Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Billy Paul

Billy Paul was a Grammy Award-winning American soul singer, known for his 1972 #1 single, "Me and Mrs. Jones", as well as the 1973 album and single "War of the Gods" which blends his more conventional pop, soul, and funk styles with electronic and psychedelic influences.

He was one of the many artists associated with the Philadelphia soul sound created by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell. Paul was identified by his diverse vocal style which ranged from mellow and soulful to low and raspy. Questlove of the Roots equated Paul to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, calling him "one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music."

Billy Paul, who's real name is Paul Williams, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised in North Philadelphia. His love of music began at a young age, listening at home to his family's music collection. He recalled: "That's how I really got indoctrinated into music. My mother was always...collecting records and she would buy everything from Jazz at Philharmonic Hall to Nat King Cole." He began singing along and tried to emulate the records he heard: "I always liked Nat King Cole. I always wanted to go my own way, but I always favored other singers like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald – I loved Ella Fitzgerald. There are so many of them. Nina Simone was one of my favorites – Johnny Mathis, They all had a style, a silkiness about them.... I wanted to sing silky, like butter – mellow. I wanted to sing mellow you know what I mean. One of my favorites is Jessie Velvet – they used to call him Mr. Easy. A lot of people forgot about him you know – Sam Cooke is another one of my favorites."

He began his singing career at eleven, appearing on local radio station WPEN, then owned by the local Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper. He attended the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music for formal vocal training. He recalled: "Well you know, it was something that my mum would say I needed, holding my notes you know, and delivering my notes. It gave me assurity, cos my mother was 100% behind me and it created the style and uniqueness of Billy Paul. All my life I wanted to sound like myself, I never wanted to sound like anybody else. How that occurred was cause I always wanted to be a saxophone player....I took my uniqueness and treated it like a horn, which created a good style for me."

"When I was 16, I played the Club Harlem in Philly and I was on the same bill as Charlie Parker. He died later that year. I was there with him for a week and I learned what it would normally take two years to pick up. Bird told me if I kept struggling I'd go a long way, and I've never forgotten his words." -Billy Paul

Paul's popularity grew and led to appearances in clubs and at college campuses nationally, which led to further opportunities: appearing in concert with Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, the Impressions, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Roberta Flack. He also changed his name from Paul Williams to Billy Paul so as to avoid any confusion with other artists such as songwriter Paul Williams and saxophonist Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams. He explained: "I had Jules Malvin, who was like my play father. He was my manager at the time. He took me up to the Apollo and I warmed the Apollo for six weeks and that’s where he gave me the name Billy Paul. I didn't question it."

Paul's story is a fascinating one, from his first recordings in 1952, to being stationed with the Army with Elvis Presley and Gary Crosby (Bing Crosby's son) to controversy over his songs. One such controversy was his single "Let's Make a Baby". In 1975, this song hit #83 on the Pop singles chart, #18 on the Soul chart, and #30 in the UK.

"Let's Make a Baby" proved controversial and there were calls to ban or alter the track because of its supposed obscene or negative message. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH led the movement against this song and others such as Hall & Oates's "Rich Girl" and the Four Tops' "Catfish". The campaign was waged locally with individual stations making their own choices about how to handle the matter. For example, leading R&B station WWRL in New York City played "Let's Make a Baby" but decided not to announce its title. Other stations went so far as to alter the lyrics. Privately, several black disc jockeys described the controversy as "Jessie's phony crusade against sex on the air." The disc jockeys – who refused to allow their names to be used for fear of reprisals – accused Jackson of being "absolutely dishonest" about the campaign with one popular radio personality making reference to Richard Pryor's 1975 appearance at one of Jackson's events:

    "This man suddenly discovered sexy recordings when several of our black recording artists began to stop performing for nothing at his annual Black Expos. Remember, this is the same Jackson who presented at one of his Black Expos the filthiest recording comedian in show business. And that comedian was filthy that night at the Amphitheater. It got so bad that parents and their children could be seen leaving the place."

The disc jockeys further pointed out that Jackson was not critical of other artists like Roberta Flack and the Brothers Johnson who had similarly suggestive songs like "Jesse" and "Get the Funk Out of My Face" but who were supporters of Operation PUSH. Several radio veterans were convinced that Jackson's actions were little more than a publicity stunt calling it "just another of his gimmicks, which he will soon drop for another, just to stay in the news."

A song that Billy Paul is most noted for is his song that was released in 1972. "Me and Mrs Jones" was in the #1 spot for the last three weeks of 1972.

Sadly, Billy Paul died on the afternoon of April 24, 2016, at his home in Gloucester Township, New Jersey, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81.

What does tomorrow bring?

May 27 brings us another memorial
I hope you will take a moment to stop by