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Issue 1084

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Billy Paul RIP

Billy Paul in the 1980s. Photo copyright: Simon Redley.
Billy Paul in the 1980s. Photo copyright: Simon Redley. Billy Paul on the cover of Blues & Soul magazine

Philly sound soul legend Billy Paul has died. He was 81. Best known for the timeless classic global smash hit, “Me And Mrs Jones,” he died on Sunday (April 24th) due to pancreatic cancer. The singer's death was announced on his website with a brief statement.

"We regret to announce with a heavy heart that Billy has passed away today at home after a serious medical condition. We would like to extend our most sincere condolences to his wife Blanche and family for their loss, as they and the world grieves the loss of another musical icon that helped pioneered today’s R&B music. Billy will be truly missed." Fans were urged to share their stories of Billy. “Please share you thought, messages and stories of Billy as we remember this legendary artist, family member and friend.......”

Paul's manager told a US TV station NBC10 that he died at his home in Blackwood, New Jersey, after being diagnosed with cancer, and had been hospitalized a week ago at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.

Paul is perhaps best known for his Grammy-award winning 1972 hit, "Me and Mrs. Jones." He began his long career in jazz clubs where such icons as Charlie Parker, Nina Simone and Miles Davis were plying their trade at the time. His debut album, Feelin' Good at the Cadillac Club dropped in 1968 the first of 15 albums he released up to ’88.

Born Paul Williams on December 1st 1935, he was one of the artists associated with the Philadelphia “Philly Sound” soul style, created by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell. Billy had a unique smooth soul vocal style, and a versatility that took in mellow, falsetto and bottom register raspy. He said he wanted to “sing mellow – silky like butter” and was heavily influenced by female jazz singers, such as Nina Simone, Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson, but his biggest influence was Ms. Billie Holiday. “All my life I wanted to sound like myself, I never wanted to sound like anybody else. How that occurred was because I always wanted to be a saxophone player.... I took my uniqueness and treated it like a horn, which created a good style for me." Questlove of The Roots says Billy Paul is as equal to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as a vocalist and artist, and "one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music."

He began his singing career at eleven, appearing on local radio station WPEN. He went to the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music for formal vocal training. When he was 16, he played the Club Harlem in Philly, on the same bill as Charlie Parker who died later that year. Billy was there with him for a week and learned what it would normally take two years to pick up. “Bird told me if I kept struggling I'd go a long way, and I've never forgotten his words."
Paul's popularity grew and led to appearances in clubs and at college campuses nationally. This led to further opportunities, appearing in concert with Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, The Impressions, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Roberta Flack. He changed his name to Billy Paul to avoid confusion with other artists, such as saxophonist and songwriter Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams. Only 16-years-old, in 1952 he went to the recording studio in New York for Jubilee Records. The first single "Why Am I" with "That's Why I Dream" as the B-side was released in April that year. In June 1952, his second single was collaboration with the Buddy Lucas Orchestra - "You Didn't Know" backed with "The Stars Are Mine." None of the tracks made the charts. He served with Elvis Presley and Bing's son Gary Crosby in post-World War II Germany. He and Gary started the Jazz Blues Symphony Band. Elvis turned down their invite to join. They 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. 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.” Billy also did some boxing in the Army - a sport he had grown up with. After his discharge, Paul formed a jazz trio with hard bop 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." In 1960, Paul recorded "There's a Small Hotel" backed with "I’m Always A Brother". Billy Paul was a brief stand in for one of the ailing Blue Notes with Harold Melvin, but because he didn’t want to dance, he got fired.

During his six months with The Flamingos, he established a lifelong friendship with Marvin Gaye—both singers filling in with other groups. Paul recalled: "I was one of the Blue Notes at one time and Marvin Gaye was in The Moonglows.... 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. 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) [would] 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."

Paul was born in Philadelphia and died there. How important was the city to him? In 2012, he answered that question: "It's very, very important to me. I was born here and so many great and influential artists come from here as well. It’s a city of its own and has its own sound. I think what makes it different is the drama; you know how they say everyone marches to their own beat? Well I think Philly has its own beat as well, and it's distinctive. It sounds easy, but it's hard to play." Paul and his wife and manager Blanche Williams were in the process of recording his debut album when they met Kenny Gamble. "I was singing in a jazz club called the Sahara. He had a record shop 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 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 R&B.'

“That transition came when The Beatles came out to America. When I heard The Beatles, that was my turning point. They were like my mentors. You know the funny thing about that, when I heard 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' at first I said these guys are like a flash in the pan. But the second album, I had to take all that back. John Lennon - one of the greatest writers in the world." Paul's debut album Feelin' Good at the Cadillac Club was released in 1968 on the Gamble label. Largely a collection of jazz covers of songs popularized by others. Neither the single "Bluesette," nor the album reached the charts. Paul's second LP Ebony Woman (1970), was a more commercial release on Gamble & Huff's Neptune label. Paul cut a new version of his 1959 single and made it the title track. Gamble & Huff were firmly in control of the production. Merging jazz and soul, the LP achieved modest success reaching #12 on the Billboard soul chart and #183 on the pop chart. After Neptune folded, Gamble & Huff started their third label - Philadelphia International Records (PIR) - and brought Paul with them. Gamble & Huff signed a distribution deal with Clive Davis and CBS Records hoping to reach the broad audience that they were unable to with their previous independent labels.

Going East (1971) was the first Billy Paul album released on the Philadelphia International Records label. Te album climbed to #42 on the Billboard soul chart and #197 on the pop chart. The 1972 LP “360 Degrees of Billy Paul,” and the single "Me and Mrs. Jones" broke Billy through into mainstream success. "Me and Mrs. Jones" was a No. 1 hit for the last three weeks of 1972, selling two million copies (platinum single status), and won a Grammy Award. The gold album and platinum single broke the artist on world charts, including the UK where the single reached # 12 in early 1973. In the years since then, the song has been covered numerous times, most notably by Freddie Jackson in 1992 and Michael Bublé in 2007.

For the Grammy, he was up against Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. Billy described the song: “It’s a masterpiece, it’s a classic.” PIR's first No. 1. But Paul's massive success was short lived. The follow-up single - "Am I Black Enough for You?" failed to reach the heights of "Mrs. Jones" with the song's Black Power political message proving too much for mainstream radio's taste. In a 1977 interview, Paul made plain that he opposed the choice from the beginning. Ultimately, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul reached #1 on the Billboard soul chart and #17 on the pop chart. Despite the disappointment over the chart performance of the "Am I Black Enough" single, there was no reason to believe that Paul could not replicate the album's success or reach even greater heights. "Me and Mrs. Jones" was such a huge hit that Gamble & Huff decided to re-release Paul's first two albums Feelin' Good at the Cadillac Club and Ebony Woman. Reissued in 1973, both albums featured new cover art. Neither reissue was terribly successful. Paul's next album War of the Gods was issued in November 1973.

Paul's 1973 European tour with The O'Jays and The Intruders spawned Paul's first true live album: Live in Europe. Recorded in London and released in 1974, it reached #10 on the Billboard Soul Album chart and #187 on Pop chart. Got My Head on Straight was released in 1975 and was an attempt to return to the successful formula of 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. A collection of jazzy, soulful, funky, pop songs it reached #140 on the Billboard Pop Album chart and #20 on the Soul chart. It included the singles "Be Truthful to Me" (#37 R&B); "Billy's Back Home" (#52 R&B); and "July, July, July, July" which did not chart. When Love is New followed in the same vein as its predecessor and had a similar fate. Released in December 1975, it reached #139 on the Billboard Pop Album chart and #17 on the Soul chart. It included the singles "Let's Make a Baby" which hit #83 on the Pop singles chart (the last record of Paul's to make that chart), #18 on the Soul chart, and #30 in the UK and "People Power" which reached #82 on the Soul chart and #14 on the U.S. Dance chart.

"Let's Make a Baby" proved controversial and there were calls to ban or alter the track because of its supposed obscene or negative message. Jesse Jackson led the movement against this. R&B radio station WWRL in New York played "Let's Make a Baby" but decided not to announce its title. Other stations went so far as to alter the lyrics. Billy Paul paid homage to fallen civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in his version of Paul McCartney's 1976 hit "Let 'Em In. Billy Paul's recites a list of deceased civil rights leaders (Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Louis Armstrong). “Let 'Em In,” was his first LP to crack the top 100 pop album chart since 1972's 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Paul's version of the Elton John hit "Your Song" cracked the top 40 in the U.K reaching #38.

He released Only the Strong Survive in 1977, be his final charting album. The title track was the first single, reaching #33 in the UK. He was heard on the 1977 track "Let's Clean Up the Ghetto" featuring the "Philadelphia International All-Stars": Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, Archie Bell, Teddy Pendergrass, Dee Dee Sharp Gamble, and Eddie Levert and Walter Williams of The O'Jays. The Let's Clean Up the Ghetto album also included the Billy Paul tracks (both written by Gamble & Huff) "New Day" and "New World Comin'." Paul's final studio album for Philadelphia International was First Class, issued in 1979. It was the first album since his 1968 debut Feelin' Good at the Cadillac Club that did not make either the Pop or Soul charts. The LP's first single "Bring the Family Back" failed to chart but a 12" disco version did have success on the Soul and the Dance charts. "False Faces" was also released in both single and 12" disco versions but neither charted.

Paul's run at Philadelphia International officially ended with the 1980 release Best of Billy Paul. This double-album compilation included four previously unreleased tracks: "You're My Sweetness," "Next to Nature," "What Are We Going to Do Now That He's Back," and "My Old Flame." The UK version was a single LP titled Billy Paul's Greatest Hits with a different track listing and only one of the "new" songs: "You're My Sweetness". That song was released as a single and reached #69 on the Soul chart. Paul's final single for Philadelphia International was an edited version of a song from his first Philadelphia International album Going East: "Jesus Boy (You Only Look Like a Man)" which failed to chart.
From a 65-year-career, Bill Paul was on the Philadelphia International label for nine years. Apart from the global smash “Me And Mrs Jones,” is it widely accepted that Billy got a raw deal with the choice of songs he was given at PIR and with his unique soulful talent that straddled jazz, soul and R&B, he was vastly under- appreciated and should have had much more success. He made two studio albums in the 1980s. "Lately," in 1985 on Total Experience Records, the album's synthesizer and keyboard-driven tracks were a departure from the orchestrated wall of sound he was known for. The album's title track was released as a single in the U.K. but did not chart. The follow-up single - a slow jam called "Sexual Therapy" – peaked at #80 on the U.K. charts. Paul's final studio album was 1988's "Wide Open," for Ichiban. It spawned the singles "We Could Have Been" and "I Just Love You So Much" which both failed to chart. He announced his retirement in 1989 on stage in London. But that retirement did not last long and he constantly toured the world.

In 2000, he released a CD - Live World Tour 1999-2000 - on his own label, PhillySounds. Recorded in São Paulo, Brazil; Paris, France; Bermuda, and Philadelphia. Two years later, a complete show from that tour was released outside the U.S. on the PID label. Titled, Your Songs: Live in Paris," it was recorded in December 2000 at a private event for the RFM TV Channel at Studio 287 in Paris, France.

He sued Nike for $1m for using "Me and Mrs. Jones" without his consent in a TV commercial, in 2000. He then claimed he had not had royalties or accounts for 27 years and sued Assorted Music, its owners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and Sony Music Entertainment for nearly half a million dollars. At the 2003 trial, the jury agreed he was owed the money and awarded him half a million dollars in unpaid royalties for his recording of "Me and Mrs. Jones." Archie Bell of Archie Bell & the Drells and the The O'Jays sued Gamble & Huff for unpaid royalties, after the precedent set by Billy Paul's lawsuit.

In 2009, the biographical feature film "Am I Black Enough for You?," directed by Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson was released. In 2011, Paul participated in an album by French singer Chimène Badi, recording a duet with her on the Motown song, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough".

To mark the 40th anniversary of Philadelphia International Records, in 2011 Big Break Records in the UK began re-mastering and reissuing many of the albums released on PIR including Paul's works. They included new liner notes, interviews, and bonus tracks. In the U.S., Legacy Recordings issued Golden Gate Groove: The Sound of Philadelphia Live in San Francisco 1973 - a record company event recorded on 27 June 1973 at the Fairmont Hotel. Paul and other PIR acts were backed by MFSB which featured 35 musicians including Leon Huff on organ. Paul's performances of "East" (10:21) and "Me and Mrs. Jones" (8:34) appear on the album.

In 2014, he was here for a UK theatre and arenas tour as part of the late David Gest’s soul stars package. He also sang a duet on “Me And Mrs Jones,” with former Gypsy King Chico Bouchikhi on the 2014 album, Chico & The Gypsies & International Friends, a # 1 album in France.

Billy was due to tour here on the inappropriately named “David Gest Is Not Dead But Alive With Soul Tour,” – Gest was found dead in his London hotel recently – in the summer, joining hosts Gest and his friend, Coronation Street star Kym Marsh, and an array of soul legends including Dina Caroll – making a return to the music scene after 10 years away- Russell Thompkins Jr, Deniece Williams, Billy Paul, Peabo Bryson, The Tymes, Freda Payne, Melba Moore, Anita Ward and Fern Kinney.

Billy summed himself up back in 2009: “I’ve always worked hard to create my own style. Nobody sounds like me. I’ve heard them call me ‘legendary.’ That feels pretty good … though the word is overused these days.”

• My personal memories of Billy Paul come from a 1980’s UK tour staged by the promoters Flying Music, where Billy, The Three Degrees and Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes filled theatres across the country with the wonderful sound of Philadelphia. As a preview to the tour, the three acts gathered at a London hotel for a press day, where newspaper and magazine journalists, radio reporters and TV crews assembled in the bar to interview the famed artists. Then we all went out onto the roof for a photo call. The three girls poking tongues out at the other artists in fun, trying to make them laugh as they had their photographs taken.

Billy wearing dark glasses and dressed in black leather from head to toe; trousers, jacket and pill box hat. He looked super cool. A 10 x 8 black and white shot of him walking towards me across the black metal fire escape bridge on the roof, with wet puddles on the ground from a downpour moments earlier, is one of my favourite photographs of 38 years of taking pictures of music stars. A gritty image that could have been a still from the movie “Shaft,” shot in New York’s Harlem in the 70s.
My interaction with him on that day and on various dates on the tour, was always of a quiet, polite, pleasant and quite humble man who still had “that” voice, and could still stop traffic with that soulful falsetto on his biggest hit “Me And Mrs Jones.”

Billy Paul leaving us on the very same weekend that family and close friends said their goodbyes to Prince at a private funeral, is a reminder that Billy Paul was one of the main artists who paved the way for the likes of Prince and other modern day black artists, to cross over from the soul and R&B charts to make black music popular and mainstream. RIP Billy and thank you for the great, great music which will live on.

Black & white image of Billy Paul in the 1980s: Copyright: Simon Redley
Words SIMON REDLEY

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