Paul Williams, better known as Billy Paul, passed away on Sunday, April 24, 2016, of pancreatic cancer. He was 81 years old when he passed away. He is survived by his wife Blanche Williams and two children. The Philadelphia Sound singer’s biggest hit was Me and Mrs. Jones from 1972. According to record label founders Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, he was considered one of the first artists out of Philly to launch the Philadelphia International Record brand.
It was believed by Gamble and Huff that Me and Mrs. Jones was one of the greatest love songs ever recorded out of Philly. Paul was known for his diverse vocal style due to many influences. Having been born and raised in Philadelphia, he began listening to his mother’s records at a young age and tried to imitate what he heard. He had many favorites, some of them being, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Johnny Mathis. The one who most influenced him was Billie Holiday. He loved the female jazz vocalists because he had such a high vocal range himself. Many of the men he admired did also but they just did not cut it for him. He was in heaven listening to the women. Over the years, he was able to combine R&B, jazz, and pop into his unique style.
When he was 11 years old he began singing on a local radio station and continued on from there to the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music. By the time he was 16, he was on the same bill as Charlie Parker at Club Harlem in Philly. Paul said, “Bird told me if I kept struggling, I’d go a long way,” and a long way he did.
When Paul started singing in clubs and colleges nationally, he was able to perform alongside some of his idols. When it came time to change his name, which was his manager’s doing, he did so. He was at the Apollo singing for six weeks, so he did not question the change. When Grammy Winner Paul passed away, so did a piece of history.
In 1952, he started recording singles. Five years later, he was drafted into the military and his music was put on hold. While in the service, he started a band with Bing Crosby’s son Gary called the Jazz Blues Symphony Band. Elvis preferred to drive a jeep around for the Colonel, so he did not join them. Paul eventually sang in the 7th Army Band with the likes of Don Ellis, Leo Wright, and Ron Anthony to advance his career, which would continue after he returned to civilian life.
Once discharged, Paul formed a jazz trio and joined a record label called the New Dawn. Not one of the songs he released gained any kind of status on the charts. He became good friends with Marvin Gaye, a friendship that would last until Gaye died. According to Paul, they became like brothers and he had times where he could not believe it was true that he was gone.
When Paul met Gamble, he gave him a recording and signed on with the label he had started with Huff called Neptune. They re-released some tunes that had not done well, previously and found moderate success on the charts. They had the same sound as the songs he was working on when Me and Mrs. Jones was released, Paul’s record hit number one song for the last three weeks of 1972. Two million copies were sold and he won a Grammy. The song became number one across the world in many different languages and then, finally became a classic.
Paul has passed away with a generation of people who did not know his name but play his tune that can be named in one note.
By Sylvia Harris
Edited by Jeanette Smith
Billy Paul: All About Billy
BBC: Soul’s Billy Paul, singer of Me and Mrs. Jones, dies.
New Jersey: Billy Paul, ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ singer, dies in N.J. home at 80.
Image Courtesy of Kassus-Kassus’ – Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain License