In the Seventies, Soul singers divided themselves between two camps: being a fighter or being a lover. They were either making social commentary on the world a black America, or they were escaping the harsh realities by focusing on making sweet, sweet love. Some, such as Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye, were able to meticulously blend the socially conscious and the sexually liberated. One such musician, Billy Paul, was equally adept at mixing the personal with the political, and it’s this dichotomy that is explored in a new compilation, entitled Me & Mrs Jones: The Anthology. The two-disc set is divided up thematically; the first disc, entitled “People Power,” is dedicated to his socially conscious material, while the second, entitled “You’re My Sweetness,” is dedicated his love songs and ballads.
Billy Paul began his career as a doo-wop singer, moving on to being a straightforward jazz vocalist in the 1960s. Unfortunately, his early career was unimpressive; a string of singles did little to raise his profile. Yet in the late 1960s, he started to transition into playing Soul and R&B, thanks in part to a record contract with local powerhouse Philadelphia International Records, where he worked with the influential Gamble & Huff writing team. In 1972, Paul struck gold with the international hit “Me & Mrs. Jones,” and its associated album, 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul.
Paul was always socially conscious, and his material reflected that. He wasn’t afraid of handling issues straight on; “Am I Black Enough For You” and “Brown Baby” dealt with issues of race in a blunt manner that was unheard of at the time. That both songs still sound relevant 48 years later only speaks to the universal vision of Paul’s music. He would also record covers of other songs and would make them his own. In some instances, the political message is merely implied—his take on Elton John’s “Your Song” becomes an anthem of black pride simply by his performing of it—but that doesn’t detract from the power of his message. In the case of his take on Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let ‘Em In,” he alters the lyrics with the names of black leaders both living and dead, turning the song into a tribute to the Civil Rights movement and the sacrifices of those who strived to help race relations improve.
Although the success of “Me & Mrs. Jones” would prove to be his career peak, Paul became known as a fine balladeer, and thanks to that song’s appeal, the love songs he tackled later on certainly proved him capable. Songs such as “Let’s Make A Baby,” “Ebony Woman,” and “Lately” match his powerful voice with large, over the top orchestrations, making for a rather potent and sexy combination. But Paul was adept at handling lighter, more upbeat numbers as well; “I Trust You” is a breezy number about devotion, while two songs from his post-PIR era, “Let Me In” and “Sexual Therapy,” find him exploring more contemporary arrangements.
Paul handling New Jack Swing-style material should have been the start of a new chapter in his career, but alas, these two songs marked the closing of a chapter. He would soon cease to be a recording act, releasing only two albums of new studio material after leaving PIR, one in 1986 and one in 1988, but he did continue to perform live, and he quietly passed away at the age of 81 in 2016. Me & Mrs. Jones: The Anthology is a fine display of the power of Billy Paul, socially aware Soul man and balladeer extraordinaire.