From the Archives: Billy Paul on Life After “Me and Mrs. Jones”
An excerpt from Stephen Fried's 1983 Philadelphia magazine story “The Day the Soul Train Crashed."
In 1982, when the auto accident that paralyzed singer Teddy Pendergrass sounded the last chord of Philadelphia International Records, I was a very young writer at Philadelphia magazine. At the time, a lot of people in the music business were asking what had gone wrong for Gamble and Huff’s magical musical empire. I set out to interview anyone who could help tell the story, since neither Gamble nor Huff would speak to me. One of the earliest and most powerful interviews was with singer Billy Paul, who died yesterday at the age of 80. It was powerful because, of all the Philly International songs, Paul’s hit was my favorite. There was something that had made me stop whatever I was doing and sing along when the orchestra abruptly halted and Billy Paul’s voice just sailed and moaned without accompaniment, “Meeeeee, aaaahand Missus, Missus Jones!” But, at the time, Paul was also among the most angry of the people who had been part of the Philly Sound, the one most obviously trying to hold it together. And, apparently, he did. He was 45 when I met him in early 1983, and a lot of the people I interviewed for that story died long before him.
From my June 1983 Philadelphia magazine story, “The Day the Soul Train Crashed”:
Billy Paul had won a Grammy in 1972 for his powerful ballad “Me and Mrs. Jones” and had then virtually disappeared from the charts, apparently a victim of poor song selection on the part of Gamble and Huff. Everyone I had asked about Billy Paul had responded similarly: shaking their heads and muttering, “That coke will get you every time.” But none of the people who had talked about Paul had seen him in years. I thought it might be good to find out if all the terrible things his old “friends” were saying about him were true.
I went through six phone numbers before getting one that rang in Paul’s house. Some had been disconnected, some changed. I finally reached the 45-year-old singer’s home and talked to his wife, who explained that Billy was in class just then and that he would call me back. He was taking music-theory courses at Camden County College. That didn’t sound like dangerous, irrational behavior to me, and it didn’t really jibe with the way Billy had been described: one source had warned me not to interview Billy, because if I wrote anything negative the singer would kill me. Unless doing homework set Billy on rampages, his “friends” had him all wrong.
Inside the Paul home in Blackwood, New Jersey, I was immediately taken by the elaborate Oriental artifacts Billy and his wife, Blanche, had collected. The Pauls seemed weary, scared in a way, but at the same time they appeared to have recently turned the corner and left bad times behind. It seemed that they had turned similar corners before with mixed results. Still, they had been married for 17 years, a long time for people in the record business. There was something strong between the two of them. But that strong relationship had obviously been tested over the years.
The Pauls were ready for the drug questions: it was all they heard these days, so they gave the stock answer. Billy was jogging a mile a day and taking classes in Camden; he was writing music and trying to get a new record deal; he was more fit than most 45-year-olds, and he challenged any of the younger musicians who had made the accusations to stay with him in a mile race. Did he look like a cokehead, he wanted to know?
No, he didn’t. But he had the hard, sad look of a man who was successfully but painfully getting past his past. He looked like a man with hope.
Billy Paul had bittersweet memories of his ten years with Philly International. Sweet because of his one hit, but bitter because he felt his career had been mismanaged by Gamble. Billy Paul said he was the first victim of Kenny Gamble’s early black-power zeal.
“After ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ we were looking for another single. My name was known to a large public, black, white, all over the world. The natural step would have been to pick a song with universal appeal. The only song I told Gamble not to release was called ‘Am I Black Enough for You?’, which I thought would turn off a lot of people. Gamble released it anyway. I guess he thought it was more important to use my fame to get the word out than to help my career. Or maybe he just thought that the black audience was more important than the whites who had loved ‘Mrs. Jones.’
“Whatever the reason, the song failed, and I never got back up to where I had been. We had good records, but no great ones. Then when Teddy Pendergrass decided to go solo, Gamble just began to ignore me—he chose Teddy over me as the label’s big vocalist.
“Gamble wasn’t keeping his eyes open to new trends in music. He was getting too wrapped up in running the business. There was a natural direction for me to take after the ballad thing had passed—I was originally a jazz singer, and jazz vocalizing was making a comeback. But nobody at the label thought of that direction for me. Al Jarreau is now a superstar with that kind of material. I do some of his songs in my act. If Gamble had been thinking about my career, I could’ve been Al Jarreau.”
At any rate, these days, Billy Paul was now performing out of the country. A veteran, Paul often did tours of Europe for the State Department, playing to American soldiers. He was making a living: the power of a hit like “Mrs. Jones” can be sustained for a lifetime. Billy was shopping for a record deal; he was doing okay.
When Billy left the house to go to a doctor’s appointment, I got a chance to speak with his wife alone. Blanche spoke in a voice that at some points was strong and at others came close to cracking. She had supported the couple with a dress shop when Billy’s luck was down; she had also owned one of a set of his-and-hers Mercedes Benzes when his luck was up. She admitted he had gone through a lot of drugs, as a lot of people in the industry had. That, she assured me, was all over.
Follow @stephen_fried on Twitter.