Born in 1934 and raised in Philadelphia, Paul Williams began his singing career at the age of twelve, thanks to a neighborhood friend by the name of Bill Cosby. It was Cosby who helped the young man land a singing spot on WPEN, which lead to a string of local radio appearances. Listening at home to his family’s collection of vintage 78s, Paul developed a vocal style which would eventually incorporate jazz, R&B and pop. When asked who influenced him the most, Paul generally cited female singers: Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae and others.
“That’s how I really got indoctrinated into music,” he recalled. “My mother was always buying and collecting records. She would buy everything from ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ to Nat ‘King’ Cole.”
As Paul grew, so did his interest in music. Seeking to increase his technical skills, Paul attended Temple University, West Philadelphia Music School and Granoff Music School. Before long he was appearing in local clubs — and discovering that he had to change his name in order to make it. There already was a famous Paul Williams: the saxophonist bandleader who had scored eight R&B hits in 1948-9, including the massive No. 1 R&B smash “The Hucklebuck” (the same song Chubby Checker was to successfully revive in 1960). Later, of course, another Paul Williams would sing lead with The Temptations — and yet another would earn fame as the composer of “Evergreen” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Billy formed a trio and cut his first record, “Why Am I,” for Jubilee Records in 1952. It flopped. Five years later he was drafted and wound up at the same military base in Germany that housed Elvis Presley. After his discharge came a quick stop with The Flamingos and then a brief stand-in job as one of Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes. One reviewer described Billy’s ‘saxophone baritone’ as resembling that of The Blue Notes’ famed lead singer, Teddy Pendergrass.
The first Billy Paul album, 1968’s “Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club,” was a commercial flop but did mark the beginning of his professional association with the writing and production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They had put that album together and released it on their own Gamble label. That same pair assembled Billy’s second album, “Ebony Woman,” for their Neptune label. In 1971 Gamble & Huff formed a third record company, Philadelphia International, and again signed their old friend Billy Paul. His first LP for the new firm, “Going East,” instead went south — as had his previous two releases. By then the year was 1972.
Billy’s fourth album was designed to show him off as an all-round entertainer — and thus was titled “360 Degrees of Billy Paul.” Among the tracks was a Gamble-Huff composition about a very touchy subject: adultery. Was Billy concerned that a musical celebration if marital infidelity might turn off a lot of potential fans?
“I knew that ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ would be a hit even before it was released,” Paul recalled. “It’s a song that everybody can relate to.”
Not “everybody” agreed. In fact, a lot of radio stations refused to play “Me and Mrs. Jones” because the lyrics dealt with an immoral theme without condemning it. Regardless, “Me and Mrs. Jones” went on to become one of 1972’s largest selling singles, with sales topping four and half million copies.
Billy Paul won the Grammy for 1972’s “Best Male Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Performance.” Later, “Me and Mrs. Jones” was voted “Song of the Year” at the second annual Soul & Blues Night in Los Angeles.
“Me and Mrs. Jones” peaked on the charts that December and remained a strong seller for another couple of months. Then, in April 1973. Billy’s follow-up single did what his ode to cheating hadn’t — nearly killed his career. The “Black Power” message inherent in the lyrics of “Am I Black Enough for You” proved highly controversial and thus received very little airplay. In 1977, Paul regretted releasing that single. “People weren’t ready for that kind of song,” he said, “after the pop success of ‘Mrs. Jones’.” It took until the spring of 1974 for Billy to score what became his second and last Top 40 hit, the ironically-titled “Thanks for Saving My Life.”
Billy Paul continued to place titles on the R&B charts through 1980, most notably 1976’s highly sexual “Let Make a Baby.” The tone of that track irked many, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Some radio stations which did broadcast it edited the single; others refused to identify the song on the air.
In concert, Billy Paul shared stages with everyone from Dinah Washington to Sammy Davis, Jr. … Miles Davis to The Impressions … Roberta Flack to his idol, Nina Simone. While in concert in London, Billy Paul announced his retirement in 1989 — but instead went on to play small clubs and other venues as long as his health held out.
Billy died April 14, 2016 at his home in Blackwood, N.J. at the age of 81 — the victim of pancreatic cancer. He’s survived by his manager-wife, Blanche, and two children.
— Gary Theroux