After Billy Paul released his hugely successful and critically acclaimed Let ‘Em In album in 1977, he was under pressure to deliver a worthy successor to such a great album. By then, Billy had become Philadelphia International Records first male superstar. His star had been in the ascendency since he’d released 360 Degrees of Billy Paul in 1972, which gave him a US R&B number one album and reached number seventeen in the US Billboard 200. Since then, he’d released a number of successful albums and had become not just one of the most successful artists on Philadelphia International Records, but in soul music.

Although Let ‘Em In had reached number twenty-seven in the US R&B Charts and number eighty-eight in the US Billboard 200 there was some wonderful music on the album. This included a cover version of the title track Let’ Em In, that transformed Paul McCartney’s song, turning it into something much better and quite brilliant. Overall, Let ‘Em In was a much bigger success than his previous album, Love Is New was released. It had reached number seventeen in the US R&B Charts, but only number 136 in the US Billboard 200.

Now that the Let ‘Em In album was over, Gamble and Huff decided to look to the past for inspiration for Billy Paul’s next album. They decided that a track that previously, had provided them one of their earliest hits of their nascent partnership as songwriters, arrangers and producers. The track was Only the Strong Survive, which previously, had been a hit for “The Iceman,” Jerry Butler. Instead of slavishly sticking to Jerry’s brilliant version and interpretation of the song, Gamble and Huff transformed the track into a slightly quicker track, with slightly different lyrics. What Jerry Butler thought of this is unknown, but they could easily have asked him, as he’d returned to Philadelphia International after an absence of six or seven years. Only the Strong Survive became one of three singles released from the album, reaching just number sixty-eight in the US R&B Charts. Neither of the two other singles released from Only the Strong Survive even charted, a huge disappointment to Billy and everyone involved. Once the recording had started in late 1977, it didn’t take long to complete Only the Strong Survive. 

January 1978 saw Billy Paul’s seventh studio album for Philadelphia International Records Only the Strong Survive released. When the album was released, there was disappointment for everyone concerned, with the album only reaching number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts, where it only spent five years. This became Billy Paul’s least successful album, since 1973, when a rerelease of Ebony Woman stalled at number forty-two in the US R&B Charts. Considering the standard of material on Only the Strong Survive, this was a disappointing result. The Gamble and Huff partnership contributed three songs on the album, with Jerry Butler co-writing Only the Strong Survive with them, and Dexter Wansell wrote or cowrote two songs. Apart from a cover version of Don’t Give Up On Us, previously a hit for David Soul, the material was strong. Maybe Billy Paul was another victim of disco’s popularity, and that the album was just released at the wrong time. Two or three years earlier, it might have been more successful. However, did Only the Strong Survive deserve to do better, was it a good album? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Only the Strong Survive opens with the Gamble, Huff and Butler penned title track Only the Strong Survive. Covering this track was no easy thing to do, with Jerry Butler’s original very much laying down the marker as the definitive version. Like he did with Let ‘Em In, Billy decided to reinterpret the track, giving it a whole new twist. Against a backdrop of blazing horns, lush strings, chiming guitars and funky rhythm section sits Billy’s vocal. His voice begins quietly, growing in power, while tempo is quicker than the original, with a piano, sweeping, swirling strings and bursts of rasping horns accompanying a driving rhythm section. Billy transforms the track, commenting on the social problems and encouraging people to get an education and better themselves. He reminds them that only the strong survive, and if you’re not smart and strong, you’ll “fall by the wayside.” As he almost preaches, the arrangement grows, flowing along, with strings, piano and rhythm section sweeping you along in the song’s catchy and hook laden wake. By the end of the track, Billy’s reinvented the track, which not only sounds great, but deserved to do much better than it did when released as a single.

Michael McDonald wrote Take It To the Streets, another track that’s full of social comment, with Billy again spreading a message. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” sings Billy, waste in you risk a lifetime of poverty and despair. As horns blaze dramatically rasp, Billy half-speaks the introduction, while a piano, chiming shivering guitars and the rhythm section accompany him. Together, they provide a dramatic backdrop for his almost angry, vocal, with strings sweeping in, combining well with the piano and guitar. During the track, the tempo slows down, getting across the impact of the lyrics. Then when the tempo quickens female backing vocalists accompany Billy, while horns blaze and strings swirl. By now, the arrangement is full, laden in drama thanks to Jack Faith who arranged and produced the track. When the arrangement and Billy’s almost angry, staccato delivery of the lyrics, the result is an excellent track, that packs a message.

Sooner Or Later has a smooth as silk sound when it begins. The tempo is quicker, with bursts of horns drenching the arrangement, while chiming guitars and the rhythm section combine beautifully. There’s a tenderness in Billy’s voice as his voice sits atop the mid-tempo floater. Meanwhile, lush strings combine with horns and guitars which punctuate the sound. Dexter Wansell provides one of the best arrangements on the album, while Billy scats and hollers his way through the lyrics, sure that someday soon, his new lady will succumb to his charms. When both the arrangement and vocal are combined, the result is a fantastic track, just what made Philadelphia International famous worldwide.

Side one of Only the Strong Survive closes with One Man’s Junk, written and produced by Gamble and Huff, and arranged by Bobby Martin. Here, the Philadelphia International big hitters are unleashed, and the result is another great track. Against a backdrop of chiming, shimmering guitars, rhythm section, piano and bursts of rasping horns Billy tenderly sings the lyrics. Billy promises to take care of a woman abandoned by her partner, as he sings that his loss is Billy gain and fortune. Backing vocals and sweeping strings play an important roll in the track, along with the piano and rhythm section. As the arrangement unfolds and reveals itself, it just gets so much better, ending up a with a vintage performances from arranger Bobby Martin and producers Gamble and Huff’s. Add to this Billy Paul’s vocal and does it get any better than this?

Side two of Only the Strong Survive opens with a beautiful ballad Everybody’s Breaking Up. After short bursts of horns, Billy’s melancholy vocal enters, with a saxophone wailing above the arrangement, while sweet strings are key to the beauty of the arrangement. Drums dramatically punctuate the track, while the saxophone, lush strings and chiming, quivering guitar dips in and out of the track. Billy’s vocal grows in power and emotion, with backing vocalists accompanying him. Above the arrangement floats the wailing, sad saxophone, while the strings add to the sadness and emotion. When all of this is arranged by Jack Faith, and produced by Gamble and Huff the result is a very, beautiful but melancholy sounding song.

Dexter Wansell wrote and produced The Times of Our Lives, another gorgeous, love song, with a sparse arrangement from Jack Faith. A piano, rhythm section and slow, sweeping strings combine with guitars to produce an understated sound. Billy’s vocal is tender and thoughtful, meandering along, with a bass and backing vocalists accompanying him. As the song progresses, Billy’s voice grows stronger, while the strings play a bigger part in the song, and horns gently rasp. Although a very different sounding track, because of the subtle arrangement, the track has an understated and modest beauty.

Don’t Give Up On Us is a vast improvement on David Soul’s 1974 version of the track. However, there’s always the thought that regardless of how good a version Billy or anyone else gives, the song will forever be associated with Soul’s anodyne version. Here, Roland Chambers is given the task of trying to make the song work, and with his arrangement and Gamble and Huff’s production, transforms the track. Billy sings the song with emotion and passion, accompanied by backing singers, while the rhythm section, rasping horns, woodwind and percussion combine with flourishes of piano and shimmering guitars. The arrangement meanders along, with drums playing an important in the sound throughout. Later, strings sweep and swirly lushly, adding and improving the arrangement. Whereas the only thing soulful about the 1974 version, was the singer’s name, this is much better. My only concern is that the song doesn’t “fit” the rest of the album. It seems out place, and isn’t as good as the other tracks, although it’s far from a bad song.

Only the Strong Survive closes with Where I Belong a Cynthia Bigg and Dexter Wanell penned track. It’s a song with a bigger, fuller and dramatic arrangement by Dexter, who also produced the track. Blazing horns, piano and the rhythm section accompany Billy’s energetic and emotional vocal. His voice is loud and powerful, accompanied by the lushest of strings, braying horns, guitars and a punchy rhythm section. They help sweep the arrangement along, with a  myriad of swirling strings, chiming guitars and blazing, rasping horns accompanying Billy on this dynamic and  emotive track. It’s the perfect way to end the album, not only is it a big song, but it sounds great.

Although Only the Strong Survive wasn’t a huge commercial success, it’s still a great album, one I always enjoy. Apart from Don’t Give Up On Us, which seems out of place on the album, and an attempt to give Billy a big hit, the rest of the songs on the album are of a high standard. On each song, Billy delivers them with his usual vigor, injecting a combination of sadness and joy, and emotion and passion. Of the eight songs, the best are his take on Jerry Butler’s Only the Strong Survive, the Gamble and Huff penned One Man’s Junk and Everybody’s Breaking Up. Add to this   the closing track Where I Belong, which has an impressive, fuller sound, and you can see that the album isn’t short in quality. Part of the problem with the album was when it was released. It was released when disco was at the height of its popularity. Albums like this, and by artists like Terry Caller, Jon Lucien and Bobby Womack weren’t selling well, regardless of how good they were. if it had been released at a different time, then it might have been a different story. That however, wasn’t the case, and Only the Strong Survive seemed to almost pass unnoticed, without the record buying public realizing what they were missing. That to me, is a great shame. However, now the album has been rereleased by Edsel records as part of a two disc set that includes three Billy Paul albums. These are Let ‘Em In, Only the Strong Survive and First Class. On these albums, you’ll hear some great music from Philadelphia International Records first male soul superstar Mr Billy Paul. Standout Tracks: Only the Strong Survive, One Man’s Junk, Everybody’s Breaking Up and Where I Belong.


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