When most people think of Billy Paul, one song comes to mind: the timeless classic “Me & Mrs. Jones.” But Billy Paul’s music catalogue is much more than that one smash hit; he has created some of the most beautiful, thought provoking and lasting music ever made.
Billy Paul was born and raised in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began his singing career when he was only twelve years old, singing on local radio shows. It was from listening to his family’s collection of 78 rpm records that he began developing a vocal style that would combine jazz, R&B and pop.
Billy attended Temple University, West Philadelphia Music School and Granoff School of Music for formal vocal training. He eventually became known through his performances on Philadelphia’s underground music circuit.
He cut his first record entitled “Why Am I” with a trio he formed on Jubilee Records before being drafted into the Armed Forces. After his discharge, he joined the new record label Dawn Records and had a brief stint as a member of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. It was during this time he met producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. He eventually went solo and recorded his first album, Feeling Good at the Cadillac Club, produced by Gamble & Huff on the Gamble label. His second album, Ebony Woman, was released on Gamble & Huff’s Neptune label. His third album, Going East, was released on Gamble & Huff’s newly formed Philadelphia International Records label. This album and Ebony Woman made some headway as the record-buying public became familiar with Billy and his trademark, distinctive singing voice.
But it was “Me & Mrs. Jones” that generated great buzz and excitement about the Philadelphia-born singer. Released in September 1972, this jazzy/R&B tune, literally about dating someone else’s wife, was a monstrous hit, soaring to #1 on the soul charts for four weeks in December 1972 and #1 on the pop charts in January 1973. It sold well over one million copies and made Billy Paul a superstar and earned him a Grammy Award. This unforgettable track garnered widespread airplay on many radio stations, got played on a lot of turntables, in bar jukeboxes and in blue light in the basement parties. It has also been said many babies were conceived off of this song.
With a song as hot as “Me & Mrs. Jones” comes appearances on television, and Billy made several appearances on all of the major television shows. The first show he appeared on to promote “Me & Mrs. Jones” was none other than Soul Train on its October 1972 taping.
Host Don Cornelius said in his introduction, “For the most part it’s the funky soul sounds and the heavy rock sounds that seem to dominate today’s music scene, and for a song stylist to make his way through all of that, he has to be pretty heavy.” From the time Billy sang the opening lines of “Me & Mrs. Jones,” the Soul Train Gang screamed and yelled. He received a thunderous ovation afterwards and shouts of “Right on!” from the enthusiastic dancers when he finished his performance.
In the interview, Don told Billy, “I guess I don’t have to tell you that ‘Me & Mrs. Jones’ is the baddest song in the world today.” When he asked Billy how he would define himself as an artist, Billy said, “Well, I think I would describe myself primarily as a singer that’s dealing with what’s happening and what’s relevant now.” He further stated that the theme of “Me & Mrs. Jones” is something that’s been happening for centuries and is more open today.
Don: “I also detect the possibility that you might have a jazz background. Is that correct or incorrect?”
Billy: “That’s very correct. I’ve been singing since I was 11. At 16 I was working with Charlie Parker. He’s one of the giants. Coming from a jazz background it was one of the greatest things to happen for any singer because of the fact I took an interest at heart but learned to build on it. When I say that I just didn’t want to be labeled as a jazz singer but like my new album, the one that ‘Me & Mrs. Jones’ is on, it’s called 360 Degrees of Billy Paul and that means I’m covering all of the territories.”
Billy later performed “This is Your Life,” a nice tune about celebrating one’s life which was taken from his previous album Going East.
It was unusual for an artist to return to the following month’s Soul Train taping to perform the same song he or she did on the previous taping, but Billy did just that on the program’s November taping to not only further promote “Me & Mrs. Jones,” but his newly released 360 Degrees of Billy Paul album. “Me & Mrs. Jones” was indeed such a popular record that Don could not resist bringing him back to his show during the height of the song’s massive popularity.
While holding Billy’s new album, Don said, “His great recording of ‘Me & Mrs. Jones’ will go down as one of the biggest successes of the year 1972. Since he visited us last, his album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul has been released on Philadelphia International and contains such tunes as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Me & Mrs. Jones” and “Brown Baby,” which is threatening to become as big a success as “Me & Mrs. Jones.” Billy proceeded to do “Brown Baby,” a great mid-tempo track about black unity. Hats would ultimately become Billy’s trademark as he wore a purple vinyl apple cap on this appearance.
Naturally, the Soul Train Gang wanted to know more about the man whose record the majority of them bought, so a Q&A session with Billy was held midway in the show. One dancer asked the $64,000 question on most people’s minds: “Is there a Mrs. Jones in your life?” Billy laughed and replied, “I can’t tell you that!”
Dancer Bobby Washington asked Billy if he ever thought of singing with a female singer to which Billy replied, “I have a couple in mind including a young lady from Cincinnati named Randy Crawford.” (Randy Crawford would go on to become a popular singer years later).
After the Q&A session, Billy performed his still blazing hot single “Me & Mrs. Jones” for the second time on the show, to the delight of the hyped up Soul Train Gang.
“Me & Mrs. Jones” was an influence on the music of a new artist in 1973 named Barry White as well as other artists. It was rumored that Motown Records felt the impact of the mega-success of “Me & Mrs. Jones,” so Marvin Gaye and Ed Townsend penned the sensual “Let’s Get It On,” which became an equally monstrous hit in the late summer/fall of 1973.
Of interesting note, The Dramatics recorded a fantastic cover version of “Me & Mrs. Jones” in 1975, while Barbara Mason recorded an answer record to “Me & Mrs. Jones” entitled “Me & Mr. Jones” in 1974.
Billy’s fifth album, the outstanding War of the Gods (with an equally outstanding album cover), was released in October 1973. Its first single, “I Was Married,” a terrific tune in the vein of “Me & Mrs. Jones,” failed to chart, but the second single, “Thanks For Saving My Life,” a heartwarming mid-tempo tune, made it to number nine on the soul charts and 37 on the pop charts.
Billy returned to Soul Train on its January 20, 1974 taping to perform “Thanks For Saving My Life” and an uptempo danceable tune entitled “The Whole Town’s Talking” from War of the Gods. “Super smooth Billy,” as Don referred to him in his introduction of the singer, looked dapper in grey suit and grey hat with the brim of the hat slightly tilted down. During Billy’s interview with Don, he mentioned that he had returned from a European tour with The O’Jays and The Intruders, stating that the response was great and very receptive. “The most amazing thing is to see people who can’t understand your language but they enjoy your music and the sound,” Billy told Don.
Several of the songs he performed on the London leg of the European tour were released on his wonderful live album entitled Billy Paul Live in Europe.
Billy’s seventh studio album, the fantastic When Love Is New, was released in November 1975. He appeared on Soul Train’s April 4, 1976 taping to promote the album. He opened with the album’s title tune, an outstanding classic romantic ballad. As he performed, the entire set was dark to set the right proper mood and atmosphere with the exception of a spotlight on Billy, who wore a white suit and black hat. It’s an underrated track and is one of the best love songs ever recorded.
Later during the interview, Don asked Billy if he was gratified over the success of the When Love Is New album. Billy replied that he was, due to the fact that he had a chance to write some songs for the album, including “Let the Dollar Circulate.” Don asked who wrote the controversial tune on the album “Let’s Make A Baby,” to which Billy answered Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The mere title of that song brought laughter among Billy, Don and the Soul Train Gang due to its suggestive title. He spoke of the concerts he had done recently with MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), chiefly his concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall which was very successful.
Billy then performed the uptempo, thumping “People Power,” a great song about solidarity among the human race.
Billy closed with the aforementioned “Let’s Make A Baby.” Unlike what most people think of the song’s title, the song is a gentle, beautiful ballad about a married couple coming together to “be fruitful and multiply” and make children and raise them with wisdom and knowledge. Some critics at the time thought the song was promoting fornication and out-of-wedlock children, but that wasn’t the case at all. It was simply a beautiful and tender tune about procreation.
Billy made his last Soul Train appearance on its December 11, 1976 taping. He opened with his performance of “Word Sure Gets Around,” a sweet ballad about the spreading of relationship rumors from his current album, Let ‘Em In.
During the course of the interview, Billy said while he was working on the album for the past nine months his twin sister had died. He mentioned that the title track and another track from the album, “Without You,” were dedicated to her.
Billy then performed “Let ‘Em In,” an excellent remake of the Beatles tune. His version is even superior to the Beatles’ original version, interspersed with inspirational audio quotes from Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Dick Gregory and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Billy closed with “I Trust You,” a wonderful song about a solid relationship based on trust.
“Me & Mrs. Jones” was such a huge hit that it seemed to many that its mega success overshadowed him as an artist. Moreover, the follow-up release to “Me & Mrs. Jones,” “Am I Black Enough For You,” was deemed militant by pop radio stations and it had been said that his music was blackballed thereafter (a similar fate happened to Curtis Mayfield’s music on pop radio after the mega success of the Super Fly movie soundtrack). Also, the onslaught of disco music hurt both the sales and airplay of R&B artists like Billy Paul and others in the mid- to late seventies. Many weren’t even aware that Billy recorded any music after “Me & Mrs. Jones” and dismissed him as a one-hit wonder, which is a shame because his body of work is excellent. Today in his early seventies, Billy still performs around the world.
Obviously, no one will ever forget “Me & Mrs. Jones.” Its enduring popularity is forever cemented in music history. However, Billy’s music is much more than one hit song. To quote part of the title of the hit album that put Billy on the map, he recorded 360 degrees worth of dynamic music in the genres of soul, jazz and pop that is worthy of wider recognition.
Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.