In a difficult year filled with the passing of many great artists, another talent can be sadly added to the roster: Billy Paul, best known for his 1972 Philly Soul classic "Me and Mrs. Jones." His passionate reading of the lyrics, conveying the torment of an extramarital love affair, became his signature tune. Few may know that Paul's career dated back to the 1950s, and that he was steeply rooted in jazz. It wasn't until the 1970s that Paul reached a wider audience with his silky smooth voice and soulful delivery. Along with "Me and Mrs. Jones," one of his best tracks was an unlikely cover: "Let 'Em In," his distinctive version of the 1976 Wings hit.
Born Paul Williams in 1935, Paul grew up in North Philadelphia. Raised on jazz and blues, he began his singing career at 11 years old, performing on a local radio station and later undergoing vocal training at the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music. At 16 Paul found himself performing alongside Charlie Parker, who would die just months after the show. "I was there with him for a week and I learned what it would normally take two years to pick up. Bird told me if I kept struggling I'd go a long way, and I've never forgotten his words," Paul said.
Still in his teens, Paul honed his craft performing on the same bill as legends like Parker, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, The Impressions, and Sammy Davis, Jr. He finally won a recording contract with Jubilee Records in New York. Changing his name to "Billy Paul" in 1952, he released a series of singles that were critically praised but failed to dent the charts. In addition, he was forced to put his career on hiatus after being drafted into the Army. Upon his 1959 discharge Paul tried to restart his singing career, recording singles that again failed to chart.
Two elements rescued him from obscurity: the Beatles and Gamble and Huff. On his website, Paul discussed his love for the group:
I was singing totally Jazz then, but when I heard The Beatles and heard the gospel influence and everything I just said: 'I can make jazz with R&B.' That transition came when The Beatles came out to America. When I heard The Beatles that was my turning point. They were like my mentors. You know the funny thing about that, when I heard (Billy sings) 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' at first I said these guys are like a flash in the pan. But the second album when they started doing all this, I had to like take all that back. John Lennon - one of the greatest writers in the world.
As for Gamble and Huff, Paul met them after returning home to Philadelphia from his Army stint. He first recorded for the Gamble label, then the duo's second label Neptune. The third time proved to be the charm, as Paul's material on Philadelphia International Records proved to be his breakthrough. They struck gold with the 1972 album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, with the single "Me and Mrs. Jones" topping the charts and earning Paul a Grammy. He never duplicated that success, but continued recording through 2002.
In 1976 Paul seized the opportunity to indirectly pay tribute to one of his major influences, the Beatles. He recorded a cover of Paul McCartney and Wings' hit "Let 'Em In," but with significant differences. Paul changed the "Sister Susie, Brother John / Martin Luther, Phil And Don / Brother Michael, Auntie Gin" section to reflect the personal and political. He mentions his twin sister Pauline Williams, who had recently passed away, as well as figures such as Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Louis Armstrong. Transforming the pop song into a black pride anthem, Paul even sampled speeches by Malcolm X and King. His jazz background permeates the track as well, with scatting sprinkled throughout the song. It is a joyful, proud performance, with Paul's supple voice making "Let 'Em In" his own.
Strangely, the single sparked some controversy. Paul had had a previous run-in with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who objected to the risqué lyrics in an earlier Paul single called "Let's Make A Baby." To appease Jackson, Chicago radio station WVON altered "Let 'Em In" by substituting sections from a Jackson speech for the King samples. When Paul heard of the change, he was furious. His anger turned to joy, however, when Chicago pastor Reverend George Clements presented Paul with an award for his positive spiritual and political message in "Let 'Em In."
While Paul's cover of "Let 'Em In" met with only modest success, peaking at number 26 on the UK charts and just cracking the Billboard Top 100, it serves as a reminder of Paul's underrated vocal talent. In addition, it demonstrates how Paul experimented with his vocal style to encompass a variety of genres, from jazz to blues to rock to pop. Finally, few artists would have the courage to alter a well-known pop song to craft a personal and political statement. Paul may still be best known for "Me and Mrs. Jones," but his distinctive singing style graced many more albums and singles that will surely be re-discovered.