“Me and Mrs. Jones” vocalist and Philly soul legend dies at the age of 81
Billy Paul, the vocal legend behind the eternal ballad “Me and Mrs. Jones,” died on Sunday (April 24) at the age of 81. He had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was hospitalized last week, according to Paul’s manager Beverly Gay. Paul died at his place of residence in Blackwood, NJ.
Born Paul Williams in Philadelphia, Paul rose to prominence as a signed artist to Kenny Gamble and Leon’s newest frontier, Philadelphia International Records. Signed to their Gamble imprint, Paul kicked off his career with 1968’s Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club, a non-live album that found the jazz-trained singer offering a different spin on jazz standards and a host of lounge tunes. It sold modestly regionally, as we as a host of follow-ups (1970’s Ebony Woman, 1971’s Going East), but his fourth album put him in good standing. 360 Degrees of Billy Paul spun the No. 1 pop hit, “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Penned by Gamble and Huff along with fellow songwriter Cary Gilbert, “…Mrs. Jones” presented Paul as a modern-age crooner saturated in a gusto of Philly soul romance. In the liner notes of the Big Break Records’ remastered Lately, Paul’s final album released on Total Experience Records, I wrote of the prominence that “Me and Mrs. Jones” had.
“Thanks to his gold-certified, Grammy-winning No. 1 pop hit “Me and Mrs. Jones,” a tune that sashayed with the swagger of Sinatra inside a song that communized infidelity, Jones rose to the top of everyone’s list. It was the ‘Let’s Get It On’ before there ever was a ‘Let’s Get It On.’ In the book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Tom Moon wrote that Paul ‘makes you feel the seductive pull of the situation – and really, everything about ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ is a seduction.’”
The disc became Paul’s best-selling album, going to number 17 on the Billboard 200 and number one on the R&B Albums chart. The single, which ended up winning a Grammy for Best Male R&B Performance, would become a pop culture favorite thanks to varied reinterpretations by a host of other pop singers such as Michael Buble.
His follow-up single, “Am I Black Enough for You,” was a poignant piece of sociopolitical commentary that many believe harmed Paul’s perception on pop radio. Inflamed with a Curtis Mayfield-esque civil rights mantra (“We’re gonna move on up, one by one/We ain’t gonna stop until the work is done”) and a bit of black power incorporation (“We’re gonna move on up, six by six/I gotta use my mind instead of my fists”), radio began to patly distance away from Jones. “[It was a] bad mistake at that time,” Paul told me in 2013. “It was ahead of its time. But the way I’m singing it now, I get more support from white people than black people.”
A string of album releases on PIR ensued. Some of its singles carried on Gamble & Huff’s theologies and the rhetoric of “Am I Black Enough for You.” A cover of Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let Em In” was used as the title cut for his 1976’s Let ‘Em In LP, but was stretched with new lyrics celebrating civil rights icons and prominent black musicians, even snippets of Dr. King’s speeches. The song only cracked the R&B charts at number 91 and number 26 in the UK. The message song “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto,” released as a non-single, featured Paul along with a host of PIR’s top acts (Lou Rawls, the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass). The fun disco ditty fared better on the charts; number four R&B and number 91 pop. It would be his last venture into the pop charts.
Much of Jones’s catalog has been severely underrated and overlooked by the masses, but a latter-day revivalism of out-of-print ‘70’s and ‘80’s records began, sparking renewed interest in his work. A documentary on Paul’s life featuring Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Schoolly D (2009’s Am I Black Enough for You) helped explain Paul’s unsung career and just how his song almost left him “blacklisted” from radio. Big Break Records, a UK subsidiary for Cherry Red Records, reissued much of Paul’s output for PIR along with one of his last studio albums (Lately).
That album, produced by Jonah Ellis (Gap Band, Yarbrough & Peoples) and Oliver Scott, contained bubbly R&B (“Hot Date”) a cover of “I Only Have Eyes” and a “Sexual Healing”-sounding “Sexual Therapy.”
LISTEN TO: BILLY PAUL | SEXUAL THERAPY
“It’s so obvious that ‘Sexual Therapy’ mimicked the ebb and flow of Gaye’s sexy escapade. Had it been properly marketed using some of the lubricated machinery that propped the Gap Band up as mega r&b superstars, the single would’ve been another smash hit for Total Experience. Without the possibility of becoming a hit in the US, the song only managed to break in the UK where it was released as a single, stalling at number 80 on the UK Singles’ chart in September 1985.”
In my interview with Paul in 2013, he opened up about his relationship with Marvin Gaye and the inspiration behind “Sexual Therapy.” “That was intentional because Marvin and I were very close,” Paul says, while recalling the resemblance of the two songs. “We were closer than close; we were like brothers. We would get out and spent a lot of time together. He told me he was going to do ‘Sexual Healing.’ I said to let me do one called ‘Sexual Therapy.’ So that was what I had in mind.”
Questlove went on to call Paul “one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution music.”
Paul is survived by his spouse, Blanche Williams.