Originally published 9 October, 2012
IT'S ALMOST two years now since Billy Paul really exploded on to the scene with his multi-million selling single, "Me And Mrs. Jones". Success has ensued on record via the equally salesworthy "360 Degrees" album, from which that golden single was culled. More recently, Billy moved into the concept vein with an interesting album entitled "War Of The Gods" and it was from this set that his "Thanks For Saving My Life" hit was taken and, although it fell short of "Mrs. Jones", it further established Billy to the masses.
For many years, he had barely got by singing his special brand of jazz and it was only when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff changed his style — material-wise and not vocal, though — that he broke out into the really big time. Ever since then, he has scored heavily with record sales but his 'live' show has always left something to be desired — that is until now!
New Yorkers will probably recall Billy's opening concert engagement at Madison Square more than a year back now; and his European fans admit to having been a little disappointed with his show as part of the Philly package just a few months back.
But having been fortunate enough to witness his show at the Apollo a couple of weeks back, I would not be being reckless if I stated that Billy Paul has now finally arrived as a showman. Gone were the obvious restrictions that used to inhibit his show — maybe it was caused by a sense of insecurity, I don't know, but he strode the stage like a giant, concentrating on winning over his audience — and that is exactly what he did.
One notable addition to his show was three young ladies who joined him on stage early in his set and who went on to supply some outstanding support as Billy weaved his way through such songs as "Am I Black Enough For You", "Your Song", Thanks For Saving My Life" and "Me And Mrs. Jones".
European audiences will be sad to hear that Billy wanted to bring his three delectable backing singers with him on the European trek but that the budget simply wouldn't allow it.
"The girls are called Roots," he proudly boasted, "and we shall be recording them shortly for Philadelphia International. The girls' names are Jody Mathis — but we call her Marty! — Ella Barnes and Linda Evans. Jody is my road manager's wife and she actually put the trio together. She handpicked each girl so that we had one who could sing like a Diana Ross, you know — sweetly. Then another sings like she would in church and Marty herself, she sings in a jazz vein.
"The idea of bringing the girls into my show was simply because I wanted to give the public as close as I could to the records they bought on me — and we always use back-up girls when we record. I took almost the whole of January off from the road so that I could personally groom them and I'm really very happy with the way it's gone."
However, Billy's upcoming album bears testimony to the success he enjoyed during the tour because it was recorded 'live' at London's Hammersmith Odeon Theatre. Regretably, the tour came at the peak of the energy crisis in Europe and Billy was unable to appear in either Paris or Hamburg and he was especially looking forward to returning to Germany, where he served in the forces between 1957 and 1959.
Since the continental tour, Billy has been to Brazil, too, where he recently topped the charts — but not with "Me And Mrs. Jones", that merely made the No. 2 spot! In fact, the chart topper was "Your Song" and it prompted Billy into flying down to do two concerts in Santos and Sao Paolo. The song was penned by Briton, Elton John, who is now a close friend of Billy's.
"We don't see each other too often," he explained, "because we are both always busy and running but we talk on the phone a lot. There is a possibility that when I come back to England this fall, I'll be doing one or two concerts with Elton."
The travelling Mr. Paul stopped over in Nassau and then Jamaica on his way home to the States from Brazil and in Kingston, Jamaica, he recorded the main title song to the upcoming Calvin Lockhart movie, "Every Nigger Is A Star". This marked the first time that Billy has ever recorded outside of Philadelphia and although the movie should be showing in the States quite soon, this won't provide Billy with his next single because Philly International have followed behind Europe again on Billy and will be releasing "The Whole Town's Talking" any minute now.
"Boris Gardner did the score to the movie and he also did the arrangement for the title track that I did," Billy revealed. "But the movie is an interesting one. It shows the prettiness of Jamaica yet it also shows that the island has ghettoes. And it deals with the Rastofarians down there.
"You know, it's almost like a cross between being a documentary and a travelogue as well as having a theme. It illustrates Calvin helping local folk to record, for example and that in itself is an interesting aspect of the man."
Just prior to accepting this situation, Billy has turned down doing a main theme to a movie that Henry Mancini had scored. It's entitled "Easy Baby" but when Billy learned that it was only to be used in context with the movie and while it was actaully showing, he didn't see too much point in it since it really wouldn't be doing him any direct good.
The immediate future for Billy includes a week-long engagement in June at the famed Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, about midway between New York and Philly. With him will be all thirty two major members of MFSB so it should be quite a show — no doubt, B&S will be there is the person of our very own Kwame Brathwaite and it should certainly be a spectacular not to be missed.
Late May and June will see Billy in the studios down in Philly recording an album that is pencilled in for September release.
"The album naturally doesn't even have a running title yet," he pointed out, "but we have selected most of the material and the arrangers are working on it now. One song called "Black Wonders Of The World", I did the lyrics for. Some of the other songs will be "I've Got Too Much To Live For", "Everybody's Drinking Wine", "When It's Your Turn To Go". This time, we'll total nine songs and they'll all be a lot shorter than on "War Of The Gods".
"That's for two reasons — firstly we want to help keep down the use of vinyl because there is a very real problem but also because I don't like to get caught doing the same thing twice so where "War Of The Gods" was completely away from "360 Degrees", so will the new album be away from them both. I like to make my musical transitions before people expect me to so that I can never be accused of getting stuck in the same old groove.
"You know something, there'll never be another "Me And Mrs. Jones" or a sequel to it. Some people may find it hard to resist trying to follow through with something in the same vein — especially when you bear in mind it's sold almost six million copies around the world by now. No, I like to keep aiming for a higher musical plateau and to provide as much variety as I can, yet managing to hold on to what people want to hear. And, by the way, we'll be recording the girls at the same time as we do my album."
Billy's future as a recording artist has never been in the balance and no doubt his forthcoming albums will bear that out. For me, the most pleasurable part of it all was that I really enjoyed his stage act and I would almost guarantee anyone who has seen Billy earlier and been disappointed that they would now enjoy the show in the manner that they first expected. Billy can now justifiably claim that he realises the full circle of his talent — the full 360 degrees!