NEW YORK — Billy Paul, a star from the Philadelphia soul scene who won fame with the suave Me and Mrs Jones before drawing controversy with his racially charged politics, has died. He was 81.
Known for his uplifting, mellifluous voice, Paul won a Grammy Award and helped shape the course of modern R&B, but fell on the losing end of one of the music industry’s legendary tales of poor marketing.
“We regret to announce with a heavy heart that Billy has passed away today at home after a serious medical condition,” a statement on his website said on Sunday.
Born as Paul Williams in Philadelphia, the singer came of age as the eastern city became an epicentre of a style of soul music known for smooth and jazzy melodies.
Paul, who would eventually enjoy a wider following in Europe than in the US, performed in his youth alongside legends such as Charlie Parker and Nina Simone.
Paul topped the mainstream US charts in 1972 with Me and Mrs Jones, a light-touch song about an extra-marital affair that has since been covered by a range of artists including pop duo Hall & Oates and crooner Michael Buble.
But in a decision that would prove commercially disastrous, Paul followed up the hit not with another smooth soul song but Am I Black Enough For You?, a funky number with allusions to the Black Power movement.
Paul said that he opposed the timing of the release of the more provocative song. Famed music executive Clive Davis said that he had also pushed against the move on commercial grounds, although he praised Am I Black Enough For You? on artistic merit.
“For a long time I was angry about it,” Paul told Blues and Soul magazine after the release of a 2009 documentary about the song in Sweden, where he had a particularly strong following.
“The song is ahead of its time.”
But in an interview with the review site Little White Lies, Paul said that decades later it was mostly white people who requested the song.
“So it makes me very comfortable, and now it’s very, very popular. It caught up with time — we got a black president now,” he said, referring to Barack Obama.
The political edge was not out of character for Paul. In 1977, he covered Paul McCartney’s Let ‘Em In but recast it as a civil rights anthem with samples from slain leaders Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
Hip-hop producer Questlove, best known as the percussionist of The Roots, said in the Swedish documentary that Paul should be considered the forerunner of soul icons Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
Questlove, who was also born in Philadelphia, mourned Paul after his death as the most “amazing velvet-voiced singer there ever was”.
“Billy Paul as the SPIRIT of The Sound of Philadelphia. The most political voice in the PIR canon,” he wrote on Instagram, referring to Philadelphia International Records that put out Paul as well as other soul greats such as Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass and the O’Jays.
Paul passed away days after the sudden death of pop legend Prince and several months after rock icon David Bowie, who adapted the Philadelphia Soul sound in the 1970s.
“All the adults that affected me in my childhood are making an exodus one by one,” Questlove wrote.
The Recording Academy, which administers the Grammys, in a statement hailed Paul for the “sophisticated jazz sensibility” he brought to Me and Mrs. Jones.
“His career was marked by songs of empowerment and his incredible voice,” it said.