Despite Monday’s sunshine, a cloud hung over Philadelphia as local musicians mourned the loss of legendary jazz and soul singer Billy Paul.
Paul succumbed to pancreatic cancer Sunday in his Blackwood, N.J. home, according to reports.
Many of Philadelphia’s modern greats in the jazz, blues, R&B and soul scenes have attributed their successes to Paul, who was born Paul Williams in Philadelphia. Some sought his tutelage and won it. Some were lucky enough to share the stage.
Philly trombonist Ernest Stuart, who’s been a pioneer of the jazz scene for the last decade, played with Paul early on, and said Paul helped shape the course of jazz and soul music across the globe.
Stuart said it was circa 2009 when Paul was playing at the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival when he got a last-minute phone call from festival’s musical director, Adam Faulk, to come play on stage with Paul.
“I was shocked because I grew up listening to ‘Me and Mrs. Jones.’ As a matter of fact, me my best friend used to drive around Pennsauken and we used to make this mix CD of these jazz songs, but every time ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ came on, we’d blast it,” he said.
“It’s funny, because it was at that point – I’m not sure if my dad really understood or accepted what I was doing for a living…But it was great to have the moment where I tell him that I’m playing with Billy Paul. He was like, ‘wait – Billy Paul, Grammy-Award-winning Billy Paul??’ It was the moment my dad accepted me being a musician.”
According to published reports, Paul served in the Army and was stationed with Elvis Presley, who he tried to recruit in a jazz band with Bing Crosby’s son, Gary Crosby, in 1957 — but Elvis passed on the opportunity.
Not long after his tour of duty in Germany, Paul released his debut album, “Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club,” in 1968, under the record label owned by Philly music pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. In 1972, “Me and Mrs. Jones” came out, and Paul became a star. The song was the number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned him a Grammy. He was a regular alongside the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and many others.
Faulk, mentioned earlier, met Paul through some of Paul’s band mates during a jam session one night at the renowned but now defunct Zanzibar Blue on South Broad Street, and threw his hat into the ring to play piano for Paul. He ended up getting the gig and traveled to Brazil, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, for six or seven years, playing piano.
“He definitely jump-started my career,” said Faulk.
“Sometimes in America, we have a tendency that if something is older, to not pay too much attention to it, but in Brazil, we had audiences ages 18 to 80, all because they loved Billy Paul, and I think that’s a true testament to how great and timeless his music was and is still.”
Steve McKie, a Philadelphia drummer, said he’s done several tribute concerts where he’s played Paul’s music. He called Monday a very sad day.
“I was introduced to his music by my parents. They were the Gamble and Huff era, and ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ was one of the most famous songs I was honored to be able to play,” he said.
“He leaves a memorable legacy – I can’t put it into words – where you had a bunch of great people, performers and it just so happened he was from Philly and he was one of the people that represented true music that will last forever.”