First Class was Billy Paul’s ninth and final album for Philadelphia International Records, released in 1979. After some hugely successful singles and albums, including Billy’s 1972 album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul and Let ‘Em In, and singles like Let ‘Em In and Mr and Mrs Jones, Billy had decided to retire from music. However, there was much more to Billy’s career than just a couple of albums and singles. Albums like Only the Strong Survive and When Love Is New combined soul with a social conscience and stunning love songs. Now after nine years with Philadelphia International Billy decided to seek new challenges. Would his final album see Billy’s career with Philadelphia end on a high?

Sadly, of Billy’s nine albums First Class was his least successful album for Philadelphia international, although the title First Class, is an apt description of the music on the album. In truth, there isn’t a bad song on the album which contains nine tracks. Of these nine tracks, Gamble and Huff cowrote three, with Carl Gamble co-writing False Faces, while Glad To See You Again, is easily one of the album’s highlights. Their other contribution Treasure of My Life, demonstrates that the duo were still writing quality songs. Another of the albums highlights was the gorgeous ballad What A Way To Love, co-written by Phillip Pugh and Phillip Terry, who also  produced the track. Billy contributed one song, co-writing It’s Critical with William Hatcher and C.J. Clark. Not only was Billy involved in the writing process, but he produced one track and co-produced two others. One wonders if Billy was looking ahead to a career as a producer? However, with a variety of writers contributing songs to First Class, and having recorded nine tracks at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, the album was released, but failed to chart. This was hugely disappointing given it was Billy’s farewell to Philadelphia International Records and given the quality of music on the album. Would the singles released from First Class fare any better?

Of the three singles released from the album, Bring the Family Back was the first, reaching just number ninety in the US Billboard 100. Meanwhile, the album fared better in the UK, reaching number fifty-one, where it became a popular track at clubs. Having only spent three weeks in the American charts during spring 1979, the single dropped out the chart. The second single was the funk laden False Faces, but remarkably, it failed to chart. What was Billy’s final single for Philadelphia International was You’re My Sweetness, which reached number sixty-nine in the US R&B Charts during its five week chart sortie. After this, Billy left Philadelphia International, and didn’t release another album until Lately in 1985. However, his final album Philadelphia International was First Class in title and quality, and I’ll now tell you about that album.

First Class opens with False Faces, co-written by Gamble and Huff with Carl Gamble. With John L Usry Jr. arranging the track and Gamble and Huff producing the track, some of Philadelphia International’s most creative people collaborate with Billy. A funky bass line, drums and chiming guitars open this funk drenched track. Billy’s vocal is slow, laden in emotion and passion, as stabs of Hammond organ, and bursts of horns join the arrangement. Strings sweep in, combining with the horns, rhythm section and female backing vocalists as the arrangement just gets better and better. Later, an alto saxophone drifts above the arrangement, while drums add drama. It’s one of these tracks that grows and grows, ultimately resulting in a hugely satisfying and catchy funk laden track.

Bring the Family Back was one of the trio of singles released from First Class. It’s a very different track to the previous one, and features a stunning arrangement from John Usry Jr. Not only has the track a really lovely uptempo and uplifting sound, but is a song with a social conscience, about the breakdown of family life and how society would be better with a return to family. With sweeping, swirling strings, and piano that plays a huge part in the arrangement, along with the rhythm section, handclaps and rasping horns, the arrangement flows beautifully along. Adding to the arrangement is an excellent bass line which is ever-present throughout the track. Also ever-present, are the female backing vocalists who accompany Billy’s tender and thoughtful vocal, which grows in power and passion as the song progresses. Overall, a stunning arrangement and passionate vocal from Billy make this one of this one of First Class’ highlights.

After what’s easily one of First Class’ best tracks, comes Game of Life, which sees a real change in sound and style. Again, it’s a song with gritty lyrics, about the hardships faced by many people in the “Game of Life.” While synths reverberate above the arrangement, a piano dramatically plays and guitars chime, before Billy’s half-spoken vocal enters. After that, he delivers the lyrics accompanied by female backing vocalists, with a combination of tenderness and frustration. The arrangement sees the rhythm section, piano and female backing vocalists key to song’s sound. Synths are deployed occasionally, but not overused. Later, Billy’s voice grows in power, with frustration creeping into his voice at the hardships ordinary people face. With a sympathetic arrangement that’s redolent of the drama and hard times faced by many ordinary people during late-seventies America, Billy Paul delivers another slice of soul with a social conscience.

Billy co-wrote It’s Critical with William Hatcher and C.J. Clark and arranged and produced the track. Having spent so long working with some of the most talented arrangers and producers, did some of their magic rub off on Billy? When blazing horns open the track, and go on to punctuate the tracks with burst of their rasping sound. Billy’s vocal is quick, full of emotion and passion accompanied by the rhythm section, percussion and searing guitars and of course blazing horns. It’s a very different sound, the tempo almost frantic, while Billy’s voice is full of frustration and heartache as he desperately seeks to get his girlfriend back. Here, Billy’s arrangement is perfect for the lyrics, as the fast tempo and blazing horns aping his desperation and frustration. Although very different from other arrangements and productions, it proves Billy had indeed learnt from the likes of Gamble and Huff, Jack Faith, Bobby Martin and John L Usry Jr.

Side one of First Class closes with a track co-written by Billy Paul with Frank Smith Thank You (For This Blessing). Of the track Billy wrote or cowrote, this is easily the best, with lovely spiritual lyrics, where Billy gives thanks to everything he’s got. Here, you tell this is a John L. Usry Jr arrangement straight away. It has his sound and style, and is perfect for the song. WIth a piano and percussion combining with guitars, rhythm section and backing vocalists, Billy’s voice soars above the arrangement, before his beautiful, heartfelt vocal enters. Almost breathless female backing vocalists combine with the rhythm section, chiming guitars and flourishes of piano. With a combination of beauty and sincerity Billy gives thanks to God on this beautiful track. 

The jazz tinged sound of What A Way To Love opens side two of First Class. Here, the tempo is slow, with a meandering piano, flute, chiming guitars and muted horns opening the track. They give way to a slow, thoughtful vocal from Billy, accompanied by the rhythm section and piano. Co-written by and co-produced by Phillip Pugh and Phillip Terry, this gorgeous love song is delivered with a combination of tenderness and care by Billy. This he does against a slow, yet beautiful John L. Usry Jr. arrangement, augmented by subtle, female backing vocalists and muted horns. Like the previous track, it’s delivered beautifully and thoughtfully by Billy, against another excellent arrangement.

Gamble and Huff contribute three songs on First Class, and So Good To See You Again is the second of them. It has the quality you’d expect from the maestros, who also produce the track. It’s a tale of meeting an old girlfriend after a long time, delivered with passion by Billy against a mid-tempo, catchy and dramatic arrangement. Here, flourishes of organ, chiming guitars and rhythm section combine with Billy’s vocal. Putting on a brave face, he sings with joyfully about meeting his old flame, but secretly, still has feelings for her. To make things worse for Billy, she’s now married. Reminiscing about the old times, guitars chime, backing vocalists accompany Billy, while stabs of organ and sweeping strings all play their part in John L. Usry Jr.’s arrangement. Drums add occasional bursts of drama, as Billy’s vocal grows in power and passions. As the song progresses, the arrangement builds and builds, getting even better, as does Billy’s vocal. By the end of the track, Gamble and Huff demonstrate that by 1979, they were still writing great songs, and with Billy Paul passionately delivering their lyrics does it get any better than this?

How do you follow one great Gamble and Huff track? Quite simply, with another. This is their third and final contribution to First Class and their final collaboration with Billy Paul after nine years. Fittingly, they’ve contributed another quality song, Treasure of My. Here, the arrangement swings along, with a really jazzy sound, thanks to John L. Usry Jr. A piano dramatically opens the track, before the bass and chiming guitars combine before Billy’s jazzy vocal enters. Sweeping, swirling strings, blazing horns and piano drive the track along in a direction marked jazz, before drums briefly punctuate the track dramatically. It’s a glorious sounding track, with a really authentic jazz sounding arrangement, combining with Billy’s powerful, passionate voice which is augmented by female backing vocalists. Although quite different from much of Gamble and Huff’s music, this has their trademark quality from the opening bars to closing notes.

First Class closes with I Gotta Put This Life Down which opens with woodwind, piano and rhythm section playing slowly, before Billy’s vocal enters. He sounds sad and downhearted as strings sweep in, woodwind and a piano meanders along. Quickly, his voice grows in power and frustration, while the arrangement slowly unfolds. Again, there’s a real jazz influence here, with wave upon wave of the arrangement rising and falling, the emotion and drama building. During the arrangement, the piano, woodwind and strings all play their part in the arrangement by Ed Green, while Billy and Ed Green produce the track. There’s a real melancholy sound to this quite beautiful track that closes First Class.

After nine years and nine albums, First Class brought Billy Paul’s career with Philadelphia International to a close. Although First Class wasn’t a commercial success, it was an album full of some wonderful music. Obviously, Billy would’ve liked to end his time at Philadelphia International on a high, but it must have been important to him to release an album full of usual quality music. Unlike other similar artists, Billy didn’t try to change his music to suit the changing musical tastes. Rather than release an album full of music that was dance-floor friendly, Billy concentrated on quality music. Now thirty-three years later, First Class still stands up as an album, and has dated well. From the first track False Faces until Gotta Put This Life Down, the music sounds great. With some talented musicians, arrangers and producers all working on First Class, it was an album that deserved to do much better. Sadly, by the time it was released, musical tastes had changed. Of all the people who worked on the album, a few people deserve credit. Obviously, Gamble and Huff who did so much for Billy’s career deserve credit, for writing and producing a trio of tracks, which include some of album’s highlights. The other person who did so much to make this album sound so good, is John L. Usry Jr. who arranged five of the tracks on First Class. He is one of the finest arrangers at Philadelphia International, along with Bobby Martin and Jack Faith. On this album, his work is of the highest standard, and really helps make this such a great album. After First Class, Billy Paul only released two further albums, 1985s Lately and Wide Open in 1988. However, his 1979 album First Class, which was his farewell to Philadelphia International Records, was aptly titled, because the music itself was indeed First Class. Standout Tracks: Bring the Family Back, Thank You (For This Blessing), What A Way To Love and So Good To See You Again.


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