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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 812

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This is the grave of Billy Paul.

Born either in 1934 or 1935 (sources vary), Paul Williams grew up in Philadelphia in a musical family. I don’t see a lot of evidence that his family played a lot of instruments, but there was always music playing in the house and singing because a passion for the young boy. His mother strongly supported his singing career and sent him to vocal school. He created the stage name of Billy Paul and became a pretty popular local artist by the early 50s.

In 1952, Paul recorded his first critically successful works, getting positive reviews on songs such as “Why Am I?” and “You Didn’t Know.” They didn’t sell real well though. Then Paul was drafted. He served in the same unit as Elvis, which was really more an entertainment unit than anything else. Paul claimed that he tried to get Elvis to join the band they were putting together but that the King wanted a break and preferred to drive a Jeep for officers instead. So Paul was part of a jazz band that also included Don Ellis, Leo Wright, and Ron Anthony. He came back to the U.S. after his release from the military and went into jazz singing.

That went along for a good decade, working the Philly jazz clubs, and sort of making a living. He released a full album in 1968 of his jazz singing covers of other artists, but it didn’t do much. However, by this time, Paul had started listening heavily to The Beatles and other more popular bands and realized that he combine his own style with theirs and create a more popular music that might allow him to really make it as a musician. In 1970, Paul released Ebony Woman. This reached the lower parts of the pop charts and #12 on the R&B charts, which was a big step for him. It was here he found his style–a mix of covers (“Proud Mary” and “Mrs. Robinson” among them) and originals (though not his own songs, he wasn’t much of a writer), some uptempo numbers and a lot of ballads, and a mix of jazz and R&B singing styles. He was also combining all of that with the Black nationalism of the period, with liner notes that talked of the album being inspired by a Black woman who could finally chart her own way after 400 years of oppression. His 1971 album Goin’ East was pretty similar and also was a lower chart reacher.

What made Paul famous was his 1972 song “Me and Mrs. Jones” on his album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. For this, he is often listed as a one-hit wonder. That’s a bit unfair. He was a lifer in the music industry who just happened to hit it huge here. He was almost 40 years old by this time. But at the same time, it’s true enough. It was his only hit. It was the #1 song on the charts for most of December 1972. He even won a Grammy for it, which blew his mind. The song is fairly ridiculous, about an affair where the couple meet at a cafe and hold hands. But hey, whatever.

Paul’s producers followed up that huge hit with a big error. “Am I Black Enough for You?” wasn’t a bad song by any means. But it was also a Black Power song following a schmaltz pop hit. People weren’t that interested in it. Paul claims he thought it was a bad idea from the beginning, but he wasn’t really questioning the producers who had brought him the Grammy. Alas, it flopped as a single. 360 Degrees of Billy Paul was still a big seller, but it was about it in terms of major hit albums.

Paul went back to the same general well for the rest of the 70s with the basic success of his earlier work–a bit of radio play, lower ends of the charts. What got weird is that in early 1976, Paul had a single called “Let’s Make a Baby.” This was another minor hit, #83 on the Pop charts and #18 on the Soul charts. Yeah, it was a song about sex outside of marriage. Who cares, right? This just so happened to coincide with Jesse Jackson’s puritanical period of the late 70s, when he was going on about bad morals in music and opposing abortion. And so Jackson decided to attack Paul’s song publicly. It wasn’t the only song he went after, but this got the song a lot more publicity than the song itself was going to earn. What the Black music community quickly figured out is that Jackson wasn’t going after any big name artists who were making songs at least as bawdy as this. He was picking on small artists to make a point without alienating any major fan bases. This was not Jackson’s finest hour by any means. As one DJ pointed out about this, Jackson was making these charges…..and having Richard Pryor perform at his own events. Jackson said publicly he was not attacking Billy Paul. But radio stations changed his lyrics on multiple songs to please Jackson, including one song where a Chicago station took a song that Paul had made using quotes from assassinated civil rights leaders and dubbed Jackson’s voice over Martin Luther King! The whole thing was just a strange moment in the history of puritanical attacks on popular music.

Anyway, Paul’s style was going out of fashion as the 70s turned into the 80s. He had only two albums in that decade and neither did much. Still, he was a big enough name to tour consistently, making a living. You can’t fault anyone for that. The kind of package tours based around nostalgia have been a big part of American musical culture since the 70s and they’ve kept a lot of musicians making money without having new hits.

Paul did have one more moment in the spotlight, when Nike used “Me and Mrs. Jones” in a commercial featuring Marion Jones without Paul’s permission. What this did was actually pretty good for Paul, for it got him looking into all the ways he had been totally screwed by his partners in making music. Like so many Black musicians, people had just stolen his money by not paying him, taking false credit, and seeing all sorts of methods to grift. Paul first sued Nike, which rapidly admitted it had made a stupid error and settled out of court. He then sued his former record company and producers, who then countersued him. This led to Paul winning in a jury trial, with damages of $500,000 from “Me and Mrs. Jones” alone. Paul’s success led to other artists who had worked with those producers, including Archie Bell and The O’Jays, to sue as well.

In 2009, the Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson released a biopic of sorts about Paul, titled Am I Black Enough for You? I haven’t seen it, but I will try to find it. It’s stylistically based on the Chet Baker film Let’s Get Lost, which I think is a pretty bad film because it romanticizes the disaster of a human that was the trumpeter. Paul was most certainly not a disaster of a human being. Anyway, I guess the film did pretty well in Sweden and Paul was happy enough with it.

Paul died in 2016, of pancreatic cancer. Bleh. He was 81 years old.

Today’s Paul is the kind of artist who is really influential on a lot of other artists, even if he’s still not real known by the general public. Questlove, among others, has cited Paul as a big influence. Let’s listen to some Billy Paul.

Billy Paul is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other artists who were in the Billboard Year End Hot Singles of 1973, which in fact includes late 1972 as the chart goes November-November, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. “Me and Mrs. Jones was #15 on that list. Jim Croce, who was #2 that year with “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” (which is really dumb song unless Jerry Lee Lewis covers it in which it turns awesome) is in Frazer, Pennsylvania and Dobie Gray, who was #17 for “Drift Away,” is in Nashville. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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