(Pictured: cover shot from 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, 1972.)
Billy Paul, famed for the 1972 #1 hit “Me and Mrs. Jones,” died yesterday in Philadelphia at the age of 81. The story started making the rounds on social media thanks to a single unattributed web posting late in the afternoon and a tweet by a DJ at WDAS in Philadelphia. There was no source given, no link to additional information, no “family members have called to tell me,” nothing. Within minutes of the “report,” a few tweeters began saying, “Hold up, this isn’t confirmed,” while others called it an outright hoax. After about an hour, Paul’s manager confirmed that the singer was dead.
I suppose it’s possible that WDAS had additional information an hour before but botched the reporting of it. Long gone are the days when a radio station, even in a Top-10 market, routinely staffs a newsroom on a Sunday evening. Yet disc jockeys are not journalists. Old jocks such as I learned by osmosis; where young jocks are expected to learn the basic rules of reporting I don’t know. It doesn’t matter that the WDAS turned out to be right, by the way. It’s irresponsible to report an unsubstantiated rumor as fact, period.
Not that anyone cares. Standards are for curmudgeons on the wrong side of history. We passed the 17th anniversary of the Columbine shootings last week, and I remember watching CNN immolate every journalistic standard in a single afternoon. They reported rumors as fact. They aired video nobody had pre-screened with no idea what it would show. They made wild speculations, each one based on the very tissue of bullshit they were in the process of weaving. Although the O. J. Simpson circus first demonstrated how the 24-hour news cycle could proliferate nonsense, Columbine represented something new, a panicky approach to journalism in which accuracy is the first casualty. All these years later, it’s practically the norm.
But damn, Billy Paul now. “Me and Mrs. Jones” was always going to be his monument, although he was much more prolific and interesting than one record, no matter how perfect that one record is. He was stationed at the same Army base with Elvis. He made his first album with Gamble and Huff in 1968. “Me and Mrs. Jones,” from the album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, would be the quintessential Philly soul ballad if there weren’t so many other contenders for that title. You don’t need experience with adultery to feel the furtive longing in it, not just the words, but the way the arrangement, and especially the lead guitar and piano, prolongs every note, like hanging-on lovers who don’t want to part.
When it came time for a second single, Paul said, Gamble and Huff wanted to appeal directly to the black audience, even though “Me and Mrs. Jones” had topped the R&B charts for a month. So they decided to release “Am I Black Enough for You,” a funky empowerment anthem. It went to #29 R&B and #79 pop, and stopped Paul’s chart momentum cold.
In 1974, Paul would get to #37 on the pop chart with “Thanks for Saving My Life,” which sums up all of his influences in three minutes. Over a tight, prototypical Philly soul arrangement, with a bank of sassy soul sisters behind him, Paul sings all around the notes like the jazz singer he once was: his early influences included sax player Charlie Parker and singer Nina Simone, and you can hear jazz in nearly everything he sings. He would make the Hot 100 only one other time, with “Let’s Make a Baby” in 1976.
Further explorations in the Billy Paul catalog are worth it. The title track from War of the Gods, his 1973 album containing “Thanks for Saving My Life,” is a 10-minute psychedelic trip down a road parallel to the one producer Norman Whitfield was traveling with the Temptations at the same time. Paul covered some famous songs extremely well, including “Your Song,” “It’s Too Late,” and “Let’s Stay Together” on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Your mileage may vary with his modified, Bicentennial-ish version of Paul McCartney’s “Let ‘Em In” from 1976 or his 1971 cover of “Magic Carpet Ride,” but they’re worth a listen, too.
And so we put another star in the sky, alongside Prince, and blues guitarist Lonnie Mack, whose death was announced not long before Prince’s last Thursday. And we are not done. No, we are not done.