Billy Paul obituary

American singer who scored a massive hit with the soul classic Me and Mrs Jones

Me and Mrs Jones, which tells the tale of a man’s infatuation with his married lover, was one of the classic soul songs of the 1970s. It was performed with jazzy cool by Billy Paul, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 81. A key figure in the success of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s “Philly sound”, in his best performances Paul combined jazz technique with rhythm and blues fervour.

He was born Paul Williams in North Philadelphia. His was a musical family – and he studied his mother’s collection of jazz records by such singers as Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday. Paul made his first radio broadcast at the age of 11, before studying at the West Philadelphia Music school and the Granoff School of Music. At 16 he appeared at Club Harlem in Philadelphia on the same bill as the saxophonist Charlie Parker. Paul recalled that: “Bird told me if I kept struggling I’d go a long way; and I’ve never forgotten his words.”

Billy Paul performing Me and Mrs Jones

He was soon playing at venues outside Pennsylvania – and in 1951, at the Apollo theatre in Harlem, New York, his manager persuaded him to create a stage name to avoid confusion with the saxophonist Paul Williams. In 1957 his career was interrupted by military service. Paul was posted to Germany, where his unit included both Elvis Presley and Gary Crosby, son of Bing. According to Paul, Elvis was not interested in playing music during his military service, but Paul and Crosby formed a jazz band which toured throughout Germany.

Returning to his civilian life, Paul resumed his career as a jazz singer, until in 1967, Gamble and Huff signed him to a recording deal. The first album, Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club (1968), was a recreation of Paul’s club act, but its successor, Ebony Woman (1970), added a more contemporary soul element. It sold enough copies to become a Top 20 hit on the soul charts.

In 1970, Gamble and Huff started their Philadelphia International label with backing from CBS Records. Following the Motown model, they set up their own studios, Sigma Sound, with its own group of session musicians. Paul became one of the label’s stalwarts, alongside Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O’Jays and Archie Bell.

Paul released the album Going East in 1971, before Me and Mrs Jones and its accompanying album, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, made the commercial breakthrough the following year. A British reviewer attributed the song’s success to its “slyly insinuating mixture of iced vocal and emotive story line”.

The single sold over 2m copies in the US alone and became an international hit, reaching No 12 in Britain early in 1973. That year, Paul toured Europe with the O’Jays and the Intruders, recording a live album at the London show. Me and Mrs Jones went on to win the Grammy award for best male rhythm and blues vocal performance, despite strong competition from Ray Charles and Curtis Mayfield.

The follow-up to Me and Mrs Jones was Am I Black Enough for You?, a controversial paean to black power which alienated many radio station managers and much of the white audience that had bought its predecessor. Paul’s only subsequent mainstream pop hit was to be Thanks for Saving My Life in 1974.

Billy Paul singing Thanks for Saving My Life

His recordings nevertheless remained popular with black audiences, despite further controversy over the title of a 1976 single Let’s Make a Baby. Although the lyrics also had a strong black pride element in their reference to raising a child to “walk around with his head held tall”, the song’s sexual content led some moral leaders, including the Rev Jesse Jackson, to urge broadcasters to ban the disc.

Paul continued to record for Gamble and Huff’s company until 1980. A highlight of his later albums was a version of Paul McCartney’s song Let ’Em In, to whose lyrics Billy Paul added references to heroes of the civil rights struggle, including Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Two decades later, Paul sued Philadelphia International for underpayment of royalties for Me and Mrs Jones and was awarded $500,000 by the jury.

In later years, he continued to appear at clubs and jazz festivals in the US and abroad. A biographical film, Am I Black Enough for You?, directed by Göran Hugo Olsson, was released in 2009.

After a brief period in hospital, Paul died at his home in Blackwood, New Jersey. He is survived by his wife, Blanche, who managed his career for many years.

• Billy Paul (Paul Williams) singer, born 1 December 1934; died 24 April 2016

Contributor

Dave Laing

The GuardianTramp

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