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In Touching ‘Unsung’ Preview His Producer & Widow Remember Billy Paul (EUR Exclusive)

Billy Paul
Billy Paul

*Mention the name Billy Paul in R&B, soul and even pop music circles and there’s an excellent chance that the late singer’s signature hit, “Me and Mrs. Jones” will quickly come to mind.  After all, in 1972, Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” was a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s R&B chart for four consecutive weeks.

It was also No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart, giving Philadelphia International Records, the iconic company known globally for R&B and soul songs – its first No. 1 pop hit. The song earned Paul a Grammy in 1973 for “Best R&B Male Vocal Performance.”

TV One’s “Unsung” will feature the epic story of Billy Paul, which will air tonight (Sunday, March 29) at 10/9c.

Paul’s classic ballad, complete with its rich and soulful arrangements, was about a man carrying on an extended love affair with a married woman.  The origin of “Me and Mrs. Jones” was based on a true story, witnessed by Philadelphia International founders and powerbrokers:  Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

“Whenever I came to Philly from Camden (New Jersey) to meet with Gamble, we would first have breakfast every morning at 10:00 a.m. at the same restaurant,” Leon Huff exclusively told EUR’s Lee Bailey during a phone interview less than 48 hours ago.  “One morning, while we were having breakfast, a guy came into the restaurant.  I recognized him from Camden.  He went back outside to meet a woman getting out of a taxicab.  I told Gamble the woman wasn’t the man’s wife, because I knew the male character.”

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Leon Huff (screenshot)
Leon Huff (screenshot)

Huff said the meeting between the man and woman continued every morning for a while.

“So Gamble, with my collaboration, wrote the song the same way the two characters at the restaurant played it out,” Huff explained. “We wrote what we saw:  This man coming to the same restaurant, at the same time, meeting the same woman, sitting at the same table, and the woman playing the same song on the jukebox every time.  We wrote the song for Billy.”

Huff candidly said he didn’t initially feel the song after Billy recorded it, even though he (Huff) collaborated in writing and arranging the ballad.

“Nobody plays on every Gamble and Huff track, but me,” Huff said.  “So, I wasn’t really loving it when I first heard the playback in the control room after laying the tracks down.  I remember saying, ‘It’s great, but I ain’t loving it that much.’  Billy and the musicians did a great job on the recording, but the song had to grow on me.  And, boy, did the record blow up!”

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Huff said he even liked it when “The Dramatics” covered “Me and Mrs. Jones” in 1975, crediting the R&B group for “making the song their own.” Huff wouldn’t say which version – The Dramatics’ or Billy Paul’s – he liked best.

Born Paul Williams on December 1, 1934 in Philadelphia, Williams reportedly changed his name to Billy Paul in 1950 because several other entertainers were named Paul Williams.  At the time of the name change, Billy Paul had been influenced by such jazz vocal stars as Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan.  Jazz saxophonist and innovator, Charlie Parker, also had an impact on Paul’s approach to singing.

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Billy Paul (hand to hat)
Billy Paul

Paul met Kenny Gamble in the mid-1960s at the famed Cadillac Club in Philadelphia.  Enamored with Paul’s voice, Gamble, who had not yet established Philadelphia International, recorded Paul’s jazz album, “Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club” on Gamble Records.  When Gamble and Huff founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971, the two music titans signed Billy Paul.

“When Gamble and I signed Billy, he didn’t sound like Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass or Jerry Butler,” Huff said.  “That’s why we signed him.  We had a star-studded roster, but Billy was the most different one out the whole bunch.”

Blanche Williams, Billy’s wife of 50 years, agreed with Huff that her husband’s voice was very different.

“When Billy met Kenny Gamble and was put into an R&B market with Philadelphia International, he evolved into a different type of artist,” said Blanche, during her exclusive interview with Lee Bailey.  “Billy had been grinding away as a jazz singer for many years.  When fame came, he was around 37 years old.”

Blanche Williams (screenshot1)
Blanche Williams (screenshot)

Blanche said she is thankful for the immense success her husband experienced singing and recording with Philadelphia International for almost a decade.  Paul’s discography with the record label included 12 albums, inclusive of “360 Degrees of Billy Paul.”  The gold album contained “Me and Mrs. Jones.”  His follow-up album, “War of the Gods,” included the hit single, “Thanks for Saving My Life.”  Paul also recorded on Neptune, Total Experience, and Ichiban record labels.

Paul released dozens of other memorable singles over his tenure with Philadelphia International, to include “Magic Carpet Ride,” “I’m Going to Make it This Time,” “Let’s Make a Baby,” “Am I Black Enough For You,” “It’s Too Late,” and many more.  However, Paul’s best-selling song ever was “Me and Mrs. Jones.”  In essence, it was a game-changer for Paul.

“I woke up one day and saw number one across the board,” Paul told writer Marc Taylor, who authored the 1996 book, ‘A Touch of Classic Soul Singers of the Early 1970s.’   “I wasn’t ready for that…You lay down one night and nobody knows you, you wake up the next day and your song is number one all over the world.  That’s a helluva adjustment.”

Asked to describe her feelings about her husband singing a provocative hit song that boldly narrated and proclaimed a love affair between a man and a married woman, Blanche said she didn’t have any problems with Billy singing and recording the song.

“No, no, no,” she said with a laugh.  “I never had any personal feelings about the song.  The lyrics didn’t pertain to me…I was never Mrs. Jones.  It was a beautiful, but different kind of love story.  I was happy for Billy and the response it received.”

Blanche & Billy (screenshot)
Blanche & Billy at Q&A on his song ‘Am I Black Enough’ in 2016 (YouTube screenshot)

As the disco era of music became big in the mid-to-late ‘70s, Paul’s recording career as an R&B artist began to wane.

“Billy tried to go back to jazz when the music changed, because he was now out of his element,” said Blanche, who always considered her husband a jazz singer.  “However, at that point, he had lost his jazz audience, but he soldiered on by cultivating his hardcore and faithful following of fans. He did a lot of work out of the country, which was a totally different mindset when you’re touring Europe and South America.”

Outside of music, Blanche said her husband was a longtime civil and social rights advocate who pushed for changes in black communities in Philadelphia and beyond.  He met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and admired and followed the work of King and the entire Civil Rights Movement to empower black people.   Paul was also active with Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, and years later attended the first Million Man March in Washington, D.C.  Blanche said her husband, a humbled man, was also a talented furniture restorer.  In addition, he was a great painter, who could draw really well.

billy paul - slider
The legendary Billy Paul

On April 24, 2016, Billy Paul died, leaving a rich legacy of music spanning parts of seven decades.  Like most artists, his life experiences were met with many ups and downs, much of which will be explored on tonight’s episode of TV One’s “Unsung” at 10/9c.

“I wished everybody could have known Billy for who he was,” said his wife.  “He was, and always will be, the love of my life.  He was unique and talented and gifted and flawed.  He was all of it. He was an amazing man.”

 

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