One of the greatest soul voices of the Philly era has died, Mrs Jones says goodnight to Billy Paul?
Billy was born Paul Williams in Philadelphia in 1934 and grew up listening to jazz as his mother loved all the jazz singers of the day. He once recalled, “I always liked Nat King Cole. I always wanted to go my own way, but I always favoured other singers like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. There are so many of them, Nina Simone was also one of my favourites.” He favoured those singers because he had a high range and could reach the notes they did.
Paul’s singing career began when he was just 11 years ago when he appeared on his local radio station, WPEN. His first recording came when he moved to New York in 1952 and recorded Why Am I.
He was drafted into the Germany Army when he was 22 and served on the same base as Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby’s son, Gary. Paul recalled in an interview with Blues & Soul.com in 2015, “We said we’re 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, we started it and called ourselves the Jazz Blues Symphony Band.”
During the 1960s, the Beatles’ sound inspired Paul to change his sound to be more R&B which he did successfully. His manager then suggested he change his name to Billy Paul so as not to get confused with his name sake who was the lead singer with the Temptations.
His first UK hit was, by far, his biggest and most enduring, when Me and Mrs Jones reached number 12 in the UK in 1973 and number one in the States. The song, which was written by the Philly songwriting and production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, tells the story of an extramarital confession between him and Mrs Jones who meet at the same cafe at the same time – 6.30 – every day. The song is told by the people doing the cheating which itself is quite rare, and to enhance the song’s elicit nature, listen carefully to the saxophone part of the intro and you’ll hear the refrain of Doris Day’s 1954 hit Secret Love.
Kenny explained the origin of the song in an interview with National Public Radio in 2008, “I used to take trips to a little bar downstairs in the Schubert Building and one day this guy used to come into the bar every day – little guy that looked like a judge. We’re songwriters, so we’re always thinking about a song. The next day he came in again, and every day after he’d come in, this girl would come in 10-15 minutes after he’d get there, and they’d sit in the same booth, then go to the jukebox and play the same songs. We said, ‘That’s me and Mrs. Jones.’ Then, when they’d get ready to leave, he would go his way and she would go hers. It could have been his daughter, his niece, anybody, but we created a story that there was some kind of romantic connection between these people, so we went upstairs to our office and wrote the song.”
He had further UK hit with Thank For Saving My Life in 1974, His 1976 hit, Let’s Make A Baby was a modest hit here reaching number 30, but ran into trouble in the States where many criticised the content, and even the Rev. Jesse Jackson objected to its explicit nature. In 1977 he tried some cover versions, namely Elton John’s Your Song, Wings’ Let ‘Em In and Jerry Butler’s Only the Strong Survive and all made the top 40.
By the end of 1970s the hits dried up but continued to record some albums before announcing his retirement in 1989. Even during retirement, he couldn’t resisted playing some live shows.
In 2003 he learned that a lot of money he should have made hadn’t been received and so he sued Gamble and Huff and other personnel at the Philadelphia International label over unpaid royalties and was awarded $500,000 by a Los Angeles jury.
Billy was only recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but was still booking in live dates, ironically one of the most popular songs he does live is a cover of Prince’s Purple Rain.