of the week

“The best songs are real stories,” said Leon Huff, the man who co-wrote probably the most famous song about a secret love affair. Billy Paul, the man who made it famous once said, “I knew that Me and Mrs Jones would be a hit even before it was released, It’s a song that everybody can relate to.” But was it a real story or one the writers had heard or witnessed? or was it made up to feel like it’s a true story. Let’s find out if Mrs Jones really was involved in an illicit affair and, if so, who with.

Any song that resonates with people’s everyday life is almost guaranteed to be a success and there aren’t too many people who cannot relate to some extracurricular activity at some point in your life. If you haven’t, you have no idea of the excitement you have missed.

Billy Paul was born Paul Williams in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in December 1934 and obtained his love of music through the family record collection saying, “That’s how I really got indoctrinated into music. My mother was always buying and collecting records and would buy everything from Jazz at the Philharmonic to Nat ‘King’ Cole.” Paul had a silky soulful voice which would have be nurtured by the singers he grew up with and loved. “I always liked Nat ‘King’ Cole but I also favoured singers like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and, especially, Ella Fitzgerald. Nina Simone was one of my favourites as was Johnny Mathis, they all had a style, a silkiness about them.”

He was so keen to make it that he attended Temple University, West Philadelphia Music School and Granoff Music School all in Philadelphia. He began making appearances in some local clubs and also found out that he needed to change his name because there was not one, but three other famous Paul Williams’. There was a band leader who played saxophone and who had an American hit with The Hucklebuck in the 1940s, the lead singer with the Temptations between 1960 and 1971, and the Grammy Award-winning songwriter whose most famous songs include Rainy Days and Mondays, We’ve Only Just Begun and I Won’t Last A Day Without You (Carpenters), Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen) (Barbra Streisand) and The One and Only (Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Jerry Ross was a Philadelphia-born songwriter, producer and later an A&R man and record label owner and he discovered Kenny Gamble and formed the Gamble and Ross song writing partnership and, most famously, wrote I’m Gonna Make You Love Me for the Supremes and Temptations. In the mid-60s, another local keyboard player and song writer, Leon Huff met Gamble and began working together with Expressway to Your Heart by The Soul Survivors being their first big U.S. hit. Their first collaboration together as producers was the O’Jays’ Backstabbers and, as songwriters, Here I Go Again by Archie Bell & the Drells.

In 1971, they decided to form their own record label, Philadelphia International and brought in Thom Bell who became their long-time collaborator. They also brought the O’Jays over from CBS records and then signed Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, The Intruders, Three Degrees, MFSB (who became the label’s house band) and Lou Rawls.

If Me & Mrs Jones had been written earlier, it may not have so successful, but when it did appear at the beginning of 1973, the record buyer was probably also celebrating. Now, there was some very odd local laws across all of the States and, until the end of 1972, adultery was illegal in Pennsylvania. According to Ludovic Hunter-Tiley, in November 1972, a new criminal code was being debated and a democrat proposed an amendment protecting the ban but it was defeated by 111 votes to 73. Now it was legal to ‘carry on’ with someone else whilst in a relationship.

On the ground level beneath the Philly offices, Leon huff gave the story behind that song, “That song played out right in front of mine and Kenny’s eyes because we always used to eat before we wrote and we ate in the bar/cafe practically every day so I knew this guy from Gambia and I turned to Kenny and said, ‘I know this guy and that woman isn’t his wife and the way it played out was they would meet every day and we witnessed it because we’d be there every day. Anyway, this couple would come in and sit at the same table and she’d go over the jukebox and she’d play the same song and after they’d eaten they’d get ready to leave and he went his way and she went hers and that’s the way the lyrics were written. We then had to figure out what names to call them, I had a list of names, Smith and Johnson and we even looked in the telephone book but the name that stuck out was Jones, that had a ring to it.” Kenny Gamble in his numerous interviews about the song added, “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.”

At this point, they hadn’t decided who to cut it on, but as Leon Huff continued, “We thought about Billy Paul and he was the different party because he was more jazz orientated and that’s the way I played it if you listen to the chord progression and syncopation, it’s much different from artists like Teddy Pendergrass. Billy was different, he was one of our favourite ‘different’ artists and he was so creative.”

The lyrics tell us they sat there ‘holding hands, making all kinds of plans while the jukebox played the favourite song’ but we never get to know what that favourite song was. But there’s a good chance we can guess. In 1954, Doris Day has a transatlantic chart-topper with Secret Love, very much on the same basis as Mr and Mrs Jones, but the difference was Doris’ love was secret because she was shy and it was only when he wanted to leave, that she overcame the shyness by singing, ‘Now, I shout it from the highest hills, even told the golden daffodils, At last my hearts an open door and my secret love’s no secret anymore’. Different scenario for Mrs Jones, she had a husband. but the other tell-tale sign, is, if you listen carefully, just 16 seconds into the intro, the saxophonist, Les Robinson plays the first seven notes of Doris’ hit. This didn’t go unnoticed by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, the composers of Secret Love who claim the ‘sample’ was used without permission. The matter was settled out of court with both composers receiving a substantial royalty from the Billy Paul hit.

The song was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios and features The Sweeties who were the studio’s resident backing singers that comprised Evette Benton, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson. Me & Mrs Jones reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, peaked at number 12 in the UK, nine in Australia and five in New Zealand, but the cover versions keep on coming. There were versions recorded by Johnny Mathis, The Dramatics (this version was used in Bridget Jones’ Diary when Bridget’s mother embarks on an affair), Hall and Oates, Freddie Jackson who took the song to number 32 in 1992, Peter Cox of Go West, Michael Buble, Russell Watson and the Three Degrees. Two separate ladies gave it a gender change and called it Me and Mr Jones – Amii Stewart in 1995 and Amy Winehouse who did in her own style on the Back to Black album but not really doing the song any favours.

Gamble and Huff are still active, in 2021 they contributed the song All in the Family Blues to the album Under Your Spell by Tito Jackson. Leon’s son has followed in dad’s footsteps, goes by the name Pop Traxx, has his own HDE Studios and has produced songs by the Ruff Ryders and Lil’ Bow Wow.

Billy Paul passed away in 2016 in New Jersey where he was then living. He had pancreatic cancer and is buried close to his label-mate Teddy Pendergrass at the  West Laurel Cemetery in his home State of Pennsylvania.