Billy Paul, a star from the Philadelphia soul scene who won fame with “Me And Mrs Jones” before drawing controversy with his racially charged politics, died on Sunday at the age of 80.
Paul, whose career spanned more than 60 years, died at his home in Blackwood, New Jersey, his co-manager Beverly Gay told AP. Paul had been diagnosed recently with pancreatic cancer, Gay said.
“We regret to announce with a heavy heart that Billy has passed away today at home after a serious medical condition,” a statement on his website said.
Known by his beard and large glasses, Paul was one of many singers who found success with the writing and producing team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, whose Philadelphia International Records also released music by the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Lou Rawls.
Born Paul Williams in Philadelphia, the singer came of age as the eastern city became an epicentre of a style of soul music known for smooth and jazzy melodies. He performed in his youth alongside legends such as Charlie Parker and Nina Simone.
Paul topped the mainstream charts in 1972 with “Me And Mrs Jones”, a light-touch song about an extra-marital affair that has been covered by a range of artists including Hall & Oates and Michael Buble.
The song was a characteristic Gamble and Huff production, setting Paul’s thick tenor against a lush and sensuous arrangement. Many fans best remember the moment when Paul’s otherwise subtle vocals jump as they reach the title words, stretching out “Me” and “And” into multiple syllables and repeating “Mrs Jones, Mrs Jones, Mrs Jones”. (Paul himself was married to the same woman for decades).
With his uplifting, mellifluous voice, Paul won a Grammy Award for the song and helped shape the course of modern R&B but fell on the losing end of one of the music industry’s legendary tales of poor marketing.
In a decision that would prove commercially disastrous, Paul followed up the hit not with another smooth soul song but “Am I Black Enough For You?”, a funky number with allusions to the Black Power movement.
Paul said he opposed the timing of the release of the more provocative song. Legendary music executive Clive Davis said he too had pushed against the move on commercial grounds, although he praised “Am I Black Enough For You?” on artistic merit.
“For a long time I was angry about it,” Paul told Blues and Soul magazine after the release of a 2009 documentary about the song in Sweden, where he had a particularly strong following. “The song is ahead of its time.”
But in an interview with the review site Little White Lies, Paul said decades later he received the most requests for the song among white audiences.
“So it makes me very comfortable, and now it’s very, very popular. It caught up with time – we got a black president now,” he said, referring to Barack Obama.
Artist and producer Questlove, best known as the percussionist of The Roots, said in the Swedish documentary that Paul should be considered the forerunner of soul icons Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
“Billy Paul, in every aspect of his presentation, was the first person to bring reality” into the music, Questlove said.
The singer was born Paul Williams but later agreed to his manager’s suggestion that he change his name to Billy Paul to avoid confusion with songwriter Paul Williams and other musicians with the same name. A Philadelphia native, he sang much his life, performing with jazz stars such as Charlie Parker and Dinah Washington and being featured on a handful of singles while still in his teens.
Paul was drafted into the military in his early 20s, and found himself on the same base in Germany with a couple of famous show business names, Elvis Presley and Gary Crosby, Bing Crosby’s son.
“We said we’re going to start a band, so we didn’t have to do any hard work in the service,” he told bluesandsoul.com in 2015. “We tried to get Elvis to join but he wanted to be a jeep driver. So me and Gary Crosby, we started it and called ourselves the Jazz Blues Symphony Band.”
Though he scored his biggest hit with Gamble and Huff, Paul sued the duo and other industry officials over unpaid royalties and was awarded $500,000 by a Los Angeles jury in 2003.
Though he endured many difficult moments with Gamble and Huff, he would look back on those years as a lost golden age. “It was like a family full of music,” he told bluesandsoul.com. “It was like music round the clock, you know. And I reminisce and I still wish those days were here.”
Gamble and Huff said in a statement late on Sunday that Paul’s voice made him “one of the great artists to come out of Philly and to be celebrated worldwide”. They said: “Our proudest moment with Billy was the recording of the salacious smash ‘Me And Mrs Jones.’ In our view, it is one of the greatest love songs ever recorded.”
Paul continued to perform live until he fell ill and his manager said he had been lining up numerous appearances at the time of his death. Among his favourites in concert was a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” (Prince died last Thursday).
Paul is survived by his wife, Blanche Williams, with whom he had two children.