Contrary to popular belief, it actually does get cold in California-especially the Bay Area. The nights were definitely chilly. I remember it so well. There was a period in December of 1972 when a new dimension was added into my 5th Grade mind while laying on the floor of my bedroom. My left ear was smashed up against the speakers of my little portable system I had while listening to the radio in the dark. December of 1972 was when “Me And Mrs. Jones” took off like a rocket and charted all the way to #1 in the United States. Not only was I getting to hear another then new to me Philadelphia International label artist and a stunning voice to go with it, but “Me And Mrs. Jones” was the song which made me begin to think about how the music was arranged. I took notice of how the bass was meeting up with the orchestra in ascension and then in descending patterns. I was also getting my first rudimentary thoughts about how orchestration was used to magnify emotional intensity within a song. I loved how the sax was used to emphasize the building intensity at points. What I didn’t know then was that this song was going to grow exponentially in meaning to me as time went on. And here in 2016, the song has taken on multi-dimensional meaning to me emotionally and in my own personal life to go with the musicality of it. I can’t even begin to tell you of how many married women I’ve had crushes on over the years. I can tell you that the song has helped me through having intense feelings for women who were not married too.
“Me And Mrs. Jones” proved to me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and PIR were a force to be reckoned with. I was introduced to their music with “Back Stabbers” and “999 Arguments” from the O’ Jays. And then I saw another side of Gamble and Huff when “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” from Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes came out. All of these were released in ‘late ’72 before “Me And Mrs. Jones”. And when d.j.’s at KFRC and KLIV kept putting the names Gamble and Huff and Philadelphia International in the same sentence together, it was certified in stone that a new and very big new musical identity in Soul had been forged and was not going away. Billy Paul put the exclamation point on that.
Beyond that, Billy Paul’s vocals hit me like a ton of bricks. He seemed to be in complete command while conveying vocal power as well as laying back all at once in one song. As a kid, I knew what the song was about, but not in its full adult essence. It didn’t matter. Just his incredible way he was conveying the urgency and the depth of the need in this relationship, in turn, gave me added emotional depth just by listening to it. I latched onto this song on those cold December nights in the South Bay Area. I still have not let go on this rainy night in the Pacific Northwest after all of these years.
When the Grammy Awards were broadcast in 1973, Billy Paul sang it for an audience of millions. I watched it while being totally enraptured by his performance. On top of it, I thought he looked like the coolest guy on the planet that night. He came out in a suave green suit and matching hat and just killed it. For about 5 months after that broadcast, I wanted to be Billy Paul. I had been a fan of Soul Music for a good solid two years by then and my thinking was this was where it was at for the definition of cool. I found the picture I could put into my own personal dictionary. Years later, I was able to get a hold of the musical director for the Grammy Awards throughout the ’70s, Martin Pasetta, and I conveyed to him how envious I was of him to have been able to be a part of that specific moment while communicating with him almost 10 years ago. (A side note: I knew Martin as a child at the Grammar School I went to in Santa Clara. He was my Mom’s organist in the choir for the church I used to go to across the street from my school).
What made Billy Paul so unique was that he came from a Jazz background and applied what he learned in context of Soul Music. He even used to say that he preferred being referred to as a Jazz singer even though he was singing in context of the Soul genre. Being a Jazz singer is what gave him his unique stamp on the Soul scene of the time. He had a completely different range compared to other Soul guys. To this day, I’ll never understand why he never made it back to the Top 40 charts and the Bay Area AM stations I was listening to at the time. The follow-up single was “Am I Black Enough For You?” In scanning my memory, I can’t recall ever hearing it back then. Billy continued making great albums, but his singles career stopped cold in its tracks after the humongous success of “Me And Mrs. Jones”. At the time, there was still racial sensitivity going on among programmers even though Soul was selling big units. For some markets, “Am I Black Enough For You?” was considered too controversial and wasn’t played. The same could be said for “Me And Mrs. Jones”. I’m sure it wasn’t played in some Southern and Bible-Belt markets. It is one of the great tragedies in Soul Music history because Billy had a good solid two more years of putting out another possible smash before things would change once Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” would alter Soul afterwards in May of ’75.
The album, from which “Me And Mrs. Jones” came, 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul. is a stone-cold Soul classic. It should be in everyone’s music collection. There’s not a bad track on the entire album. All of the early albums of Billy Paul’s were classics and you would do well to search them out and get them. If you want to get the full scope of Billy’s Jazz background, you should get a copy of his first album. It came out in 1968 (and re-released in 1973) and is called Feelin’ Good At The Cadillac Club. You’ll be able to hear how he could push his voice. You’ll hear all of his vocal parameters on this album. Two years later, his great run of early ’70s Soul albums began. Ebony Woman came out in 1970. His fantastic precursor to 360 Degrees of Billy Paul came out in 1971 and is called Going East. It stands equally alongside 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul. 1972 was the year for 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul. And then in 1973, he came out with War Of The Gods.
What reveals themselves to the listener is that Billy Paul had a gift for picking out well-chosen covers and make them purely his own. This can especially be heard on Ebony Woman and on 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul. The best mastering for 360 Degrees Of can be found on the Sony/Legacy label Total Soul Classics series while all of the other aforementioned titles can be found on the U.K. BBR label. If Legacy was wise, they would start releasing the stuff BBR has put out and do it right. Obviously, he made more albums than the ones I’ve mentioned, but these were the ones which present to a listener the height of his powers.
It has been my dream for the past 10 years or so that the 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul album would come out as an SACD hybrid. It still hasn’t, but I suppose one could hope. I’ve always wanted to hear “Me And Mrs. Jones” in 5.1.
I wish I could have met Billy Paul (real name-Paul Williams). I really wanted to have a discussion with him about how the arrangement came together for “Me And Mrs. Jones” and how many times he took a stab at laying down his vocal track before he nailed the final take. I have read some vague statements from people over the years who claimed that he could be a little difficult to work with. If that’s true, then the fights had to have been worth it because he left a body of work that was also socially relevant. Throughout his albums, he dealt not only with relationships. He also dealt with social and spiritual issues. He was not a one-dimensional artist.
He should have gotten to be known for more than one song and one album. For all of my knowledge of Soul Music, I am terribly saddened that I never got to know and own the albums put out by the BBR label earlier. It wasn’t until only recently as each were reissued that I was able to discover just how complete an artist he was. It depresses me that his music and his catalog will likely never get another go-around. There is no magic wand which could help great numbers of people learn who this man was. He was a magnificent talent. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried upon reading the news that Billy Paul passed away after a bout with cancer this evening. He wasn’t young. I knew that this day was eventually going to come, but it hit me with great force anyway. God Bless Billy Paul. His was a great achievement.