Billy Paul (born Paul Williams; December 1, 1935) is a Grammy Award winning American soul singer, most known for his 1972 number-one single, “Me and Mrs. Jones” as well as the 1973 album and single “War of the Gods” which blends his more conventional pop, soul and funk styles with electronic and psychedelic influences. He is one of the many artists associated with the Philadelphia soul sound created by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell. Paul is usually identified by his diverse vocal style which ranges from mellow and soulful to low and raspy. Questlove of The Roots has equated Paul to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, calling him “one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution ‘60s civil rights music“
Born and raised in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Paul’s love of music began at a young age listening at home to his family’s collection of 78s. He recalled: “That’s how I really got indoctrinated into music. My mother was always…collecting records and she would buy everything from Jazz at Philharmonic Hall to Nat King Cole.” He began singing along and tried to emulate the records he heard: “I always liked Nat King Cole. I always wanted to go my own way, but I always favored other singers like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald – I loved Ella Fitzgerald. There are so many of them. Nina Simone was one of my favorites – Johnny Mathis, They all had a style, a silkiness about them…. I wanted to sing silky, like butter – mellow. I wanted to sing mellow you know what I mean. One of my favorites is Jessie Velvet – they used to call him Mr. Easy. A lot of people forgot about him you know – Sam Cooke is another one of my favorites.”Billy Paul was heavily influenced by female jazz vocalists, perhaps none more than Billie Holiday. Paul explained why he was particularly influenced by female jazz singers: “I think the reason behind that is because of my high range. The male singers who had the same range I did, when I was growing up, didn’t do much for me. But put on Nina Simone,Carmen McRae or Nancy Wilson, and I’d be in seventh heaven. Female vocalists just did more with their voices, and that’s why I paid more attention to them.” Perhaps the female vocalist that had the most impact on Paul was Billie Holiday who he called “a BIG influence.” Paul began developing a vocal style that would eventually incorporate traces of jazz, R&B and pop.
Paul began his singing career at age eleven, appearing on local radio station WPEN, then owned by the local Philadelphia Bulletinnewspaper. Paul attended the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music for formal vocal training. He recalled: “Well you know, it was something that my mother would say I needed. Holding my notes you know, and delivering my notes. It gave me assurrance, cos my mother was 100% behind me and it created the style and uniqueness of Billy Paul. All my life I wanted to sound like myself, I never wanted to sound like anybody else. How that occurred was cause 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.”
“When I was 16, I played the Club Harlem in Philly and I was on the same bill as Charlie Parker. He died later that year. I was there with him for a week and I 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.” -Billy Paul
Paul’s popularity grew and led to appearances in clubs and at college campuses nationally. This led to further opportunities, appearing in concertwith Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, The Impressions, Sammy Davis, Jr. andRoberta Flack. He also changed his name from Paul Williams to Billy Paul so as to avoid any confusion with other artists such as saxophonist and songwriter Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams. He explained: “I had Jules Malamud, who was like my play father. He was my manager at the time. He took me up to the Apollo and I warmed the Apollo for six weeks and that’s where he gave me the name Billy Paul. I didn’t question it.”
Still a teenager, in 1952 he traveled to New York City and entered the recording studio for Jubilee Records. Backed by Tadd Dameron on piano and Jackie Davis on the Hammond organ, the first single Paul released that April was “Why Am I” with “That’s Why I Dream” as the B-side (Jubilee Records 5081, both written by Bernard Sacks and B. Sidney Zeff). Billboard reviewed the tracks favorably saying of “Why Am I” – “Expressive warbling of a moody ballad, by the label’s new 16-year-old chanter” and of “That’s Why I Dream” – “Organ and piano lend the singer a hand in this slow-paced etching of a romantic number.”
A few months later in June 1952, Paul released his second single – this time collaborating with the Buddy Lucas Orchestra – “You Didn’t Know” backed with “The Stars Are Mine” (Jubilee Records 5086). Billboard was again positive saying about “You Didn’t Know” – “Billy Paul, new young singer, makes an impressive bow on the label with a strong performance of a weeper ballad which should pick up spins and plays. The Lucas ork furnishes okay backing. A good disk” and about “The Stars Are Mine” – “Paul sings this new tune more quietly, over a smooth ork reading. Side is not as exciting as flip and tune is not as strong.” A few weeks later,Jubilee took out an ad in Billboard to promote their artists in anticipation of the annual NAMM Show – the music industry trade convention put on by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). Jubilee plugged Paul’s latest single and noted: “He’s New – He’s Hot!” Despite Jubilee’s efforts, none of the tracks by the young singer made the charts.
Army years and resumption of professional career
Billy Paul served with Elvis Presley and a number of other musicians in post-World War II Germany.
Paul’s career took an unexpected turn when he was drafted into the Armed Services. He recalled: “I went in, in 1957, and I was stationed with Elvis Presley and Gary Crosby – Bing Crosby’s son. We were in Germany and 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 Crosby, we started it and called ourselves the Jazz Blues Symphony Band. Some famous people came out of that band; Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris and we 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.
Paul and the other members of the 7th Army Band including Don Ellis, Leo Wright, and Ron Anthony used the service to further their musical careers as best they could—ones they knew would continue once they returned to civilian life. Paul said: “I sang in the service, I sang with a jazz band. So when I came out I sang Jazz, going to clubs and so forth.”
Paul also did some boxing in the Army – a sport he had grown up with as he explained in a 2012 interview: “Yeah we had a gym and all my friends from my neighborhood were boxers. Even during my army days I boxed as well as singing. Actually I still go to the gym; both me and my wife have trainers… Miles Davis would always say: ‘Come to the gym! I’m gonna beat your ass!’ Then one time I got hit too hard and I said no I’m going to sing!… That made my mind up.”
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” (New Dawn 1001) both written by Morris Bailey Jr. In 1960, Paul recorded “There’s a Small Hotel” (Finch 1005, written by Rodgers and Hart) backed with “I’m Always A Brother” (Finch 1006, written by Leon Mitchell and Charles Gaston). None of these songs charted but Paul would resurrect and re-record both “Ebony Woman” and “There’s a Small Hotel” in later years. Billy Paul was “tight” with Marvin Gaye who is pictured here standing 4th from the left during his stint inThe Moonglows.
“I always saw myself as a solo artist.” -Billy Paul
Paul was a brief stand in for one of the ailing Blue Notes with Harold Melvin. Paul remembered: “Well, I didn’t want to dance so Harold Melvin fired me (laughs). I had a six month stay with The Flamingos – I was with The Flamingos for a while.” It was around this time that Paul established a lifelong friendship withMarvin Gaye—both singers filling in with other groups. Paul recalled: “I was one of the Blue Notes at one time and Marvin Gayewas 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.”
Philadelphia soul years
In 2012, Paul was asked how important the city of Philadelphia is to him and what the Philly sound is: “It’s very very important to me. I was born here and so many great and influential artists come from here as well. Its 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.”
Neptune and Gamble releases
Paul and his wife and manager Blanche Williams were in the process of recording his debut album when they met Kenny Gamble. Paul recalled:
Billy Paul has cited The Beatlesas the key influence on his musical growth from jazz to other musical genres. “I was singing in a jazz club called the Sahara. He had a record shop on South St & Philly – 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 (Billy sings) ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ at first I said these guys are like a flash in the pan. But the second album when they started doing all this, I had to like 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, it was a studio album that attempted to recreate the feel of Paul’s live club performances. 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 some modest success reaching #12 on the Billboardsoul chart and #183 on the pop chart.
Philadelphia International releases
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, making full use of the label’s regular group of ace musicians MFSB at Sigma Sound Studios. As they had done on the previous LP, Gamble & Huff sought to find the balance between Paul’s jazz roots and the funky soul that they hoped would bring mainstream success. Paul nearly reached the charts with the single “Magic Carpet Ride” (a different song than the 1968Steppenwolf hit) and the album climbed to #42 on the Billboard soul chart and #197 on the pop chart.
“The good thing about Gamble & Huff is, nobody sounded alike, everybody had their own sound and that was the distinctive part that kept coming. -Billy Paul
“Me and Mrs. Jones” and international fame
With each album, Gamble & Huff were moving closer to realizing the sound they envisioned for Paul and with the 1972 LP 360 Degrees of Billy Paul and the single “Me and Mrs. Jones” they achieved it. Both the album and song received commercial and critical recognition. “Me and Mrs. Jones” was a No. 1 hit for the last three weeks of 1972, selling two million copies (platinum single status), and went on to win Paul a Grammy Award. The gold album and platinum single broke the artist on world charts, including the United Kingdom where the single entered the Top 20 of the UK Singles Chart reaching number 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. Paul recalled the Grammy win and the song’s overall success: “Oh man! I was up against Ray Charles, I was up against Curtis Mayfield, I was up against Isaac Hayes. I was in the Wilberforce University in Ohio, I had to go do a homecoming – my wife and her mother went. And when I see Ringo Starr call my name, I said Ohhh… Yeah… The most sobering thing is to have a number one record across the whole entire world in all languages. It’s a masterpiece, it’s a classic.
“The song was PIR’s first No. 1. In addition, the label was enjoying considerable success with their other artists including the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Paul remembered the atmosphere at the label: “It was like a family full of music. It was like music round the clock, you know.”Music executive Clive Davis has consistently praised Paul’s recording of “Am I Black Enough for You?”.
“Am I Black Enough” controversy
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. There was and continues to be much controversy surrounding the choice to release this track as the follow-up to a cross-over smash hit.
In a 1977 interview, Paul made plain that he opposed the choice from the beginning:
“I think though that a lot of mistakes were made at the time. The biggest one was releasing ‘Am I Black Enough For You’ straight after ‘Mrs. Jones’. People weren’t ready for that kind of a song after the pop success of ‘Mrs. Jones’. They were looking for a sequel or at least something that wasn’t provocative. You’ll remember at the time that I told you I was 100% against it and history has proven me right. But though it was a company mistake, I’m still satisfied with both CBS and Philadelphia International. “Decades later, Paul was more philosophical about the song: “That was what I had with ‘Am I Black Enough.’ I wanted – I’m gonna make it this time and come out. I think it’s true to the audience, cos they look for something to come out compared to Mrs. Jones and that wasClive Davis’ idea to do that. I think it was Kenny and Clive Davis, but I think it was mostly Clive Davis.”For his part, Davis has said that he opposed releasing the song as a single. Still, Davis called it an “all time great record, all time great performance. “Gamble, the co-writer and producer of the track, said the song “was great and Billy sounded great doing it.”.Paul reflected: “Well you know… For a long time I was angry about it, I had a bit of a letdown. Now the song is ahead of its time. I feel as though I let the song down when I went into my darkness. I feel like I abandoned the song. And I’m still going to get to the bottom of ‘Am I Black Enough.'”