BILLY PAUL-360 DEGREES OF BILLY PAUL.
BILLY PAUL-360 DEGREES OF BILLY PAUL.
Sometimes, an artist releases a single that becomes a huge commercial success and regardless of whatever else they release, they’re forever be known as the artist that recorded “that single.” For Billy Paul, ever since he released Me and Mrs Jones as a single back in October 1972, he’s become synonymous with that one song. Whatever else Billy recorded, and he recorded so much fantastic music during his career, people always remember Billy for Me and Mrs Jones. It went on to give Billy a number one single, in both the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. Spurred on by the success of Me and Mrs Jones, when 360 Degrees of Billy Paul was released in November 1972, the album reached number one in the US R&B Charts and number seventeen in the US Billboard 200. This helped launch Philadelphia International Records, and in the process, gave the label its first male superstar. For Billy Paul, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, which will be rereleased on 27th August 2012, by BBR Records, the album transformed his career. Billy Paul was no overnight star. He’d paid his dues, releasing three previous albums, to little success. However, nothing like the success he enjoyed with 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Before I tell you about the music on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, I’ll tell you about Billy’s recording career until then and the making of the album.
360 Degrees of Billy Paul was Billy’s fourth album. Feelin’ Good At the Cadillac Club, released on Gambled Records in 1968 was his debut album, but failed to chart. Two years later, in 1970, Billy released Ebony Woman on Neptune Records. Ebony Woman gave Billy his first taste of chart success, reaching number 183 in the US Billboard 200 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. Then when Gamble and Huff founded Philadelphia International Records, Billy’s third album Going East was the new label’s first release in 1971. Going East didn’t match the modest success of Ebony Woman, reaching just number 197 in the US Billboard 200 and number forty-two in the US R&B Charts. While this was disappointing for Billy, a year later, things would be very different for Billy Paul, thanks in no end to one song… Me and Mrs Jones.
For Billy Paul’s fourth album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, a mixture of original material and cover versions were chosen. The cover versions included a cover of Carol King’s It’s Too Late, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together and Elton John’s Your Song. The other five tracks were written by songwriters within the Philadelphia International Records’ “family.” Kenny Gamble cowrote I’m Just A Prisoner with Phil Hurtt and Bunny Sigler, while Bunny cowrote I’m Gonna Make It This Time with Jean Lang. Gamble and Huff cowrote two tracks Brown Baby and Am I Black Enough For You. They wrote one other song, this time with Cary Gilbert… Me and Mrs Jones. Little did Gamble and Huff know that this one song would help change not just Billy Paul’s career, but their future and that of their nascent label Philadelphia International Records.
To record the eight tracks on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, Gamble and Huff took Billy Paul and an early lineup of M.F.S.B. to Philadelphia’s legendary Sigma Sound Studios. This was where all of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records’ albums were recorded. It’s also where Thom Bell recorded groups like The Delfonics and The Detroit Spinners and where so many of Salsoul Records’ albums were recorded. Even then, M.F.S.B. was taking shape, with its key members in place. The Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section would provide the album’s heartbeat, while guitarists Bobby Eli and Roland Chambers were joined by vibes virtuous Vince Montana Jr, conga player Larry Washington, organist Lenny Pakula and Don Renaldo and his String and Horn Section. Bobby Martin, Norman Harris and Lenny Pakula would be responsible for arranging the strings and horns. Once the eight tracks that comprise 360 Degrees of Billy Paul were recorded, the album was scheduled for release later in 1972.
Before 360 Degrees of Billy Paul was released, a single was chosen from the album. One track stood out, Me and Mrs Jones. It was released in October 1972, and made its way up the charts. Ironically, before it hit number one in the US Billboard 100, the single blocking its way was The O’Jays’ Backstabbers, another Philadelphia International Records’ single. Soon, Billy Paul had a a dual number one single, in both the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. Suddenly, Me and Mrs Jones was a worldwide hit and everyone knew who Billy Paul was. Spurred on by the success of Me and Mrs Jones, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul was released in November 1972, reaching reached number one in the US R&B Charts and number seventeen in the US Billboard 200. Am I Black Enough For You was then released as a single in March 1973, reaching number twenty-nine in the US R&B Charts and number seventy-nine in the US Billboard 200. Although Am I Black Enough For You didn’t replicate the success of Me and Mrs Jones, Billy would win a Grammy Award for the best Male R&B Vocal Performance for Me and Mrs Jones. This was just the icing on the cake for Billy Paul’s incredible year. However, as 360 Degrees of Billy Paul celebrates its fortieth birthday later this year, how has the album aged? That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about the music on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul.
Opening 360 Degrees of Billy Paul is the Gamble and Huff penned Brown Baby. A searing, dramatic guitar solo and bursts of pounding drums grab your attention, before keyboards, the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section and swathes of cascading strings arranged by Bobby Martin combine. When Billy’s vocal enters, it’s a combination pride, power and passion. Billy sings “spread the news around” and “make your people proud.” Cooing backing vocalists The Sweethearts of Sigma accompany Billy with tender, beautiful harmonies. Gamble and Huff combines layers of luscious strings, with bursts of subtle, rasping horns, a punchy rhythm section and keyboards. It’s obvious the lyrics resonate with Billy, as he delivers each word with equal amounts of pride, passion positivity. As a result, this is a quite inspirational way to open 360 Degrees of Billy Paul.
I’m Just A Prisoner is another song Gamble and Huff with a story, and here, a tortured and despondent Billy plays the part of a prisoner stuck within the American prison system. The song is dramatic, theatrical and extremely powerful from its opening bars. The rhythm section, keyboards and percussion combine dramatically, before a despondent Billy’s vocal is accompanied by slow, emotive strings. Roils of drums and guitars add to the drama, as Billy’s vocal is laden with pain and misery, sounding heartbroken as he scats. M.F.S.B. provide a dramatic backdrop for Billy’s vocal, that’s a mixture of music and theatre. Blazing horns are added as Earl Young’s drums are heart of the storm of drama, before almost beaten Billy’s vocal becomes despairing and despondent as this eight minute Magnus Opus plays out before you. By the end of the track, you empathize with Billy’s plight and feel angry and frustrated at the injustice he’s endured. That’s how powerful a track this truly is.
Most people will know It’s Too Late as a track from Carole King’s album Tapestry. This is one of three cover versions on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Here, Billy Paul breathes new life, meaning and some much needed soul into the song. A piano, percussion, sweeping strings and Vince Montana Jr.’s vibes open the track, before before M.F.S.B. take the arrangement in a jazzy direction. Like the arrangement, Billy’s heartfelt vocal leaves space in the song. M.F.S.B. are then transformed into a jazz band jazz band, with flourishes of piano, sweeping strings and the rhythm section creating an understated arrangement. Bursts of Hammond organ from Lenny Pakula, Norman Harris’ jazz-tinged guitar and flute accompany Billy’s deliberate, powerful vocal. Billy’s vocal and Gamble and Huff’s arrangement really suits the song. They bring new life and meaning to the track, while adding some much needed soul.
Mention Billy Paul to most people and they’ll say just four words..Me and Mrs Jones. Billy’s become synonymous with this track, a tale of an illicit affair, where Mrs Jones meets Billy “every day, same cafe 6.30.” When you hear the first few unmistakable notes, you know what’s coming next. Best just settle back and enjoy the journey. Just a piano, guitars, rasping horns and lush strings combine, before Billy’s tender, vocal enters. He’s mesmerized by Mrs Jones, needs her, wants her, but in his heart, knows tjat their dreams and hopes will come to nothing. The Sweethearts of Sigma add subtle backing vocals, while the arrangement is peerless. It shifts seamlessly from a beautiful flowing string drenched arrangement, to one that’s dramatic. It’s almost as if Billy’s heart takes a leap when he sees Mrs Jones. When that happens, horns blaze and drums pound, before the piano meanders and strings sweep and swirl. For nearly five minutes, Billy Paul delivers one of his best ever vocals, while Gamble and Huff create one of their most memorable productions, one that’s timeless, dramatic, beautiful and tinged with sadness.
Am I Black Enough For You was the second Gamble and Huff song, and the second single released from 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. It’s another song with a social message and features an emotive, an almost angry questioning vocal from Billy. With a growling clavinet giving way to the rhythm section, bongos and punchy blazing horns, the arrangement literally explodes. Billy’s vocal is defiant and powerful, as the funkiest track on the album unfolds. Stabs of Hammond organ, wah-wah guitars and bursts of rasping horns provide the glorious backdrop to Billy’s defiant vocal. On 360 Degrees of Billy Paul you hear many different sides to Billy Paul. Although, this is very different from the balladeer of Me and Mrs Paul or the jazz singer on It’s Too Late, it’s compelling, defiant and downright funky.
Let’s Stay Together is a track made famous by Al Green at Hi Records, but here, Billy takes the song and transforms it. He slows it way down, leaving space where there was previously none and turning the track into something akin to a MOR ballad. However, it really works. Just a piano, drums and standup bass accompany lush strings, while Billy’s deliver is slow, sensuous and totally heartfelt accompanied by the Sweethearts of Sigma. Along with bursts of drums and stabs of Hammond organ Billy builds and builds the drama and emotion. The result is a hugely emotive and heartfelt reinterpretation of a classic track.
Sometimes, when you hear a cover version of a track, it can change your mind about a song. Here, Billy covers Elton John’s Your Song, a track I’ve never particularly liked. Can Billy change my opinion of it? Percussion, bursts of horns and sweeping, swirling string accompany Billy, as he sings the track with a swing. Billy is accompanied by the Sweethearts of Sigma’s tight, gospel tinged soaring harmonies, as myriad of cascading strings, flourishes of piano and Hammond organ combine with percussion and the rhythm section. This combination is irresistible as is Billy’s uplifting and inspirational vocal. Suddenly, I’ve changed my mind about this song, but only this version which swings, and is uplifting and soulful.
Closing 360 Degrees of Billy Paul is I’m Gonna Make It This Time, where Billy returns to the jazzy style of It’s Too Late. This song meant something to Billy when he recorded it, as if it articulated his feeling and belief, that one time, he’d make it as a singer. Little did he know it would be this time around? Just guitar, cascading strings, piano and the rhythm section accompany Billy’s tender, determined vocal. Vince Montana Jr. sprinkles vibes throughout the track, while bursts of Earl Young’s drums add drama. Lush strings, jazzy guitars and piano add to and reflect, the beauty, emotion and quite determination in Billy’s voice. His vocal soars, high above the arrangement as finishes the song and 360 Degrees of Billy Paul with a dramatic flourish.
Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul is best described as a timeless classic, where you hear every side of Billy Paul’s music. He seamlessly flits from the dramatic, socially conscious lyrics of Brown Baby to the despondency of I’m Just A Prisoner, before transforming It’s Too Late into a jazz tinged and emotionally charged track. Then on Me and Mrs Jones Billy Paul becomes a soul balladeer, before the defiance of Am I Black Enough For You. On Let’s Stay Together, the transformation of the song is quite incredible, as Billy and M.F.S.B. produce a spacious, understated version of Al Green’s classic, before making Elton John’s pedestrian Your Song swings, complete with gospel tinged backing vocals. Closing 360 Degrees of Billy Paul is Billy’s jazzy interpretation of I’m Gonna Make It This Time, which proved to be a forecast of the fame and fortune that was about to come Billy’s way. This would include number one singles in the US Billboard 100 and US R&B charts with Me and Mrs Jones, while 360 Degrees of Billy Paul would reach number one in the US R&B charts. Having become a worldwide star, the icing on the cake was when Billy won a Grammy Award Me and Mrs Jones. After three albums where fame had eluded Billy Paul, his career and life was transformed. So was Gamble and Huff’s nascent label Philadelphia International Records, which went on to become one of the biggest and most influential labels in the history of music. As for Billy Paul, he continued to release a series of successful albums, but none of these albums ever matched the success of 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Having said that, there is some great music awaiting discovery in Billy Paul’s back-catalogue. Although albums like First Class, Let ‘Em In, Only the Strong Survive and When Love Is New all contain some fantastic music none of these albums replicated the success of the timeless classic that is 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. 360 Degrees of Billy Paul which will be rereleased on 27th August 2012,by BBR Records, also features a song that will forever become synonymous with Billy Paul, Me and Mrs Jones. Standout Tracks: Brown Baby, Me and Mrs Jones, Am I Black Enough For You and I’m Gonna Make It This Time.
BILLY PAUL-360 DEGREES OF BILLY PAUL.