It’s time to head down the Turnpike to Philadelphia again. These trips to the City of Brotherly Love are pretty much my favorite part of writing this column. As I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, it was the kids of Philadelphia, with their profound love of soul music, that had an everlasting effect on a kid growing up an hour away in Atlantic City. It’s a debt I can never repay, for a gift I will never forget.
You know the names. They echo down the halls of the virtual museum of American soul music, in the wing that they call Philly Soul. Gamble & Huff, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the Stylistics, Barbara Mason, the Intruders, Teddy Pendergrass, the Delfonics, MFSB, Patti LaBelle, Blue Magic, Hall & Oates, the Soul Survivors. And they’re not all Philadelphians either. Out-of-towners like Jerry Butler, the O’Jays, and the Spinners found their greatest success when they recorded in Philadelphia.
There is one name that doesn’t get enough attention though. Ok, he only put one record in the Top Ten on the pop charts, but that record went to the very top of the charts, and is remembered by soul music lovers everywhere. And the lack of hits does not negate the fact that Billy Paul was a great artist. Another Philadelphia legend, Questlove, said that Billy should be considered to be on the same level as artists like Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, and that Billy was “one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution ’60s civil rights music.”
Billy was born with the name Paul Williams, and grew up in north Philadelphia. He appreciated the music of singers like Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, and Ella Fitzgerald from an early age. he loved the smooth style of the singers, and his goal was to emulate their style, while forging his own sound. By the time he was 11 years-old, he was singing on local radio station WPEN. The radio gigs led to concert appearances, opening for artists like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, the Impressions, and Roberta Flack.
It was during a six week run at the Apollo Theater that his manager gave him the name Billy Paul (see what he did there?). The newly christened Billy made his first recordings for Jubilee Records in 1952. He got some good reviews in Billboard Magazine for his early singles, but despite the reviews and the marketing efforts of his label, the records didn’t sell.
Billy’s career was put on hold when he was drafted into the military in 1957. He ended up being stationed with Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby’s son Gary in Germany. Billy and Gary put a jazz band together that also included now well-known musicians like Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, and Don Ellis.
After he got out of the Army, Billy began to record for New Dawn Records. The label released several singles by Paul, but again they had little impact on the charts. During this time Billy filled in for one of Harold Melvin’s Bluenotes, did a six month stint with the Flamingos, and became close friends with Marvin Gaye when Marvin was a member of the Moonglows.
While Billy was recording his first album, he was also singing in a club in south Philly. One night Kenny Gamble showed up. Gamble was starting a new label, and he wanted to sign Billy. Billy finished the album in all of 3 1/2 hours, and gave it to Kenny to start his new label. Interestingly, it was the arrival of the Beatles in America that changed the course of Billy’s career. When he heard the Liverpool band he realized that he could sing more than just jazz. He began to bring more R&B into his music.
That first album, Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club, was released on Gamble’s new label in 1968, but didn’t sell. Ebony Woman, Billy’s second album, Ebony Woman, was produced by Gamble and Huff and released on their Neptune label. It did better, reaching #12 on the R&B chart. When Neptune folded, Gamble and Huff convinced Columbia Records to give them the money to start Philadelphia International Records. Their argument for the money was based primarily on the success of the singles they had produced for the Intruders.
Billy’s third album, Going East, was his first for Philadelphia International. It was again produced by Gamble and Huff, recorded at Sigma Sound, and featured MFSB as the backing band. The album was a middling success, and a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” almost made the charts. Billy wasn’t there yet, but he was getting closer each time out.
And then, in 1972, it happened. Gamble and Huff released the album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, and it contained the single “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The tale of adultery was written by Gamble, Huff, and Cary Gilbert and the record was released on Philadelphia International in October of that year. By December, the single was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it remained in that spot for three weeks. The platinum single was the first #1 record for Philadelphia International, and won Billy a Grammy Award.
The success didn’t last long. Billy’s follow-up single, “Am I Black Enough for You,” failed to garner much radio play. Even in the black power era, the song’s message proved to be too powerful for mainstream radio audiences. Billy never wanted to release the single in the first place. For a long time he considered the release to be a record company mistake, placing the blame primarily on Clive Davis, the head of Columbia Records at the time, but he became more philosophical about it in later years.
“For a long time I was angry about it, I had a bit of a letdown,” Paul said. Now the song is ahead of its time. I feel as though I let the song down when I went into my darkness. I feel like I abandoned the song. And I’m still going to get to the bottom of ‘Am I Black Enough.'”
360 Degrees of Billy Paul topped the R&B chart, and reached #17 on the Pop chart. Despite the failure of “Am I Black Enough for You,” the consensus was that Billy could replicate the success of “Me and Mrs. Jones” and return to the charts. Two tracks for a new album were recorded, but neither those tracks, or the album, was ever released in the U.S. Instead, Gamble and Huff decided to re-release Billy’s first two albums with new artwork. Neither release was successful.
Finally, in November, 1973, Billy’s follow-up album was released. Far from replicating the sound of 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, War of the Gods featured lengthy psychedelic soul tracks, and song suites. The album met with a positive reaction from critics and fans, and the single “Thanks for Saving My Life” made the Top 40, but Billy was still unable to find the kind of success he had with his previous album.
A live album from a European tour followed in 1974, and a new studio album a year later. Got My Head on Straight was an attempt to get back to the success of 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, but did not have nearly the chart success of that album. It was a major disappointment to Billy, and everyone at Philadelphia International. They had given it their best shot, and come up short.
In the years the followed, controversy dogged Billy over songs like “Let’s Make a Baby,” and his cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let ‘Em In,” which Billy turned into a civil rights anthem. Only the Strong Survive, Billy’s final charting album for Philadelphia International, was released in 1977. In that same year he teamed up with Philadelphia International All-Stars like Lou Rawls, Archie Bell, Teddy Pendergrass, and Dee Dee Sharp on the single “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto.” The album of the same name that followed included two of Billy’s tracks.
In 1979, Billy released First Class, his last Philadelphia International album. It was the first time since Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club that an album of his failed to chart. The label released The Best of Billy Paul compilation in 1980. Billy made two studio albums in the ’80s, Lately, for Total Experience Records, and Wide Open for Ichiban Records. He announced his retirement in 1989, but the temptation to perform was too great. Billy has continued to perform in clubs and theaters, and at festivals all over the world.
Billy has won an NAACP Image Award, and an American Music Award in addition to his Grammy for “Me and Mrs. Jones.”