Acting this bad rarely sounded this good! Billy Paul gave Philadelphia International Records its first No. 1 hit for three weeks in December 1972 - the last chart-topper of the year.
Born and raised in the City of Brotherly Love, Billy (born Paul Williams) was enamored of crooners from an early age - but, thanks to his powerful upper register as a singer, he found himself gravitating often toward female artists. "The male singers who had the same range I did, when I was growing up, didn’t do much for me,” he once said. “But put on Nina Simone, Carmen McRae or Nancy Wilson, and I’d be in seventh heaven. Female vocalists just did more with their voices, and that’s why I paid more attention to them.”
After a stint in the Army, during which he formed a band with Bing Crosby's son Gary (but could not convince another member of their unit, Elvis Presley, to join in), Billy sang in jazz clubs around the country and soon met fellow Philadelphian and producer Kenny Gamble. He took a liking to the singer, releasing albums of his on the Gamble and Neptune labels and later making his album Going East the first release on his Philadelphia International label with collaborator Leon Huff.
Gamble and Huff came up with the idea for "Me and Mrs. Jones" while taking breaks at a local cafe near the PIR offices. "This guy used to come into the bar every day - little guy that looked like a judge," Gamble told NPR in 2008. "Every day after he'd come in, this girl would come in 10-15 minutes after he'd get there, and they'd sit in the same booth, then go to the jukebox and play the same songs...It could have been his daughter, his niece, anybody, but we created a story that there was some kind of romantic connection between these people."
If the passion in Billy's voice didn't make it clear as to what exactly the "thing" he and Mrs. Jones had going on, music lovers might catch a neat little clue on the track: the saxophone riff throughout the song quotes the Doris Day song "Secret Love."
Though "Me and Mrs. Jones" was a critical and commercial hit, helping the album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul top the soul charts and winning a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, the singer only had one other Top 40 pop hit, 1973's "Thanks for Saving My Life." Billy Paul in fact had several singles that challenged the conventions of Black radio, including politically conscious songs like "Am I Black Enough for You?" and a spirited cover of Paul McCartney's "Let 'Em In" that paid direct tribute to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Though Billy was proud of all those tracks, he conceded putting some of them front and center may have been a mistake. "People weren't ready for that kind of a song after the pop success of 'Mrs. Jones,'" he later admitted. "They were looking for a sequel or at least something that wasn't provocative." Nonetheless, his artistry didn't go unnoticed.
"[He's] one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music," Questlove of The Roots spoke of Billy, who died in 2016. "Billy Paul, in every aspect of his presentation, is really the first person to bring reality."