorus to ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ back to you. This iconic smash hit propelled Billy Paul to the top of the charts in the run up to Christmas in 1972 and stayed there for three weeks until the New Year, selling 2 million copies in the process - earning it platinum single status.

Paul became a household name, while the track itself became an all time classic. Earning the singer the ultimate accolade, a Grammy in 1973 whilst beating off some serious competition. What followed, some would say, would surmount to career suicide. It appears, Paul was to turn againt his mainly white audience by releasing the song ‘Am I Black Enough For You.’ This song was penned ironically enough by Mr. Gamble – Kenny Gamble. One half of the multi-platinum wining hit writing duo Gamble & Huff - purveyors of the prolific Pilly Sound. This song was seen by Gamble (and still to this day) as a beacon for the cilvil rights movement, while splitting Paul's audience clean down the middle.

It's this absorbing story which connects the release of tracks ‘Me And Mrs. Jones’ and 'Am I Black Enough For You.' and was to prove vital in deciding Paul's musical future. It was also this turn of events that filmic visionary Göran Olsson decided to make into a compelling documentary - talking to all involved and finding out slightly more than first bargained for! The documentry has frank views from all interviewees including Paul, his wife Blanche, Mr. Gamble and record mogul and Paul's boss at the label Clive Davis. It is for the aforementioned reason that I was granted an interview with Billy Paul and at the same time I think a few questions need asking, don't you?

Billy Paul, born Paul Williams was born December 1st 1934. He grew up in Philadelphia where he attended West Philly and Granoff music schools. It was at these schools Billy would get his first taste for the soul music which would one day enable him to leave his mark on the world. Playing gig after gig Paul would soon establish himself as a quality act; this would in turn would lead to Paul being introduced to numerous top flight artists. It wasn’t long before he had cut his first record and simultaneously been drafted into the army, once discharged he returned to a singing career joining Harold Melvin as one of the Blue Notes and eventually meeting Gamble & Huff to become part of the iconic Philly Sound. The rest, as they say, is history – but what a history!!

Lee Tyler spans the Atlantic to talk to the one and only soul singer extraordinaire Mr. Billy Paul, about what really happened behind closed doors. The mistakes that were made and the decisions that were taken - for better or (as some turned out) for worse...

Lee: Hey Billy, how you doing- How’s life?

Billy: Life is good. God’s been good - Life is good, thank you.

Lee: I have just finished watching your documentary, are you happy with it?

Billy: Yeah, I am very happy with it. How do you like the film?

Lee: I thought it was well balanced, I was quite surprised how well balanced it was - talking to Kenny Gamble and obviously your wife. I thought that we got all sides of the story.

Billy: Thank you, that’s the way I feel. I am really happy it, it took almost 3 years and they followed me around and so forth. I was very interested because of the fact they are from Sweden and that someone was very interested in doing a documentary on you, you know and we became very, very good friends.

Lee: What’s the significance of Sweden. Why do you think they wanted it to tell your story?

Billy: I am very popular in Sweden and this film maker Göran, he liked ‘Am I Black Enough’. ‘Am I Black Enough ‘is popular in Sweden, and the funny thing about it is ‘Am I Black Enough’ is more popular now than before and more popular among white people too. And that’s the good thing about it. When it first came out I had reservations right after ‘Me & Mrs Jones.’ But now it has caught up with time, and I thought it was good title for the film. I thought it hit on the points of me being good friends with Martin Luther King. The music was timely you know, everything fitted - the civil rights area. Everything fitted very well.

Lee: Do you think there is anything that they didn’t cover there?

Billy: You know, you always can come up with something. You know if you sit down and tell me about my life when it came out, I’ll say I forgot that and forgot that. There’s a lot of things that didn’t get covered. If I do something that’s added on, I’ll come up with the other part.

Lee: Was you surprised when they asked you to do this?

Billy: I was very surprised; as a matter of fact, at first I didn’t believe nobody wanted to do a documentary on me. When things came into part, I said this is great coming to my home and everything.

Lee: What does your wife (Blanche Williams) think of it?

Billy: Oh my wife, she’s my manager. She is a big participant in my life, she travels with me and she talked about some things that I had forgotten about. She reminded me about some things.

Lee: I noticed your relationship showed not only being man and wife, but you can tell that you have been friends for such a long time. It was really endearing to watch.

Billy: Yes one thing I like is that you can tell we are very honest with each other.

Lee: I was quite surprised at your honesty between you in front of the camera.

Billy: Lee I think part of that came when I got real comfortable with the camera, and comfortable with the people that were filming it and time’s I didn’t pay the camera any attention at all. I act like that camera wasn’t there.

Lee: It was very candid. I don’t think anyone would think it was staged, it looked like that was Billy Paul .

Billy: Yeah it was the real Billy Paul, comfortable, relaxed, funny, sad...

Lee: I really liked the way they cut it. With a lot of documentaries, they normally put it a bit of a song and back it with pictures. But here they played the whole song and they let the story unfold naturally. The pace and timing was very befitting....

Billy: You know Lee, can I tell you something. One of the most favourable parts of the documentary is when the airplane is coming in to Philadelphia at the beginning and the music, you know - that was a nice opener. Last week we went down and stayed in the house in Cape May, New Jersey. Exactly where the ending is, that beach is no more than two minutes from where we stay. I got real personal with ‘Am I Black Enough,’ at this time we’ve got a black President. And I am just asking the people am I black enough?(he laughs)

Lee: I could see by the end there was a little bit of out pouring by yourself...

Billy: Yeah, yeah, yeah...

Lee: Do you think that you revisited parts in yourself that you have forgotten about?

Billy: It brought some of myself back; it did me all the good in the world. It bought a reality to my soul that I had squashed for some time, that I had put in the back. This film “Am I Black Enough” was able to bring those things out, that I don’t even discuss with nobody.

Lee: Well it was quite funny watching at the end, your wife biting her tongue in some places.

Billy: (Laughing) Oh no she is a hard lady. When I went to the film festival in Sweden, everybody looked at her face. The whole audience just burst out laughing in the movie.

Lee: Did she take it in good stead?

Billy: Oh yeah she took it in good humour, it made her feel good. She got a chance to see how funny she is and people tell her sometimes don’t be so serious, don’t be so serious (laughing). So she got the actual chance to see how serious she was.

Lee: I just wanted to ask you a little about how you got into the business. You went to University, the Grandolf School of Music. You did vocal training there, was it always something you wanted to do when you were younger?

Billy: Well you know, it was something that my mum would say I needed. Holding my notes you know, and delivering my notes. It gave me assurity, cos my mother was 100% behind me and it created the style and uniqueness of Billy Paul. All my life I wanted to sound like myself, I never wanted to sound like anybody else. How that occurred was cause I always wanted to be a saxophone player, cos I sang - Charley Parker discovered me. I sang with John Coltrane, Coltrane always wanted to be a singer but I always wanted to be a horn player . I took my uniqueness and treated it like a horn, which created a good style for me.

Lee: It’s a very distinctive style, and you mention a couple of greats there. There are many, many other greats that you have also worked with- to name a few, Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, The Impressions, the list goes on and on. You must have some fantastic memories working with those people?

Billy: I do, one of the greatest things was when I went Carnegie Hall. I stood in Carnegie Hall and I looked up and said “Oh boy, this is where Lady Day (nickname for Billie Holiday) stood” that is one of the greatest, greatest moments. Another moment was working with the Beethoven symphony orchestra singing 'Mrs Jones.' My other, in September I worked with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Belgium with Sinead O’Connor and that was another honour. One of the greatest honours was going to be Billy Holiday’s grave......

Lee: I saw that in the film, a very poignant moment and where you put the Gardenia on top of the gravestone. Was she big influence for you?

Billy: Oh she was a BIG influence. Not only, I had to wait for a while for her family don’t give nobody permission. I was the first person that gave permission to go to the grave.

Lee: You were saying about the uniqueness of your voice do you model yourself on anyone, did you not have any heroes that you tried to emulate?

Billy: I always liked Nat King Cole. I always wanted to go my own way, but I always favoured other singers like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald- I loved Ella Fitzgerald. There are so many of them. Nina Simone was one of my favourites- Johnny Mathis. There all had a style, a silkyness about them.

Lee: Did you look at them and say I want my own style and have a silkyness about me? (Laughs)

Billy: Oh Yes! I wanted to sing silky, like butter – mellow. I wanted to sing mellow you know what I mean.

Lee: I would say that you’re the king of silkyness – think you’ve got that one down flat.

Billy: One of my favourites is Jessie Velvet - they used to call him Mr. Easy. A lot of people forgot about him you know - Sam Cooke is another one of my favourites.

Lee: You cited in the film that you would like to have sung with Marvin (Gaye)....

Billy: Oh Yeah I would as we were such good friends. We never did a record together and that would have been one of my dreams. And you know what one of my fascinations is? What we would be doing if he were here today. I think about Marvin every day. The love I have for this man is unbelievable.

Lee: So you knew him very well I take it?

Billy: Oh we were close, we were like brothers. When I would go on the road out in California, he would go round to the house - he and Blanche (Billy's wife). Make sure Blanche’s mother would take her insulin because she was a diabetic. I would heavily depend on him to make sure she ate and took her insulin. That’s how close we were. You know sometimes, even today. I wake up and hope it was a dream, but it’s real – it’s real you know.

Lee: Can I ask about you going into the armed services?

Billy: I went in, in 1957 and I was stationed with Elvis Presley and Gary Crosby- Bing Crosby’s son. We were in Germany and we said were going to start a band, so we didn’t have to do any hard work in the service. We tried to get Elvis to join but he wanted to be a jeep driver. So me and Gary Crosby, we started it and called ourselves the Jazz Blues Symphony Band. Some famous people came out of that band; Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris and we toured all over Germany. Elvis didn’t wanna join us. I used to see him every day but he drove the jeep for the Colonel.

Lee: Elvis didn’t want to join your band?

Billy: No he didn’t want to join our band. He wanted to get away from music for a while, while he was in the service you know.

Lee: You had a song out before you went into the Services called 'Why I am' is that right?

Billy: Yeah I did that before I was in the service. I did that when I was like 21 years old.

Lee: Then everything stopped because you went into the army, did you think about your career while serving?

Billy: Yes I did. I sang in the service, I sang with a jazz band. So when I came out I sang Jazz, going to clubs and so forth.

Lee: Were you Paul Williams or was you Billy Paul by then?

Billy: I was Billy Paul.

Lee: What made you change your name?

Billy: I had Jules Malvin, who was like my play father. He was my manager at the time. He took me up to the Apollo and I warmed the Apollo for six weeks and that’s where he gave me the name Billy Paul.

Lee: Did you question it?

Billy: No I didn’t question it.

Lee: How did you meet Mr Gamble and Mr Huff?

Billy: I was singing in a jazz club called the Sahara. He had a record shop on South St & Philly - right round the corner and I was singing with a trio at the Sahara club on Friday, Saturday and Sunday . He came over and said “I am starting a record company and I would like to sign you.” Low and behold I took all the material I sung every weekend and I did an album in three and a half hours -a whole album. I had this album, and I produced it me and my wife. And we gave him this album called 'Feelin Good at the Cadillac Club' to help start the record company (Philadelphia International Records) and that was the album that helped start it up. I was singing totally Jazz then, but when I heard the Beatles and heard the gospel influence and everything I just said, I can make jazz with Rn’B.

Lee: When did that transition come?

Billy: That transition came when the Beatles came out to America.

Lee: Was that a turning point for you?

Billy: Yeah when I heard the Beatles that was my turning point. They were like my mentors.....

Lee: They influenced so many people.

Billy: You know the funny thing about that, when I heard (Billy sings) “I wanna Hold Your Hand.” At first I said these guys are like a flash in the pan. But the second album when they started doing all this, I had like take all that back. John Lennon - one of the greatest writers in the world.

Lee: And when you look at what they achieved after that, it was amazing....

Billy: Oh man I am telling you....

Lee: But then again, what Gamble and Huff were doing at 309 (Broad Street Philadelphia) was amazing.... How many records they shifted....

Billy: Yeah but the good thing about Gamble and Huff is, nobody sounded alike, everybody had their own sound and that was the distinctive part that kept coming.

Billy: You don’t realise, I was one of the Blue Notes at one time....

Lee: Ay yes I know that – that was one of my questions... I was going to ask you about Harold Melvin....

Billy: And Marvin Gaye was in the Moon Glows.

Lee: Why was it only a temporary time as a Blue Note?

Billy: Well, I didn’t want to dance so Harold Melvin fired me (laughs). I had a six month stay with the Flamingos - I was with the Flamingos for a while.

Lee: Did you always see yourself as a solo artist?

Billy: Yeah, yeah – I always saw myself as a solo artist.

Lee: What was a typical day at 309 like? Teddy Pendergrass, the OJ’s and yourself...

Billy: It was like a family full of music. It was like music round the clock, you know. And I reminisce and I still wish those days were here, and I wish music wasn’t changing like it is. Cos now you don’t have to be able sing, you don’t have to do anything - machine will do it for you. They don’t have the quality of music today that they did back then. The quality of music has suffered, you know.

Lee: I can’t talk to you and not talk about ‘Me & Mrs Jones’ - Grammy winning. How did you feel when you picked that Grammy up? There was some tough competition in your category.

Billy: Oh man! I was up against Ray Charles, I was up against Curtis Mayfield, I was up against Isaac Hayes. I was in the Wilberforce University in Ohio, I had to go do a homecoming - my wife and her mother went. And when I see Ringo Starr call my name, I said Ohhh...

Lee: I wish I was there...

Billy: Yeah... The most sobering thing is to have a number one record across the whole entire world in all languages.

Lee: It’s an amazing song...

Billy: It’s a masterpiece, it’s a classic...

Lee: It’s timeless, I agree... At the end of the documentary you said that you felt that you had maybe left the meaning of the song ‘Am I black Enough For You’ behind, distancing yourself from it. Do you feel maybe you were expecting a bit much thinking that the song after would be as big as, the life changing ‘Me And Mrs. Jones?’

Billy: Yeahhh- yes. That was what I had with ‘Am I Black Enough.’ I wanted - I’m gonna make it this time and come out. I think it's true to the audience, cos they look for something to come out compared to Mrs. Jones and that was Clive Davis (leading music industry executive) idea to do that.

Lee: It wasn’t Kenny Gamble then?

Billy: I think it was Kenny and Clive Davis, but I think it was mostly Clive Davis.

Lee: I am quoting Clive Davis here “All time great record, all time great performance.” I mean Clive Davis has some track record, how do you feel about that quote?

Billy: Well you know... For a long time I was angry about it, I had a bit of a down. Now the song is ahead of it's time. So now when you bring it back out, it’s gonna be a hit.

Lee: I totally agree with you...

Billy: That’s what they are doing you know, bringing it back out. That’s what Kenny wants to do – yes.

Lee: Is it with your vocal?

Billy: Yeah

Lee: Oh fantastic!

Billy: I got an album coming out called ‘Unreleased’...

Lee: I was going to ask you what your plans are for the future....

Billy: Kenny’s got this stuff we recorded - he wants to put it out. So I’m quite sure they are gonna put ‘Am I Black Enough For You’ on there.

Lee: Are there any plans for you to publicise it?

Billy: The film is going to be having a lot to do with it. It’s gonna get real popular in London; I know they have got a lot of theatres showing it in London. So it’s really just starting to get it off the ground, so I’m hoping to hear some great results.

Lee: If someone begged you, would you come over here and play a concert or two?

Billy: Oh yeah, that’s what I am waiting for (It's ok, I'll get the knee pads out). I will be over there in October though; yeah, I’ll be over with David Gest. Me, the Stylistics and Peabo Bryson in concert.

Lee: Sounds great, I can’t wait to see you then! Hopefully we can get an interview with then.

Billy: I would be glad to give you an interview - It would be lovely to speak to you again.

Lee: It was great watching the film – thank you very much Billy Paul, an absolute gentleman.

Billy: Thank you Lee.


Read Lee Tyler's REVIEW for the Billy Paul documentry 'Am I Black Enough For You'

You can catch Billy Paul in the must see documentry 'Am I Black Enough For You' at a cinema near you soon - for cinema details CLICK HERE

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