Having founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971, Gamble and Huff made Billy Paul one of the first signings to their new label. Gamble and Huff had know Billy since 1967, when he was working on his debut album Feelin’ Good At the Cadillac Club. Billy’s debut album needed some work to complete it, so Kenneth Gamble helped him complete it, and released it on his Gamble Records. For Billy’s 1970 sophomore album Ebony Woman, it was produced by Gamble and Huff and released on their Neptune Records. So, when Gamble and Huff founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971, it was no surprise that Billy Paul was one of their first signings.
Later in 1971, Billy released Going East, which was the first of eight studio albums he’d release for Philadelphia International Records. However, it was 1972s 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul that transformed Billy’s career. Not only did 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul feature the single Me and Mrs Jones which reached number one in the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts, but was the most successful album of Billy’s career. It reached number seventeen in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Over the next eight years, Billy Paul would release six more albums which, although they reinforced Billy’s reputation as Philadelphia International Records’ first male superstar, didn’t match the success of 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul. Then 1979s First Class, proved to be Billy Paul’s final album for Philadelphia International Records, a label whose fortunes were changing.
By 1979, Philadelphia International Records was no longer soul music’s most successful, innovative and influential label. Not only had the hits nearly dried up, but the calibre of artists signed to Philadelphia International Records was nothing like the label’s glory days between 1972 and 1976. The O’Jays were the only artists from the label’s glory days, and even their run of commercial success was ending. Philadelphia International Records’ most successful artist was Teddy Pendergrass. As the eighties dawned, things got worse for Philadelphia International Records.
In 1982, Teddy Pendergrass was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed. Although he recovered, and his recording career continued, the last two album Teddy released for Philadelphia International Records 1982s This One’s For You and 1983s Heaven Only Knows failed to match the commercial success of his previous albums. Following Heaven Only Knows, Teddy left Philadelphia International Records. This meant Philadelphia International Records had lost their most successful artist. Then when Billy Paul’s contract was due for renewal, Gamble and Huff decided not renew it. This meant Philadelphia International Records’ first male superstar and his successor had both left the label. Luckily, Lonnie Simmons, who owned Total Experience Records, wanted to sign Billy. The result was Billy’s 1985 album Lately which was recently rereleased by BBR Records.
Lonnie Simmons was a self-made man. He had made his money running nightclubs in Los Angeles, before he founded Total Experience Records. The label’s roster included The Gap Band, Pennye Ford and Prime Time. For Total Experience, The Gap Band were their big success story, with their albums being certified gold and platinum. Previously, Total Experience’s fusion of synth-funk and R&B had been distributed by Polygram, but by 1984, RCA had signed a multimillion dollar deal to do so. With RCA distributing Total Experience, the future looked good for Lonnie Simmons’ label. So six years after the release of First Class, Billy Paul was back with his eleventh studio album Lately.
For Lately, Total Experience’s resident songwriter would contribute five tracks, including Fire In Her Love, Sexual Therapy, Hot Date, Get Down To Lovin’ and Me and You. Oliver Scott penned I Search No More and Let Me In, while Marvin Jenkins contributed Lately. Along with covers of I Only Have Eyes For You and On A Clear Day, these ten tracks became Billy’s eleventh album Lately.
Recording of Lately took place to Total Experience Recording Studios in Hollywood, California with Jonah Ellis and Oliver Scott producing the ten tracks. Accompanying Billy Paul were drummer Gerry Brown, bassist Nathan East and Jonah Ellis, who also played lead guitar, electronic drums, percussion and sang backing vocals. Oliver Scott, played keyboards, synths, electronic drums and sang backing vocals. Playing synths and keyboards were David Tillman and Juan Luiz Cabaza. Adding backing were Marva King and The Waters Sisters. Once Lately was recorded, it was released in August 1985.
On the release of Lately in August 1985, it reached number fifty-seven in the US R&B Charts. Of the two singles released from Lately, neither Lately released in July 1985, nor Sexual Therapy released in September 1985 charted. Sexual Therapy did reach number eighty in the UK. However, why wasn’t Lately a bigger commercial success, given Total Experience’s fusion of synth-funk and R&B was proving popular? That’s what I’ll tell you?
Opening Lately, is Fire In Her Love, one of five tracks written by Jonah Ellis. Just wistful keyboards and subtle percussion give way to synths and electronics drums. With their dramatic, eighties sound, it’s as if they’re setting the scene for Billy’s vocal. It’s lost none of its qualities. Best described as smooth, sultry and filled with emotion, Billy breathes life and meaning into the lyrics. By now, the melody will be reminding you of a familiar track. It’s The O’Jays Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby. Tender soulful harmonies and bursts of guitar accompany Billy, as synths, keyboards and drums provide a backdrop to his heartfelt vocal.
During Sexual Therapy it’s as if Billy is paying homage to his old friend Marvin Gaye. So closely related are both tracks, they could be musical brothers. With synths, drums and a bass creating a slow, sensual and funky backdrop, Billy’s vocal is sensual, seductive and pleading. Tight, sweeping and needy harmonies provide the perfect accompaniment as one soul great Billy Paul, pays tribute to another Marvin Gaye with a sultry, bedroom ballad.
Just a pensive piano and washes of synths open Lately. Having set the scene for Billy, he delivers a heartbroken vocal, filled with hurt and confusion. With a much more understated arrangement accompanying him, Billy’s vocal brings out the heartbreak, hurt and loneliness he’s experiencing. He sings the lyrics about a relationship crumbling as if he’s lived the hurt he’s singing about. The result is a poignant, moving reading of some hurt-filled lyrics.
From the get-go, I Search No More has an eighties sound. Synths, pounding hypnotic drums and soaring harmonies accompany Billy as one of his favorite tracks from Lately unfolds. Gone is the hurt and heartbreak of the previous track, replaced by hope and joy. Soulful, funky and featuring what was a contemporary sound, this saw Billy’s music given an eighties makeover. This worked well, given the tracks infectiously catchy sound.
I Only Have Eyes For You is a classic track, which is given an eighties makeover by producer Johan Ellis. While Gamble and Huff would’ve given the track a string laden, big band sound, Jonah goes for a more contemporary sound. This means synths and electronic drums play an important role in the arrangement. They join chiming guitars and stabs of piano. Billy’s vocal is heartfelt and filled with emotion. Harmonies answer his call, sweeping in, their tight, soulful sound the perfect foil to Billy’s vocal as he reinvents a classic track.
Hot Date sees Billy combine soul, funk and poppy hooks. Written by Jonah Ellis, you’re smitten by the tracks charms from the opening bars. Synths, chiming guitars, funky bass and harmonies accompany Billy. His vocal is filled with hope and happiness, that maybe, tonight will be the night, he meets miss right. When keyboards and synths replace Billy’s vocal, their raison d’etre is setting the scene for Billy’s vampish vocal. Picking up the baton, Billy unleashes an emotive, impassioned vocal, rolling back the years in the process.
Get Down To Lovin’ sees searing guitars, strident drums and moody keyboards set the scene for Billy Paul, bedroom balladeer supreme. Smooth, sultry and sensual this is what Billy does so well. Keyboards add a dramatic contrast to Billy’s needy, vampish pleas as he delivers a vocal Magnus Opus.
Let Me In sees the tempo drop, with Billy doing what he does so well, deliver romantic ballads. With just synths and drums providing the backdrop for Billy, the arrangement gradually unfolds. Soon, Billy is delivering one of his trademark seductive vocals. Tight, soulful harmonies prove the perfect foil for Billy, as he pleas, heartfelt and hopeful, Let Me In.
Me And You sees synths, drums and bass combine to create a dramatic backdrop for Billy’s vocal. Needy and tinged with longing, Billy’s vocal grows in power, drama and emotion, while the arrangement pays homage to Me and Mrs Jones. Guitars and percussion join the arrangement. Like Billy’s vocal, it grows in power. Using his four decades of experience, Billy breathes emotion and meaning into Jonah Ellis’ lyrics.
Closing Lately is a cover of On A Clear Day. Washes of synths, keyboards and powerful drums create a moody backdrop to Billy’s vocal. A repetitive bass line accompanies Billy’s vocal, before he unleashes a powerful, strident vocal. Using his full vocal range, he draws upon his jazzy roots. So too, the band, with the piano picking up where Billy left off. When Billy’s vocal reenters, he’s determined not to be outdone, so ups his game, closing Lately on a jazz-tinged, but soulful and dramatic high.
Six years after Billy Paul released his final album for Philadelphia International Records, First Class, Billy made his comeback. Total Experience Records were a label that wanted Billy Paul, and were determined to rejuvenate his career. Lonnie Simmons set his best songwriters, musicians and producers to work. Jonah Ellis and Oliver Scott played important roles. Not only did Jonah write five tracks, but produced eight tracks, while Oliver wrote and produced two tracks. Total Experience’s house-band accompanied Billy and although they were no M.F.S.B. circa 1972-1975, they worked well with Billy, giving his music an eighties makeover. While Total Experience did everything they could to make Lately a success, so did Billy Paul.
For his part, Billy doesn’t disappoint, rolling back the years on Lately. Ballads, standards and uptempo tracks, Billy Paul breathes life, meaning and emotion into them. Where Billy’s at his best is delivering ballads. Seductive, sultry and sensuous, Billy’s vocals are needy, pleading and heartfelt. Despite not having released an album in six years, Billy Paul was still one of the finest soul singers of his generation. This neither guaranteed that Lately would be a commercial success nor critically acclaimed.
Sadly, Billy and everyone at Total Experience’s best efforts were in vain. Lately which was recently rereleased by BBR Records, stalled at number fifty-seven in the US R&B Charts. This meant that there was no followup to Lately on Total Experience Records. For everyone involved with Lately, this must have been a huge disappointment. Lonnie Simmons’ Total Experience Records didn’t release another Billy Paul album. Indeed, following Lately, Billy Paul only released one more album Wide Open. This concluded Billy Paul’s career, a career that lasted nearly forty years and twelve studio albums.
Of the twelve studio albums Billy Paul released, Lately demonstrates another side to Billy’s music. Jonah Ellis and Oliver Scott gave Billy an eighties makeover. Billy’s music was given a more contemporary sound using synths, sequencers and electronic drums. However, one thing remained the same…the quality of Billy Paul’s vocals. During the ten tracks on Lately, Billy Paul rolls back the years and when delivering ballads, is at his very best. Heartfelt, seductive and sensual describes the ballads on Lately, which is something of a glittering hidden gem, awaiting discovery in Billy Paul’s back-catalogue. Standout Tracks: Fire In Her Love, Sexual Therapy, Get Down To Lovin’ and Let Me In.