Philly and Mr. Paul

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Paul and his wife, Blanche Williams, have shared the musical life for 47 years.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Paul and his wife, Blanche Williams, have shared the musical life for 47 years.
Posted: April 03, 2013

WHAT A DIFFERENCE one song can make. Nobody knows that better than Billy Paul, the veteran Philadelphia jazz and R&B song stylist whose career soared to the stars in the early '70s with "Me and Mrs. Jones," his brilliantly nuanced portrayal from the cheatin' side of town.

In "Am I Black Enough for You" - the brutally honest documentary about the man born Paul Williams and his wife, Blanche Williams - record mogul Clive Davis nails that superhit as "one of the most important performances and singles" of the hit-laden Philadelphia International Records catalog. The documentary screens Tuesday at International House.

Paul made a fortune from his recorded performance (the song was written by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Cary Gilbert), though only after he took his record label to court for a fair distribution of royalties.

And, 40 years later, that song and performance "still resonate extremely well with listeners," keeping Paul's career afloat, testified Dyana Williams, the seasoned DJ "and longtime friend of Billy and Blanche" (though no relation) who hosts the 10 a.m.-to-3 p.m. "Soulful Sunday" show on WRNB (100.3-FM).

"How many artists can say they have a classic song, a signature song like that one? Not many," noted Williams, who'll also engage Tuesday with Billy and Blanche in a post-screening conversation.

Dyana brings special insights of her own as the former wife of Philadelphia International Records co-chief Gamble. For instance, another of Billy Paul's many recordings for the P.I. label, "Let's Make a Baby," was written by Gamble to honor "the birth of our first child," Dyana Williams shared. "So, of course, it's my Billy Paul favorite!"

His soul train derailed

Tuesday's screening won't be all sweetness and light, though.

With a title like "Am I Black Enough for You," Swedish documentary filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson clearly aims to tap some sore points in racial history and Paul's career. The latter theme is especially underscored on screen in comments by the outspoken Blanche Williams and Philly's contemporary-music luminary Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, of the Roots.

Paul's wife argues - and Questlove implies - that Gamble and partner Huff's decision to follow "Me and Mrs. Jones" with the racially conscious single "Am I Black Enough for You" abruptly derailed Paul's soul train when it was going 150 mph. Over time, that left Billy Paul with a tarnished, though hardly true, reputation as a one-hit wonder.

Ah, but in his very next on-screen breath, Questlove argues - as does the pioneering Philly rapper Schoolly D - that "Am I Black Enough" was a cultural landmark, highly influential to many up-and-coming talents, present company included.

They suggest that Billy Paul blazed the black-pride path in popular music "before Marvin , before Stevie ," as Questlove proclaims. Questlove is a major music collector/historian and offspring of soul singer Lee Andrews. Schoolly D dug "Am I Black Enough" so much he recorded his own version.

"We're talking 1972, only six or eight years after the civil-rights movement took off," Blanche Williams said recently. Blanche has been a most articulate advocate for her marital and business partner of 47 years.

In the film (shot five years ago), Gamble vehemently disagrees with the "career-blowing" contentions. So, too, does Dyana Williams. But Blanche Williams argues that the decision to follow up a massive crossover hit with a militant-sounding title was a devastating career move, "driving away radio programmers and many of his new Caucasian fans.

"There were two or three other potential singles from the same album , songs not nearly as controversial on the surface, that could and should have come out first."

'A rally to my people'

Ironically, "Am I Black Enough for You" wasn't meant to be confrontational, noted the singer himself in a separate chat from the couple's home in Blackwood, N.J.

"It was a rally to my people to move up, get the job done, be self-reliant," Paul said.

The song stylist's personal commitment to the civil-rights movement is unimpeachable, lifelong. As brutally depicted in the documentary, Paul's maternal grandfather was "killed on his horse" by white-hooded racists in rural Alabama, driving the family from their farm and north to Philadelphia, where Paul was born.

Paul's grandmother taught little Billy to "always hold your head high," even when he was bullied and called names by his Brewerytown neighbors.

In the 1960s, Paul said, he "marched for equality and spent time with Martin Luther King Jr. and his father." He also devoted "three years of my life here to marching around the walls of Girard College," joining protests led by Philadelphia NAACP president and lawyer Cecil B. Moore to integrate the then all-white school for orphan boys.

Billy Paul's music credentials are equally impeccable, though better respected outside the U.S.

"In other countries where we play, Billy has eight or 10 songs that people know and sing all the words to," marveled his wife. And in those locales, "Am I Black Enough" "was never considered at all controversial."

Billy's jazz roots

It took funding from the Swedish Film Institute to get the documentary of Billy Paul's life made. And as the filmmakers depict, trailing the artist around the globe, the now 77-year-old talent remains a significant concert and media draw in Great Britain (where he cut a 2010 concert album), France and especially Brazil. Paul recently was honored there as the only international artist at a New Year's Eve megaconcert attracting more than a million white-clad party people to the beach in Rio.

"The Brazilians connect with me through our common love of jazz," Paul said. As a youth, he dug the likes of "Les Paul and Nat King Cole when he was just a piano player going by the name Shorty Nadine."

Paul was only a teen when he started jamming with jazz/R&B guitar notable Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes "when he'd stay at my aunt Camille Howard's house. Then one day she said, 'I've got someone else to introduce you to,' and it was Charlie Parker, who was then playing with the pianist Tadd Dameron.

"He was my first musical host at the Club Harlem, at 42nd and Woodland, when I was 16. The whole week Charlie Parker played there, I was invited up each night to sing 'Stairway to the Stars.' "

Then and now, Paul's special something was "singing like a horn player, because that's what I really wanted to be," he shared with a laugh. "And the funny thing is, when I first sat down with John Coltrane and talked, I asked why he played so pretty, and he said it was because he was trying to play like a singer. That's what he wanted to be!"

Paul's North Philly/Strawberry Mansion neighborhood was an amazingly hot breeding ground for future jazz stars back in the day, he recalled. "I lived on 25th Street, and Coltrane lived on 33rd, and we'd rehearse at a church at 27th and Girard. McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan and Kenny Barron were all from the same neighborhood, also rehearsing there."

Paul's first album was also a neighborhood affair - "Feelin' Good at the Cadillac Club," cut live at the club operated by Ben Bynum Sr., whose sons would later steer the jazz/blues clubs Zanzibar Blue and Warmdaddy's.

Billy Paul got his recording deal with Gamble and Huff on the basis of that 1968 jazz album and his hip, scatting approach to everything from the Broadway title track to folk bits like "Billy Boy" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." And it's the reason why his shift to R&B tunes (and subsequent covers of the Beatles, Elton John and Prince) proved equally edgy, hip and flip. Though none more memorable than, you know, that song, which all these decades later, still "got a thing going on."


Screening, "Am I Black Enough for You," and conversation with Billy Paul, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 7 p.m. Tuesday, $10 and $8 (students/seniors), ticketfly.com.


Blog: philly.com/GizmoGuy

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