The music world is reeling once again after news that Philadelphia soul legend Billy Paul has died. Best known for his smash hit, “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Paul carved out a long, six-decade career of varying peaks and valleys with fans still discovering his gems.
Paul was born Paul Williams on December 1, 1934 and raised in North Philadelphia. As a boy, Paul was influenced by legendary female jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday. His singing career began when he was 11 years of age, and he joined several vocal groups in and around Philadelphia. He then had opportunities to perform with some of his vocal heroes like Dinah Washington, and performed Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., and Roberta Flack among several other notables.
In the early ’50’s, Paul’s career was beginning to soar but he was drafted into the military in 1957. During his tour in Germany, he was stationed with Elvis Presley and the son of actor Bing Crosby, Gary Crosby. Paul unsuccessfully tried to form a group with Presley and Crosby to get out of tough military tasks.
After his discharge in 1959, Paul resumed his career and began crossing paths with rising groups of the time such as The Moonglows, featuring crooner Marvin Gaye. The pair forged a long friendship after their initial encounter, although Paul regretted never working on tunes with Gaye. During this period, Paul also briefly starred with The Flamingos and was a stand-in for Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes but was fired because he didn’t want to do dance routines.
Paul’s debut album, Feelin’ Good At The Cadillac Club, paid homage to one of North Philly’s famous performance venues. The record wasn’t a success and was followed by two other releases with Philadelphia International Records honchos Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But it wasn’t until 1972’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul did the singer become a household name.
With the lead single “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Paul won a Grammy and sold two million copies.
However, Paul lost momentum with the follow-up single, “Am I Black Enough For You?” which he didn’t think was a smart single to issue. However, the song, full of Black Power pride and themes, stands today as one of the strongest records in Paul’s catalog. His career continued and he charted singles on the R&B and soul charts here and there before fading into relative obscurity. But years later, interest in Paul’s music was revived, and he enjoyed long tours around the world while his health permitted.
Paul had been battling pancreatic cancer according to his manager, and he passed last Sunday at his New Jersey home. Along with his lone Grammy win, Paul has also won an American Music Award, an NAACP Image Award and several other honors across the nation.