Billy Paul was a Grammy Award-winning R&B singer, known for his 1972 number-one single, “Me and Mrs. Jones”, and his 1973 album and single, “War of the Gods” which blended more pop, soul and funk styles with electronics and conventional influences.
He was one of the many artists associated with the Philadelphia sound created by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell. Billy Paul is generally identified by his diverse vocal style which ranges from mellow and soulful to low and raspy. Paul has been equated to the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
Paul 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. 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 stations, owned by the local Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper. Paul attended the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music for vocal training. He recalled: “Well you know, it was something that my mom would say I needed to hold my notes and deliver my notes. It gave me a sense security knowing my mother was 100% behind me and it created the style and uniqueness of Billy Paul. Paul would say” 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.”
THE MAKING OF A STAR AT THE APOLLO
Paul’s popularity grew and led to appearances in clubs and at college campuses nationally. This led to further opportunities, appearing in concert with Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, The Impressions, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Roberta Flack. He also changed his name from Paul Williams to Billy Paul so as to avoid any confusion with other artists such as songwriter Paul Williams and saxophonist Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams. He explained: “I had Jules Malvin, 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.”
“ME AND MRS JONES
When Billy Paul sang Me and Mrs. Jones, it had become such a huge hit that Gamble & Huff decided to re-release Paul’s first two albums Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club and Ebony Woman. Reissued in 1973, both albums featured new cover art and were a boon to new fans hungry for Billy Paul product who had already purchased his first two PIR LPs. Still, neither reissue was terribly successful with only Ebony Woman re-entering the album charts at #186 Pop and #43 Soul.
Paul’s next album War of the Gods was the follow-up to 360 Degrees of Billy Paul and was issued in November 1973. Unique in Paul’s catalog, it contains lengthy psychedelic soul, song suites and marked a conceptual and musical advance for Paul that did not go unrecognized by critics and fans. And while the LP and its singles enjoyed some success, Paul was unable to repeat the kind of wide impact he had with his previous album and “Mrs. Jones”. The War of the Gods single “Thanks for Saving My Life”, backed with “I Was Married” as the B-side, was a top 40 hit reaching #37 on the pop chart and a top-ten soul record reaching #9. It also reached #33 in the UK.
Let’s Make a Baby” proved controversial and there were calls to ban or alter the track because of its supposed obscene or negative message. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH led the movement against this and other songs such as Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl” and the Four Tops’ “Catfish.” The campaign was waged locally with individual stations making their own choices about how to handle the matter. For example, leading R&B station WWRL in New York City played “Let’s Make a Baby” but decided not to announce its title.[Other stations went so far as to alter the lyrics. Privately, several black disc jockeys described the controversy as “Jessie’s phony crusade against sex on the air.”[ The disc jockeys – who refused to allow their names to be used for fear of reprisals – accused Jackson of being “absolutely dishonest” about the campaign with one popular radio personality making reference to Richard
When Paul announced retirement in 1989 on the stage in London, he could not resist the temptation to continue to play live shows and record. So In 2009, he was asked how he was enjoying his retirement in South Jersey: “Retired? Are you serious?” Paul regularly toured in the U.S. and abroad playing small clubs, hotel ballrooms, Las Vegas showrooms, Jazz festivals, and theaters. For example, Paul has played Sweetwater’s on Amsterdam and 68th street in New York City; the Cape May Jazz Fest; the Almanaque Café in São Paulo, Brazil; and the Carthage Palace Hotel in Tunis, Tunisia.
Billy Paul continued to perform until his death from Pancreatic cancer April 24,2016. The Backbeartrnb Team will remember Billy Paul as an Icon loss.