Soul crooner Billy Paul dies at age 80

 

Soul great Billy Paul
Soul great Billy Paul

Billy Paul “helped shape the course of modern R & B music,” said the BBC on the Grammy Award-winning singer who died Sunday at home in Philadelphia at age 80 from pancreatic cancer.

“He was a chocolate man and very good looking,” gushed Philadelphia’s WDAS-FM Midday Personality Patty Jackson in a MSR phone interview Monday. A native Philadelphian as was Paul, who was born Paul Williams on December 1, 1934 in North Philadelphia, she recalled her last meeting with the soul crooner.

“I was just with him last summer” when the Philadelphia Phillies honored him and other city natives at a baseball game, said Jackson. “I had the chance to see him and laugh [with him]. It was really good seeing him.”

Paul started his singing career at age 11 in an appearance at a local radio station. He later worked with the likes of Charlie Parker and Nina Simone, and on his manager’s advice, changed his name to avoid any confusion with others in the business with his birth name, Paul Williams.

After serving time in the Army, Paul formed a jazz trio and recorded several songs that didn’t make airplay. He eventually hooked up with fellow Philadelphia songwriters and producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, who started a record label. That label folded but Paul followed the two and joined their new Philadelphia International Records in 1971.

Paul was a key voice in “The Sound of Philadelphia” along with the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and another Black crooner, Teddy Pendergrass.

The two men helped bring Black sexiness to the radio during the mid-1970s and beyond, noted Jackson. “They weren’t afraid to show that we [as Blacks] could be sexy,” she continued. Paul memorably displayed this in such songs as “Let’s Make a Baby” and “Love Buddies” — audio romantic calling cards for female fans that got plenty of play on Black radio, at house parties and with couples.

“Billy Paul knew how to say it — it didn’t sound crass,” said Jackson. “Everything now is so blatant.”

But “Me and Mrs. Jones” (1972), a song about two people seeing each other behind their spouses’ back, became Paul’s number-one hit, “a crossover phenomenal hit for him,” noted Jackson. “That was the song that took off.”

The song went platinum as well as the album it was on: 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, with its unforgettable cover — Paul’s head in a 3D spinning color cover shot — went gold and earned the singer a Grammy Award.

Personally, I liked Paul’s two covers on that album, “Your Song” and “It’s Too Late” equally as much, maybe more, though it was not as sexy as “Mrs. Jones.” And though his follow-up, “Am I Black Enough for You,” didn’t achieve crossover success, it did reach anthem status on Black radio across the country.

“Billy Paul was very socially conscious,” stated Jackson. “He was socially conscious before it became the thing to do.”

Paul’s last solo studio recording was in 1988. He released a total of 16 albums and over 30 singles, and he remained active as he performed live both in the U.S. and abroad for another three decades. He was a multiple award winner, including the NAACP Image Award, and he was honored last November by the American Music Guild as favorite retro artist of the year and its lifetime achievement award.

“People think his career ended after that song,” surmised Jackson on Paul post-“Mrs. Jones.” When a BBC reporter asked her Sunday after Paul’s death was announced did “Am I Black Enough for You” ultimately hurt his career, Jackson quickly responded, “Absolutely not. Just because Billy Paul had this pop song, he didn’t stop being a Black man or [being] socially conscious. It didn’t ruin his career.”

Paul is survived by his wife Blanche Williams, who also was his longtime manager.

“Music legends never die,” concluded Jackson. “Their music lives on forever.”

 

Information from BBC.com and Wikipedia was used in this report.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.