Billy Paul, whose 1972 song Me & Mrs. Jones became one of the biggest hits for Philadelphia International Records, died on Sunday after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 81.
A message was posted on the singer's website:
We regret to announce with a heavy heart that Billy has passed away today at home after a serious medical condition.Paul had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had been in Temple University Hospital but his management confirmed he was at his home in Blackwood, NJ when he died.
We would like to extend our most sincere condolences to his wife Blanche and family for their loss, as they and the world grieves the loss of another musical icon that helped pioneered today's R&B music. Billy will be truly missed.
Please share you thought, messages and stories of Billy as we remember this legendary artist, family member and friend.
Billy Paul was born Paul Williams in North Philadelphia and became interested in singing while listening to his mother's collection of 78's, being influenced by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan among others.
He sang in public for the first time on Philadelphia's WPEN radio at the age of 11 and, later, attended the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music.
In 1952, he recorded a number of sides for Jubilee Records which received favorable reviews but didn't get airplay. He continued to pursue music until 1957 when he was drafted, serving in Germany with Elvis Presley and Gary Crosby, son of Bing Crosby. Paul and Crosby started a band while in the service which also included future jazz great Eddie Harris.
After the service, Paul formed a jazz group and continued to pursue a solo recording career on a series of labels. One night, while singing at Philadelphia's Sahara jazz club, he was approached by record store owner Kenny Gamble who said he was starting a new label. Paul's album Feelin' Good at the Cadillac Club became Gamble Records first release in 1968.
Paul's second album, 1970's Ebony Woman was released on Neptune Records, the new partnership between Gamble and Leon Huff. Gamble and Huff would next form Philadelphia International Records which signed a distribution deal with Clive Davis and CBS Records, bringing Billy with them to the new label.
In 1971, Paul released Going East and followed the next year with 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, the album that would finally, after nineteen years of recording, break him nationally. It was the album's first single, Me and Mrs. Jones, that vaulted Billy to the top of the Hot 100 and the R&B Singles, becoming a classic of the smooth R&B genre. Jones was also the first chart topper for the still young Philadelphia International label.
Paul's next single, Am I Black Enough? (1973 / #79 Pop / #29 R&B), failed to duplicate the success of Jones. Billy was against the release of the controversial track at the time but couldn't convince label executives to choose a more mainstream track.
His next album, War of the Gods, was a departure from earlier work with psychedelic soul pieces and song suites. The single Thanks For Saving My Life became his second top ten R&B hit, reaching number 9 and 37 on the Hot 100.
After a live album, Paul released Got My Head on Straight, a return to the style of 360 Degrees of Billy Paul but none of the singles from the album broke big. He followed with 1975's When Love is New which included the controversial single Let's Make a Baby. Jesse Jackson came out against the record and other's that he deemed to "sexy" for the radio although many said it was a reaction by Jackson to the fact that many of the same artists stopped playing his rallies for free.
Paul continued to push the envelope, and Jackson's buttons, with his next album, Let Em In, including a cover of the Paul McCartney hit that he politicized by changing the names to those of civil rights leaders.
His final album for Philadelphia International, Only the Strong Survive (1977), was also his late to make the Billboard 200 and contained his last mainstream hit, Let's Clean Up the Ghetto (1977 / #91 Pop / #4 R&B).
Billy recorded a number of other albums for a variety of labels before announcing in 1989 that he was retiring; however, the lure of music was strong and he returned, becoming an international touring artist.
In 2009, Billy was the subject of filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson's documentary Am I Black Enough For You?
Billy Paul is survived by his wife Blanche.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff said of Paul:
We are very saddened to learn of the sudden death of our good friend and Philadelphia International Records recording artist Billy Paul. From the time we saw Billy performing live, and then signing him to our PIR/TSOP label, we immediately realized that we had discovered and launched one the most unique voices in the music industry. Billy's voice combined both Jazz, R&B and Soul vocals, making him one the great artists to come out of Philly and to be celebrated worldwide. Our proudest moment with Billy was the recording of the salacious smash ‘Me and Mrs. Jones.’ In our view, it is one of the greatest love songs ever recorded. Billy was one of the first artists to help launch the PIR/TSOP brand, and he will forever have a special place in music history.
We send our very sincere and personal condolences to his wife Blanche and the rest of his family. Billy Paul will truly be missed.