Am I Black Enough For You? The Legacy of Billy Paul
By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Saturday, May 7, 2016.
There is just something soulful about the name Billy Paul, the stage persona of Paul Williams, the veteran Jazz and Soul vocal stylist, who recently transitioned at age 81. For many, Billy Paul conjures memories of one of the great pop ballads on the 1970s, his 1972 chart topping single “Me & Mrs. Jones,” which became the first number one single for the fledgling Philadelphia International Records (PIR), and the only pop hit of Paul’s career. History unfairly remembers Paul as a one-hit wonder, though he was the very foundation of the iconic Philly Sound of the 1970s, bridging the region’s jazz traditions with the burgeoning aspirational Soul and Dance music that producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff became most recognizable for.
Billy Paul was 37 years-old when “Me & Mrs Jones” was released. With the song’s success, many referred to Paul as an “overnight” sensation, but the Philadelphia native’s first recordings were done in the 1950s and for brief moment in the 1960s he was a member of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Paul, in fact, recorded two albums with Gamble and Huff, including Live at the Cadillac Club (1969) on the Gamble label and later Ebony Woman (1970).
As classic as “Me & Mrs Jones” was, what made Billy Paul memorable was a signature vocal style that nimbly caressed notes in an era when so many of his male peers were punching notes as if making some emphatic statement about Black masculinity. Paul’s distinctive vocal style was premised on his ability to sing naturally in a higher vocal register, as opposed to male peers who sang in a falsetto to reach those high notes. Paul noted that his emotive style was largely influenced by Black women singers such as Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, though he also mentioned Billy Stewart and Jimmy Scott as inspirations. “I developed my own phrasing, especially from female singers because they could sing high range without falsetto” Paul told the Bay State Banner in 1978.
But Paul also recalled conversations with John Coltrane when both were cutting their teeth in the Philadelphia Jazz scene in the 1950s: "So in my case, that meant singing like a horn player. I'd always been a John Coltrane fan--he was from Philly; you know, and he told me once he wanted to be a singer and that's why he played the way he did. Well, I sang the way he blew after what he said, and I knew it was right."
When Gamble and Huff were tapped by Clive Davis and CBS records to create a Black boutique label to compete with Motown and Stax, the duo often leaned on talent that were known entities and who had some seasoning in the industry. Paul, Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes, and The O’Jays, who logged the first Gold singles for the new label, were all longtime veterans of the industry, who had worked on various Gamble and Huff label ventures prior to the launch of Philadelphia International Records (PIR).
If the success of “Me & Mrs. Jones” was a surprise to the industry, it was not one to Gamble and Huff, who had long known Paul to be an agile and adept interpreter of jazz and pop standards, as borne out of the songs that appear on those early albums where Paul covers Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, the iconic “Somewhere” from West Side Story, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” ‘Proud Mary”--evocative of neither the Creedence original or Ike & Tina Turner hit--and what might be a definitive cover of Nina Simone’s signature “Feeling Free” that I can’t imagine, Gregory Porter didn’t have in his collection when he recorded the track on his debut Water (2010).
As Paul told the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1973, “They know me, they know what I do best” and what Paul did best was reinterpret an expanded American songbook, that included Lennon and McCartney, Carole King, Jimmy Webb and Bernie Taupin, alongside Bunny Sigler, Dexter Wansel, and Gamble and Huff, who penned “Me & Mrs. Jones” with Cary Gilbert. Billy Paul was never intended to drive the Soul Train, as it were, but rather be the steady album producer that would help Gamble and Huff attract and maintain a mature Black audience, who might not have been interested in staying too late at the discothèque, because they had other business to handle--and still had to make it to church or their jobs in the morning.
While 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & Blue Notes and The O'Jays Back Stabbers were the albums that established Philadelphia International Records as a brand of significance, the very first album released by the label was Paul’s Going East (1971), which remains an obscure classic. On the album Paul offers jazz covers of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and Eugene McDaniels’s “Compared to What?,” and a simply beautiful rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “This Is Your Life,”; Paul closes the album with the Gamble and Huff ballad “Love Buddies” -- surely for the Gown and Sexy -- and Rodgers and Hart’s “There a Small Hotel.”
Going East is introduced by vocalist Nancy Wilson, who appears in a photo with Paul on the back of the album jacket, providing a very real indication of who Paul’s audience was; Wilson recorded close to 70 albums between 1959 and 2006, largely filled with interpretations of the American Songbook, producing only two singles that broke into the top-20. Wilson remains a beloved vocalist amongst certain generations of Black and White audiences, and this was for the most part Billy Paul’s trajectory, save the accident of “Me & Mrs. Jones.”
The quandary of Paul’s sudden success was initially confronted when Gamble and Huff chose “Am I Black Enough For You?” as the follow-up single to “Me & Mrs. Jones,” which rather famously stalled at #73 on the pop charts. As John A. Jackson writes in his fine social history of Philly Soul, the song was “a defiant paean to black pride and resolve” adding that “the relentless refrain of the song’s title ‘Am I Black Enough for You?’ would not endear itself to the massive white audience that awaited Billy Paul’s next release.” (A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul).
With “Am I Black Enough for You,” Billy Paul embodied what would be the on-going tension at Philadelphia International Records, that of being able to sell records to a broad mainstream audience, while still articulating Gamble and Huff’s calls for Black progress and self-determination -- how to shake asses like Motown and commit publicly to Social Justice in a manner like Al Bell’s iteration of Stax. Where The O’Jays somehow found that middle ground -- Ship Ahoy, their follow-up to Backstabbers included “For the Love of Money,” one of the best known dance tracks of the period, as the album’s title gave a knowing nod to the Transatlantic Slave Trade -- Paul would never again be a viable crossover artist. None of Paul’s albums would chart higher than #88 and only one of his singles would even hit the top-10 on the R&B charts. Yet, more than any artist on the label, Billy Paul would be the primary vehicle for Gamble and Huff’s most strident--and controversial--political messages.
Indeed, one of the most poignant tracks on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, “I’m Just a Prisoner,” which anticipates the Prison Industrial Complex and the “New Jim Crow,” highlights the on-going strategy to package Paul’s albums with what became the label’s mantra “The Message is in the Music.” With songs like the “War of the Gods,” the ten-minute long title track to the followup to 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, “Black Wonders of the World,” (Got My Head on Straight, 1974) which aggregates two centuries of Black American history over the course of eight minutes, or Paul’s 1976 cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In,” which opens with a sample from Malcolm X’s “hoodwinked” speech, and surely must be the first pop recording to feature the leader’s voice, the message becomes a prominent feature of Billy Paul albums. As Paul reflected around the time of the release of War of the Gods, “Whites have always been into albums...but now Blacks are into albums…It’s been like that...especially after Marvin Gaye came out with What’s Going On.” (Chicago Defender, 1973).
As such the highlight of Billy Paul’s career at Philadelphia International Records was When Love is New (1975). Side one of the album which features dance tracks that celebrate the power of Black community (“People Power”), implores the United States to live up to its ideals on the eve of the Bicentennial (“America (We Need the Light)”), and highlights the influence Black consumer spending (“Let the Dollar Circulate”). Yet ironically, it was the album’s second side, filled with stellar ballads like “I Want Cha’ Baby” and the timeless “When Love is New” that generated the most controversy. The three-song suite of the second side was closed by “Let’s Make a Baby,” a stepper number, that a few skittish Black radio stations were ambivalent about playing because of its so-called “obscene” title and theme. The song’s messaging was part of Gamble and Huff’s on-going push for stable, patriarchal Black families, as Gamble wrote on the back jacket of When Love is New, “Let’s keep making babies so we can have a great, beautiful, righteous, meek, but strong nation.” Never before has an anti-Choice message been rendered so soulfully.
By the time Paul released First Class (1979), his final album for PIR, the label itself was only a shadow of what it represented during its peak between 1973-1976. Paul recorded a few more albums for majors through the 1980s, and continued to tour throughout his life, releasing several live recordings on his own label. Paul was introspective about his career, even in the closing moments of his time at PIR. As he prepared for the recording of First Class, he told the Bay State Banner “You pay dues for not sounding like everybody else, but then what good is being a star? What happens when your life as a star is over?...the bottom line is your musicianship if you want to survive, so I shape my singing around how I feel about the music."
Billy Paul might have taken one for the team, in the aftermath of “Me & Mrs Jones,” but his contributions to the tradition of vibrant and sophisticated Soul music will be a reminder that not all sacrifices are for naught.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture,Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Neal is the host of the weekly podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center and the Center for Arts, Digital Culture & Entrepreneurship at Duke University, where Neal is Professor of African-American Studies and English.